One of the great pleasures of the Olympics is the serendipity — you never know where the best performances or the worst behavior will come from.
We’ve already heard plenty, and deservedly so, about Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps and Simone Biles. And way too much about Ryan Lochte.
So as the Rio games conclude Sunday, let’s look at some other athletes who struck an emotional chord and captured the spirit of the Olympics. Or the opposite of that spirit.
Important note: None of the athletes below won gold, except Japanese wrestler Risako Kuwai, who won the 63 kg (139-pound) division. The victory celebration she inflicted on her coach was just too wonderful to ignore. Have a look:
The wacky Irish brothers
Brothers Gary and Paul O’Donovan gave Ireland its first-ever medal in rowing, a silver in the lightweight double sculls. But the lads from West Cork saved their best performance for after the race when they gave this entertaining interview to the Irish broadcaster RTE Sport.
These guys enjoyed the Olympics. The Olympic Village food. Their “podium pants.” Everything, it seems, except that post-race doping test, which Paul described like this:
“I had to go and do this doping control thing, so I was there for an hour or two trying to take a pee then into a cup for them so, after about 10 liters of water as well so, full up now to be honest. Gary, it’s like great craic though, isn’t it.”
“Craic,” by the way, is an elastic Irish term that can mean gossip, fun or entertainment.
The sound of one hand shaking
After Israel’s Or Sasson defeated Egypt’s Islam El Shehaby in judo, Sasson approached the Egyptian to shake hands, and El Shehaby backed away.
“Shaking the hand of your opponent is not an obligation written in the judo rules. It happens between friends and he’s not my friend,” El Shehaby said after the bout. “You can’t ask me to shake the hand of anyone from this state, especially in front of the whole world.”
Not a rule. But it earned El Shehaby, 32, loud boos from the crowd, a stern reprimand from the International Olympic Committee and a quick flight back to Cairo.
“His behavior at the end of the competition was contrary to the rules of fair play and against the spirit of friendship embodied in the Olympic Values,” the International Olympic Committee said.
Sasson took bronze in the over 100-kg (220-pound) division.
A helping hand
New Zealand’s Nikki Hamblin stumbled and fell in a pack of runners in a woman’s 5,000-meter heat. American Abbey D’Agostino, running right behind her, went down as well.
As D’Agostino returned to her feet, she offered Hamblin a hand and encouraged her to keep going. She did.
Then D’Agostino fell again as her right knee, injured in the fall, gave way. This time Hamblin stopped to help the American.
Neither woman was likely to qualify for the final, though track officials said both women would be allowed to advance. D’Agostino tore her ACL in the fall and could not run, but Hamblin competed Friday. She finished 17th, and last, in 16:14:24.
But she received a roaring ovation from the crowd at Olympic Stadium. Among those cheering loudest was D’Agostino, who earlier described their encounter on the track.
“The only way I can and have rationalized it is that God prepared my heart to respond that way,” said D’Agostino, 24, from Topsfield, Mass. “This whole time here, he’s made clear to me that my experience in Rio was going to be about more than my race performance — and as soon as Nikki got up I knew that was it.”
A team game, a Solo embarrassment
U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo scored an own goal when she flippantly tweeted about the risks of the Zika virus before the Olympics. She greatly expanded her legions of critics by insulting the Swedish team immediately after they ousted the top-ranked Americans.
“I’m very proud of this team. But I also think we played a bunch of cowards. The best team did not win today. I think you saw American heart. You saw us give everything we had today,” Solo told reporters. “Sweden dropped off. They didn’t want to open play. They didn’t want to pass the ball. They didn’t want to play great soccer.”
“I don’t think they’re going to make it far in the tournament,” she added. “I think it was very cowardly.”
Then came the social media backlash, followed by a non-apology.
Sweden went on to win silver. Solo and the Americans went home without a medal in soccer for the first time ever.
A Dutch equestrian spares her ailing horse
Dutch dressage rider Adelinde Cornelissen and her horse Parzival arrived in Rio with high hopes — they won individual silver and team bronze in London in 2012.
But a few days before their competition, the horse fell ill, possibly from the bite of a spider or a mosquito.
“I saw the right side of his head was swollen, he had been kicking the walls. I took his temperature: he had a fever of over 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit),” she wrote on her Facebook page.
Parzival’s temperature returned to normal and veterinarians cleared him to compete. But “he didn’t feel very powerful,” she wrote.
“Being the fighter he is, he never gives up,” she added. “But in order to protect him, I gave up … My buddy, my friend, the horse that has given everything for me his whole life does not deserve this…. So I saluted and left the arena.”
India’s emerging women
India is a perennial Olympic underachiever. The world’s second most populous nation won one silver and one bronze in Rio, matching Mongolia.
And the little attention India received initially was unwanted: the country’s sports minister, Vijay Goel, was reprimanded for pushing his entourage into events for which they were not accredited.
“We have had multiple reports of your Minister for Sports trying to enter accredited areas at venues with unaccredited individuals,” Sarah Peterson, of the Rio 2016 Organizing Committee, wrote to the Indians. “When the staff tried to explain that this is not allowed, they reported that the people with the Minister have become aggressive and rude and sometimes pushed past our staff.”
But as the games progressed, attention turned to Indian women who began to shine as never before.
P.V. Sindhu, 21, took silver in badminton, becoming the youngest Indian, male or female, to win an Olympic medal. Sakshi Malik took a bronze in the 58-kg (128-pound) wrestling division, the first woman from her country to medal in the sport. And Dip Karmakar just missed out on a medal in the women’s vault, finishing fourth in an event won by American Simone Biles.
“More and more young girls want to break barriers and fulfill the same ambitions as men, or their own ambitions,” Indian sociologist Ravinder Kaur told the BBC. Indian women “wish to write their own futures.”
‘I was really that fast?’
Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui, 20, caught everyone’s attention with a TV interview where she expressed shock that she’d qualified for the final of the 100-meter backstroke.
“I was really that fast?” the expressive Fu said when an interviewer from China’s CCTV5 told her how well she’d done.
She only got better after that, explaining she had “expended her primordial energies” to swim so fast, a quote that quickly went viral.
Her gleeful, infectious energy was in sharp contrast to the stoicism of most Chinese athletes. She was certainly the first to discuss the pain of swimming during her menstrual period.
Then she surprised herself again by winning a bronze in the final of the 100 backstroke. More exuberance ensued, and she was soon being followed by millions on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. She was mobbed at the airport when she returned to Beijing.
Brazilians like to boo
Booing is rare at the Olympics, but was more frequent that usual in Brazil, a place with a long tradition of expressing its collective opinion at sporting events — and most everywhere else.
France’s Renaud Lavillenie discovered this in the pole vault final, where he was battling Brazil’s Thiago Braz da Silva, the clear crowd favorite.
The crowd in Olympic Stadium booed Lavillenie when he was vaulting, and he ultimately finished second to da Silva.
Afterward, the Frenchman compared his treatment to the way American Jesse Owens was treated in Nazi Germany at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
That brought a social media backlash — and an apology from Lavillenie.
When he returned to the stadium for the medal ceremony the following evening, he was booed again and broke into tears on the medal podium.
Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, then weighed in.
World-class athletes are always looking for a competitive advantage. So when seeking a spouse, proposing in front of a worldwide audience, shortly after winning a medal, increases the odds of getting to ‘yes.’
After American triple jumper Will Claye hopped, skipped and jumped his way to silver, he then leaped into the stands and proposed to his girlfriend, Queen Harrison, a 2008 Olympian in the hurdlers.
This was just one of four reported Rio engagements. Chinese male diver Qin Kai, who had earlier won a bronze, proposed to his long-time girlfriend and diver on the women’s team, He Zi, immediately after she was awarded a silver.
Marjorie Enya, a volunteer worker at the games, asked her girlfriend Isadora Cerullo, a Brazilian rugby player, to marry her after a match. And British racewalker Tom Bosworth proposed to his boyfriend on Copacabana Beach.