The phrases “greatest of all time” and “greatest in history” are getting bandied about with awful frequency these days. She’s the greatest swimmer of all time. That has to be the greatest finish in history. Really, folks, history is pretty long. It’s annoying to use such words when athletes are in their second or maybe third Games. Come back, maybe, when you hit five. Or how about eight?
Instead, as far as the Olympics go, I propose that we honor the Living Legends. The Games are full of folks who still compete with strength and experience. Every time they say, “just one more time.” Every time it’s, “this will be my last.” But they stay in shape, they have outstanding technique, and they’re long past the Olympic jitters.
Perhaps they have lost a step but still make up for it with guile and style. Perhaps they’re not three-peating or four-peating or five-peating. There still have suitcases full of medals. Overall, considering all the sports, these legends might make this the Greatest Class in Olympic history.
Teddy Bear: Teddy Riner (FRA), 5 Gold, 3 Bronze
Riner is a giant in the sport both figuratively and literally–he stands 6’8″ tall. I’d seen clips of him winning judo matches before. Anchored on one of those massive legs, he is an expert at using the other foot to sweep opponents off the ground and on to their back like he’s clearing away brush with his toe. In Riner’s first Olympics in Beijing, he was out-maneuvered for a bronze. After that, between 2010 and 2020, he didn’t lose a single match. Ten years, people.
Tokyo was the first time I saw him in a full match and understood his full nickname. He lumbers around, like a bear, flexing up and down on his toes as if they’re helping him think. He pads slowly, until suddenly he’s not slow, and opponents are wondering what hit them. The equally crafty non-Russian Russian Bashaev got the better of Riner in Tokyo on the way to a gold for ROC. It didn’t help that Riner hadn’t competed in nearly a year.
What the massive French judoka really wanted was the Mixed Team gold. Riner had earlier defeated a Japanese 100+kg opponent to earn an individual bronze . This time Japan sent out their gold medalist at 100kg, Aaron Wolf, hoping technique would offset the weight difference. Wolf managed to last the whole match, but he was a head shorter than the Bear. Technique only gets you so far.
After Riner’s teammate Cysique defeated Japan’s Yoshida to win the mixed event for France, Riner started picking up his smaller colleagues and tossing them about like sacks of flour. At 32, I don’t know if he’s going to retire. There is a temptation to go out on top. But the Olympics keep calling.
The Pocket Rocket: Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce (JAM), 2 Gold, 4 silver, 1 Bronze and counting
The Fastest Woman Alive looked annoyed to be bested, two days ago, by her countrywoman, Elaine Thompson Herah. It was probably because Herah hadn’t run that fast recently, and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce had. Oh, she had, nibbling away at Flo-Jo’s 30-year-old world record in the 100 m by setting a 10.63 PB only a month earlier. Age 34, and she’s still sprinting faster than anyone else on earth.
The marathoners started pointing out, back in the 1980s, that many women run faster after having children. Conventional wisdom told them to hang up their spikes, yet those who continued found their times improving. Once women started pushing the boundaries of propriety and demanding fairer treatment, like getting Nike to stop cutting off sponsorship funds for pregnant athletes, they proved they could compete. The idea of motherhood as Athletic Dream Killer was proven to be pure malarkey. Many women run faster. Fraser-Pryce certainly did, after having a child in 2017.
She runs again in the final for the 200 m and possibly in the relay, where Jamaica has had the world’s best team. I suspect her medalling days are not over.
The Legend: Oksana Chusovitina (UZB), 8 Olympics, 1 team Gold, 1 Silver
So much has been said about the hidden difficulties of the gymnastics vault. About how disorienting it can be and potentially dangerous. One move is called the “Vault of Death.” Imagine vaulting, then, for 33 years. That’s twice as long as the ages of some of the gymnasts.
Many know Oksana Chusovitina’s story. I even wrote about her in 2016. She won the USSR-All-Around title when there was still a USSR. She thought the fall of the Soviet Union would be the end, when it turned out to be only the beginning. Chusovitina competed on the Unified Team, then for Uzbekhistan, then for Germany. Germany might have been the hardest, since she moved there because her son developed leukemia. Competing helped pay for his treatment. He’s now a young adult. And she’s still going.
In Tokyo, she didn’t qualify for the final. But when she stood to take what must be a final bow, the handful of fans in the stadium gave her an enthusiastic standing ovation. And so do we all. At 46 years old, Chusovitina may really and truly be taking her last bow.
The Olympics are a siren song, though. There’s something about the personal challenge that brings athletes back. Dara Torres kept winning medals in the swimming pool until she was 41. Imagine all those laps! Shooter Abdulla Al-Rashidi won his second bronze in a row last week, in skeet shooting, at 57. Minagawa Hiroe wrestled yesterday; she’s 33, has no medals, but loves the sport too much not to keep trying.
Then there are the equestrians. The Queen of Dressage, Isabelle Werth, just earned her twelfth medal at 52. Yeah. Tuh-welfth. American Philip Dutton, with solid outings in dressage and cross-country, is 57. But there is also Andrew Hoy.
The Australian Rock Star: Andrew Hoy (AUS), 8 Olympics, 3 Gold, 2 Silvers, 1 Bronze and counting
I saw Andrew Hoy’s name come in Dressage, and I thought Geez, is that guy still competing? I saw him end up in the top fifteen, and I thought Uh-oh. In the cross country race, which was hot and tricky, the very first horse did a somersault at the very first water jump, and it was that kind of day. Fourteen riders didn’t make it through the course. Hoy was stopped in the middle, as one of the fallen riders walked off, but stop-and-start didn’t seem to phase him. He rode without penalties and ended up moving into seventh place.
By the end of the first jumping round, he had crawled up into fourth. And when the smoke cleared in Tokyo, Andrew Hoy had helped pull Team Australia up to a silver medal in Eventing and earned himself a bronze. Not bad for age 62.
Australians do love their horses, so you can only imagine what kind of greeting an eight-time Olympian equestrian expert gets in taxis and coffeehouses. He is their version of a rock star. Maybe when they shout Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, oi! they’re really just shouting for you-know-who.
Let’s go one better. How about if you’re such a rock star in-country that you’ve already been knighted? And you come back to compete…one more time. And you still got it.
There Is Nothing Like a Dame: Valerie Adams (NZL), 5 Olympics, 2 golds, 1 silver, 1 bronze
Dame Valerie Adams is 6’4″. She can’t quite look Teddy Riner in the eye, but almost. You might think… volleyball? basketball? high jump? But, of all things, she throws the shot put.
Many throwers use a spin technique, but others use a glide. You face away from where you’re throwing, lean over, then hop backwards and use your momentum and back leg to push the shot up. When Adams throws, she folds that long body in half, and pumps herself up like a bird about to take wing before launching her arcing throws.
The 2016 women’s shot put was a barn-burner, with Adams coming out strong, but being eclipsed by American Michelle Carter on Carter’s last throw. Adams’ best throw of the day was also her last, and it was second best to earn silver. After she returned home to New Zealand, she was honored by being named a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit. This was after being named New Zealand Sportsman of the Year, seven years in a row.
When you get the title ahead of your name, most people take it as a hint and move on. Adams even missed the entire next season as she added another little one to her family. But, like Fraser-Pryce and others, she found that being a mother of young children somehow helped her focus and want to compete just a little bit longer. The Olympics are a little addictive. If your technique is good and you can still hit the mark, why not try, just one more time?
In Tokyo this past Sunday, Adams qualified for yet another final, along with the strong launchers from China, talented young Americans, and expert Eastern Europeans. On the very first throw, she was already in the hunt, and by the third throw, she was launching them as far as anybody. After powerful Gong Lijao steadily improved to earn gold, and naughty Raven Saunders growled and twerked her way to a silver, Adams stepped into the circle and took wing once more. She happily added a bronze to her stack. Of course, she wanted gold, but, even more, she just wanted to see if she still had it. She still does.
I don’t know if it will be the last time for Val Adams, or if it will be the last time for any of these competitors.
The Olympics keep calling. And they keep answering.
And I keep writing about them, too. More about the doozy of a shot put final in 2016 is here.
More about Teddy Riner and Oksana Chusovitina here.