RIO DE JANEIRO – In chronological order, my 16 favorite highlights from the Olympics:
1. The Refugee Olympic Team
Only host nation Brazil received a greater ovation than the Refugee Olympic team at the Opening Ceremony. Marching immediately in front of the host nation, Rose Nathike Lokonyen, an 800m runner originally from South Sudan, carried the Olympic Flag into the Maracanã. The team included five athletes from South Sudan, two from Syria, two from the Democratic Republic of Congo and one from Ethiopia.
2. Vanderlei de Lima lights the cauldron
Most thought Pelé would have the greatest honor of the Games, lighting the cauldron at the end of the Opening Ceremony. The soccer legend (who never played in the Olympics) ended up missing out, citing health issues at age 75 in skipping the event. In stepped the man most deserving to ignite the first Games in South America, 2004 Olympic marathon bronze medalist Vanderlei de Lima. Lima, whose inspirational story is here, told Brazilian media he was asked to light the cauldron on one hour’s notice. Lima told this to Brazilian media while buying beer at a gas station shortly after the Opening Ceremony ended, still wearing his Rio 2016 outfit.
3. Kohei Uchimura wins, his mom faints
It’s not that I’m unpatriotic, but I prefer covering non-American athletes at the Olympics. That’s because we see Phelps, Ledecky, Biles, etc., compete domestically multiple times per summer. Somebody like Kohei Uchimura, I see less often, but he is certainly no less talented. So when Uchimura competed in the all-around, seeking the first repeat gold since 1972, I wanted to find the best possible way to get a sense of the Japanese great. I decided to do that I would sit as close as possible to his cheering section, and, specifically, his mom. When Uchimura won, by a very slim margin, his mother fainted in her seat. Then she was surrounded by Japanese photographers. But watching her throughout the two-hour competition was the eye-opener for me.
4. Simone Biles shares in her all-around celebration
Of Biles’ four gold medals, and five overall medals, the most emotional was her all-around title. Tears were shed. But credit to Biles, in maybe the most overwhelming moment of her life (well, before she met Zac Efron), for thinking of teammate Aly Raisman. The Olympic Arena crowd showered Biles with applause and cheers shortly after her final score came up. Biles stepped up on the competition floor to acknowledge it and then motioned for the silver medalist Raisman to join her.
5. Kim Rhode, her fifth medal and her son
At Rhode’s first Olympics, pagers were the rage in the athletes’ village in Atlanta. This time, she and her teammates played Pokemon Go. Much has changed for Rhode in the last 20 years, but winning Olympic medals remained a constant. Rhode became the first athlete to win an Olympic medal on five continents with a skeet bronze, her most impressive performance yet. Afterward, Rhode carried her son, Carter, while doing interviews. Three years ago, Rhode had gall bladder surgery after a difficult pregnancy and was told by a doctor not to lift anything greater than five pounds, including Carter (eight pounds) and her gun (nine pounds).
6. Katie Ledecky finally cracks, after her final race
Ledecky did everything she set out to do – four golds, one silver, with two world records. Her 200m freestyle win over Swede Sarah Sjöström in a meeting of world-record holders was the most memorable of all her swims. But what I’ll never forget were the tears in her eyes when speaking about the end of her four-year journey. Same, too, for her coach, Bruce Gemmell, whom she greatly admires. Ledecky is leaving Gemmell to swim at Stanford, beginning a whole new cycle that will require a whole new set of goals.
7. Michael Phelps retires after 28 medals, 23 golds
My favorite singular moment from Phelps’ fifth and final Games was not his ready-room death stare, nor him carrying the U.S. flag into the Opening Ceremony. It was actually after the only event he didn’t win during a very successful Games (five golds, one silver). When Phelps and his two biggest active international rivals – Hungary’s Laszlo Cseh and South Africa’s Chad le Clos – held hands and climbed onto the silver-medal step of the 100m butterfly podium together.
8. Wayde van Niekerk breaks Michael Johnson’s record
The best sprint of the Games did not belong to Usain Bolt. The South African van Niekerk broke Johnson’s 17-year-old world record in the 400m by winning in 43.03 seconds from all the way out in lane 8. Before the race, NBC aired a terrific profile of van Niekerk and his coach – a 74-year-old great grandmother.
9. Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin
Perhaps the greatest image of the Olympic Spirit came in the women’s 5000m morning heats. American Abbey D’Agostino clipped New Zealand’s Nikki Hamblin from behind and each runner fell. Rather than worrying completely about the pack speeding away from them, both runners took turns helping each other up off the track.
10. Farewell, Golden Generation
High-paid professional basketball players and poignant Olympic moments rarely go together. So I savored the curtain call for Argentina’s Golden Generation after a quarterfinal exit against the U.S. Four men on Argentina’s roster were on the 2004 team that beat the U.S. and then won gold. Manu Ginobili and Andres Nocioni played their final national-team games. Luis Scola and Carlos Delfino may have as well. Argentine fans stayed well after the final whistle to send off all four of them, Ginobili in particular.
11. Helen Maroulis stuns Saori Yoshida
This was on my short list of most anticipated head-to-heads of the Games. So much history was at stake. Maroulis, a 2015 World champion at a different weight class, was going for the first U.S. Olympic women’s wrestling title. Yoshida had won 16 straight Olympic or world titles dating back to 2002 and was trying to become the first woman to win the same individual event at four Olympics. Maroulis won convincingly, handing Yoshida her second international loss in more than eight years. The Miracle on the Mat it was not, but the match should be remembered in the same respected, historic way.
12. Brazil’s Woolly Mammoth
If you’ve watched NBC broadcast coverage of the Olympics, you may have seen a Visa commercial featuring several Olympians in a van on a road trip to Rio. The man sitting in the very middle of that van, next to Ashton Eaton and behind Missy Franklin, is Brazilian beach volleyball player Alison. Alison, who is 6 feet, 8 inches, some 250 pounds and has a woolly mammoth tattooed on his side, won gold with partner Bruno Schmidt here. More than any other beach volleyball player, Alison infected Copacabana Stadium with his powerful play and exuberant celebrations, motioning to the crowd with his bear-claw hands and even lumbering over to embrace fans he knew. The structure might as well have been built for him.
13. U.S. women’s water polo gold medals worn by coach
Adam Krikorian, coach of the dominant U.S. women’s water polo team, left his squad for the opening weekend of the Games after the sudden death of one of his two older brothers. Krikorian’s players, bonded over many emotional moments in this Olympic cycle, lifted him up on his return to Rio. The Americans won gold, as expected, and then each player draped her gold medal around Krikorian’s neck in what’s becoming a tradition.
14. Usain Bolt’s kiss goodbye
No world or Olympic records for Bolt at these Olympics, his final Games. In fact, his winning times in the 100m and 200m were the slowest of any of his Olympic or world titles. Didn’t matter. Nobody challenged him. That Bolt still wowed speaks to the electricity he has generated over the last eight years. Bolt celebrated by kissing the Rio track, after both his last individual Olympic race and last relay race, and then (I love this) flinging a javelin into the infield well after midnight.
15. Neymar delivers Brazil soccer gold
The defining moment of the Games: Brazil wins its first Olympic soccer title, after seven previous silver or bronze medals, against its World Cup conqueror, in the Maracanã, with Neymar scoring the winner in a shootout. As some pointed out, it felt like Sidney Crosby’s golden goal at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games. Just think, this time last year we were all wondering if FC Barcelona would allow Neymar to play in Rio.
16. Claressa Shields consoles Shakur Stevenson, then makes history
Claressa Shields showed she’s just as strong a teammate as she is a fighter at these, her second Games. Her 19-year-old teammate, Shakur Stevenson, lost his bantamweight gold-medal bout. Shields found a distraught Stevenson outside a media area after the fight, embraced him, tried to lift him up and then told him that she loved him. Many more scenes like this must happen away from the cameras, but this was one of those rare occasions it was caught on video. The next day, Shields won her gold-medal bout to become the first American boxer to win titles at multiple Olympics.