Rio de Janeiro, Brazil | AFP |
With the Rio Olympics at the halfway mark, here are five sporting stars who left their mark on the first week of competition with their records, style and courage:
Michael Phelps – more gold and more mature
He said his body ached, his legs hurt and he felt tired, but Michael Phelps still went out of the Olympics in spectacular style with four golds and a silver in a week — 22 golds in a five-Olympics career — and still one more title likely on Saturday. The Chinese medicinal practice of ‘cupping’ which left red circle marks on his body was the only apparent sign that at 31, Phelps is slowing down, and then barely. His victories in the 4x100m free and 4x200m free relays, 200m butterfly and 200m individual medley were all clear.
The man who won eight golds at Beijing in 2008 has always come across as something of a medal machine. But Phelps has also shown his more mature side in Rio. Being in a three-way dead heat for silver in the 100m on Friday was “kind of cool”.
“My body is in pain, my legs are hurting,” said Phelps after a crushing 200m fly win. “I think the biggest thing for me through the meet so far is I’ve been able to kind of finish how I wanted to,” added the American, who has insisted there will be no sixth Olympics.
Simone Biles – pint-sized but up with the greats
Simone Biles lived up to her star billing as the gymnastics dynamo put herself on track for a record five gold medals in Rio by winning the all-around title after helping the United States to defend their team title.
The 1.45m (4ft 9ins) Texan with a big smile gave a powerful display of gravity-defying tumbling and acrobatics to add the Olympic all-around crown to the three world titles she holds. She is unbeaten in the individual event since 2013.
If Biles takes the vault, beam and floor over coming days she will have won more gold at one Games than any other woman, overtaking Soviet gymnast Larissa Latynina (1956), Czech Vera Caslavska (1968) and Romanian Ecaterina Szabo (1984), who have all won four.
“I’m pretty sure I’ll just go on lockdown at my house. It won’t be exactly normal, but we’ll make it as normal as possible,” said 19-year-old Biles of how she will cope with her fame on her return home.
Fiji – the capital of rugby sevens
The South Pacific sevens rugby players came to Rio as favourites but no one expected them to trounce Britain 43-7 in such devastating fashion in the final as the sport made its Olympic debut. Sevens may come from Britain but Fiji has become its capital.
The speed and passing of captain Osea Kolinisau and his team blew away all-comers and they saved the best for last. World Rugby believes that Fiji and even the teams that trailed them will bring in new adepts and hopefully a permanent Olympic status. Fiji reckons the country’s first ever gold medal will bring sporting glory and tourists and investment to a poor country of 900,000 people.
Ironically, Fiji is especially hailing the work of coach Ben Ryan to lift the side in recent years. He of course is British.
Rafaela Silva – heroine defies racist taunts
Rafaela Silva, who was brought up in Rio’s notorious City of God favela, was called a “monkey” after being disqualified from the London Olympics in 2012. Four years on, Brazil is hosting the Games and the 57kg category judoka is the heroine as the country’s first and only gold medal of the opening week of competition.
“People taunted me, they said I was a monkey and my place was in a cage. But I proved my place is in sport and in judo,” said the gritty 24-year-old who has spoken forcefully about racism in her country whilst she is in the Olympic headlines. Her sporting skill also deserves attention. She beat world number one Sumiya Dorjsuren of Mongolia to take the title and prove that Brazil is a world force in women’s judo even if the country does not always treasure them.
Katie Ledecky – the best is yet to come
America’s newest star wrote her name in lights by uniting the 200m, 400m and 800m freestyle for the first time since 1968 — winning two of the races in world-record time. Ledecky, 19, has four gold medals overall including the 4x200m freestyle relay, plus silver from the 4x100m free.
The most extraordinary stat for Ledecky is that she has never lost an individual final at a world championships or Olympics, compiling nine world titles before she has even reached her twenties. She burst onto the scene at the 2012 London Olympics, when she won the 800m at just 15. And she has confirmed every ounce of her promise with her feats in Rio, which include world records in the 400m and 800m.
“I just wanted to lay it all out there,” Ledecky said after Friday’s 800m race. “It was my last swim here at the Olympics, the pinnacle of our sport, and I have to wait another four years to have that moment.” Ominously for her competitors, Ledecky may be reaching her peak for Tokyo 2020.