RIO DE JANEIRO — An Olympics is best remembered from a distance, whether it is 35,000 feet in the air or 50 years down the road. Time and perspective, of the sort that the quadrennial Olympic cycle inherently provides, have a way of altering viewpoints about events that, in the moment, at ground level, seem deceptively clear. So it will be with the performance of Team USA at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, which will be a test of the axiom that says winning cures everything.
For the U.S. team, there was much winning that went on in Rio — and much that needed to be cured.
As the Rio Olympics wrapped up Sunday, with the final statement a third straight gold medal for the U.S. men’s basketball team, the numbers say it was an almost unprecedented success for Team USA. Its 121 overall medals were the most for the Americans in a non-boycotted Olympics since 1904, and its lead in the gold medal standings — by 19 over Britain — was its widest since 1996.
“I don’t think there’s anything better than [hanging] gold medals on American athletes and listening to the ‘Star-Spangled Banner,’ ” said Larry Probst, chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee.
But even as the USOC’s top brass — and two of its top athletes, gymnast Simone Biles and sprinter Allyson Felix — filtered into the Samba Room at the Main Press Center for its triumphant, end-of-Games news conference, the line of questioning said it all. After some opening remarks trumpeting Team USA’s successes, the floor was opened for questions, and the first one, of course, was about Ryan Lochte and the widely publicized incident involving him and three of his U.S. swimming teammates.
So was the second and the third and the fourth.
“I think we’ve said enough about that,” Scott Blackmun, CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee, said during his opening remarks in a preemptive attempt, ultimately unsuccessful, to keep the focus on the victories. “We all understand they let down our athletes and they let down Americans and they really let down our hosts in Rio. . . . We feel very badly about that. We will have further action on that when we get back to the United States.”
They are two entirely separate things, of course — brilliant on-the-field performances and sordid off-the-field behavior. But which one is ultimately remembered more depends in large part upon which one you choose to remember more. And it is clear what Team USA is choosing to remember.
“Yes, [people] will remember the incident with the swimmers. But that doesn’t define these Games by any means,” Blackmun said. “For us, these Games are going to be defined by the great performances by our athletes and by the fact that, despite all of the [pre-Olympics] controversy — whether the water quality or Zika or security — these Games have been really well produced.”
If Team USA was going to find a way to keep attention focused on the field of play, it hit upon the perfect formula — day after day of sublime performances, from legends such as Michael Phelps, to best-in-the-world phenoms such as Katie Ledecky and Biles, to inspirational trailblazers such as swimmer Simone Manuel and water polo goalkeeper Ashleigh Johnson.
Dominance of the medal table has come to be expected of Team USA — which has led the overall standings in every Olympics since Seoul 1988, when the Unified Team of former Soviet states edged the Americans out — but this year’s runaway seemed to take even the USOC brass by surprise.
“The performance of this team,” said Alan Ashley, the USOC’s chief of sports performance, “has been beyond expectations.”
Team USA won when expectations were massive — as with Biles in gymnastics and Ledecky in swimming, each of whom won four golds, as well as the women’s basketball team — and when they were nonexistent. Helen Maroulis won Team USA’s first gold medal by a female wrestler, and Gwen Jorgensen won its first gold in women’s triathlon. Athletes spoke of a snowball effect, in which early victories begat later ones, almost as if by osmosis.
“The great thing about being in the second week of the Olympics is to sit back and see what was happening,” said Felix, referring to track and field’s schedule. “We get to see Simone do amazing things and inspire all of us. And it makes you want to step up, across the board. You see gold medal after gold medal, and it just uplifts you.”
Old, standby American programs reasserted their dominance in Rio — the 32 medals in track and field and the 33 in swimming accounted for more than half of the overall U.S. medal total and represented sizable increases over London 2012 — while at the same time, U.S. squads in sports such as equestrian and fencing outperformed expectations. It was enough to make up for a handful of seemingly sure-thing gold medals — Jordan Burroughs in wrestling, Serena and Venus Williams in doubles tennis — that proved not so sure.
“We are the United States,” said veteran swimmer Anthony Ervin, the 50-meter freestyle gold medalist. “We come here with an enormous presence and a lot of advantage and privilege. Our staff is unbelievable. The [number] of people who help us . . . take care of minds, our bodies — I don’t think the other teams are necessarily getting that.”
Every U.S. success, of course, came with a corresponding failure. Somebody had to lose all those medals that the Americans gained. The losers were primarily three: Russia, which had its delegation reduced by about 30 percent by a doping scandal; Australia, which was touted as a threat to the United States in the swimming pool before bombing out; and China, which saw its gold medal count fall by almost a third from 2012 to 2016.
“Something,” John Coates, president of the Australian Olympic Committee, told Aussie reporters, “has gone seriously wrong in Rio.”
The best Olympics ever is the one you were in or the one you are at. You would be hard-pressed to tell Mary Lou Retton that Los Angeles 1984 wasn’t the best Olympics or Bob Beamon that Mexico City 1968 wasn’t.
But for Team USA as a unit, there is a good argument to be made that Rio 2016 was the best Olympics that ever was. Even if Ryan Lochte wouldn’t necessarily agree.
Liz Clarke and Rick Maese contributed to this report.