The 10 most inspiring, dominant, and Undefeated moments of the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games
The Rio de Janeiro Games are over, but their stories linger, from world-beating triumphs to soul-crushing defeats. Olympics are different from other competitions – for their gathering of nations and their stated goal of “promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” There’s also the opportunity to excel, to test human limits, and to overcome. Before Rio fades away, we count down what was most Undefeated about the 2016 Games.
No. 10 – ASHTON EATON
The athleticism of many NFL cornerbacks and NBA small forwards pales in comparison with decathlete Eaton, who won his second consecutive gold medal in this grueling two-day series of running, throwing and jumping contests. In the final event, the 1,500-meter run, a French decathlete needed to beat Eaton by seven seconds to win. Eaton passed him on the last lap and tied the Olympic record of 8,893 points, then said, “I would have run myself into the hospital to win.”
No. 9 – THE REFUGEE TEAM
In recognition of millions of people worldwide displaced by war, the International Olympic Committee selected and funded 10 athletes from Syria, Congo, South Sudan and Ethiopia, to compete as the Refugee Olympic Team. None of the athletes got so far as a semifinal, but their mere presence uplifted the games. “Even though I came in last,” runner Anjelina Nadai Lohalith said after her 1,500-meter heat, “I’m happy.”
No. 8 – RAFAELA SILVA
Silva spent her early years in the notoriously violent Rio de Janeiro favela City of God, fighting with boys and getting expelled from school. Her parents directed her toward judo, and she became a junior world champion. At the 2012 London Games, after being disqualified for an illegal hold in a preliminary round, Silva was attacked with racist insults on social media. Some went so far as to call her a monkey, in a country where white privilege still matters to the racially mixed population. Silva briefly quit her sport, but rebounded for a victory in her home city, giving the host country its first gold medal of the 2016 Games.
No. 7 – USA BASKETBALL
The women’s team dominated Rio like no other, winning by an average of nearly 40 points per game behind Maya Moore, Brittney Griner and Diana “The White Mamba” Taurasi. The women’s team has 49 straight Olympic wins – only one margin was within single digits – and six gold medals. The men had to overcome shortsighted hype and a stretch of close games, but still finished 8-0 with a satisfying 30-point demolition of Serbia. “Going undefeated wasn’t something that I never doubted,” said Carmelo Anthony. “It was just a matter of us just putting that focus level where we needed it to be. To be sitting here 8 and 0 in the Olympics again is a special moment.”
No. 6 – JORDAN BURROUGHS
There is no Olympics without agony. Widely considered the world’s greatest wrestler, a four-time world champion and defending gold medalist with a career record of 124-2, Burroughs failed to medal in Rio. After losing the bronze match by a crushing score of 11-1, Burroughs displayed incredible bravery and transparency at his lowest point. “I said that I was capable of being the greatest wrestler ever. And God said, ‘Prove it.’ And I couldn’t,” he said. “That’s the hard part as an Olympian – your failures are public, too.”
No. 5 – HIDDEN OLYMPIANS
These were the athletes who weren’t on TV, whose sports were obscure, whose names were little known. Yet they pumped just as much life through the games as any superstar. None more so than Inika McPherson, a 5-foot-4 high jumper from Port Arthur, Texas, who made ends meet while training by washing dishes at a convention center. She arrived in Rio with no sponsors, plenty of family and golden dreams. McPherson advanced into the second round by leaping over a bar almost a foot higher than her head, then was eliminated after her takeoff mark was kicked off the track by a passing runner. Her takeaway from a 10th-place finish? “To know that anything’s possible. To go towards your goals. To just inspire each other.”
No. 4 – USA WOMEN’S GYMNASTICS
Nobody represented America’s excellence and diversity more than the Final Five. Simone Biles finished with four gold medals and a bronze, winning by such huge margins that opponents openly admitted they were competing for second place. The team dominated in ways reminiscent of the basketball Dream Team. Yet for the second straight Olympics, Gabrielle Douglas endured cruel taunts on Black Twitter not about her performance, but her hair. Douglas was also senselessly criticized for holding her hands at her sides, instead of over her heart, during the playing of the national anthem. “I’ve been through a lot,” she said afterward. “I still love the people who love me. Still love them who hate me. I’ve just got to stand on that.”
No. 3 – ALLYSON FELIX
Heading into the last day of her fourth Olympics, Felix had been through injuries; elimination from the 200-meter dash, her favorite event at the U.S. trials; and a devastating loss to a diving opponent in the 400-meter final in Rio. Yet she took gold in the 4-x-100 and closed down Olympic Stadium by anchoring the 4-x-400 to gold. That gave Felix nine career Olympic medals in track and field, more than any American woman, and second only to Carl Lewis’ 10. “Track and field has brought so much joy to my life,” she said, “to be able to look back over the years at the things I’ve been able to accomplish, it’s a blessing.” Only 30 years old, she might just bless us with another Olympics in 2020.
No. 2 – “SWIMONE”
That’s what they call Simone Manuel, the 100-meter freestyle gold medalist, and the first African-American woman to win an individual swimming medal of any kind in the Olympics. Manuel cried tears of joy on the medal stand, mindful of how the history of pool segregation is connected to today’s black children being three times as likely to drown as their peers. Then she looked ahead, to when there are no more firsts, when “there are more of us and it’s not ‘Simone the black swimmer.’ ” In an Olympics filled with #BlackGirlMagic, nothing was more magical than seeing Manuel open a new chapter in her sport.
No. 1 – USAIN BOLT
No words remain to describe the magnitude of winning three sprints in three straight Olympics and holding three world records. Except Bolt’s own: “I am the greatest.”