The past 12 months were accursed, and they were acclaimed. They were at times sad and joyful and, without a doubt, “yuge.” They provided moments of profound joy and robbed us of living legends. Stars were born, and others approached rock bottom; curses died, and miracles came to life. A few names stood at the center of it all.
These are not all stars, nor saints. They are not necessarily the best athletes, nor even the most decorated. Instead they are those that most captivated the sports world, the figures from whom we could not look away — even if we tried — and whose stories defined the year. For better or worse, these were the faces that filled our printed pages, TV screens and social streams. And for reasons both sad and celebratory, they will always be worth remembering.
These are the Washington Post’s Sports Figures of the Year for 2016.
dged between the major-party conventions and the presidential election, the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics provided Americans a 17-day respite from the bitter divisiveness and politicized vitriol of this election season. If only Rio could have lasted forever. What we saw there, once again, was that any contest staged on fields, courts, tracks or courses, or in pools, open water or rings, is better than one decided through debates, fundraising, media buys, ground games and electoral votes. Seeing our polarized politics grow even worse since Rio’s closing ceremony, can Americans ever hope to be as united again as we were when we delighted at the parade of red-, white-, and blue-bedecked athletes, most of them swimmers, standing atop the medal stand in Brazil?
Team USA won 46 gold medals in Rio, 19 more than any other nation, and more than a third of them — 16 — were won by its swim team. And of those 16, twice as many as the Americans had won at the 2015 World Championships, Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky were responsible for nine — five individually and four as part of relays. For the eight days of the Olympic swim meet, Ledecky and Phelps were unbeatable, unavoidable and impossible not to embrace — the former with her humility out of the water and her indefatigable, machine-like efficiency in it, and the latter with his ageless power, his story of redemption and his baby boy, Boomer, in his mother’s arms in the stands.
Phelps-Ledecky 2016 (or should it be Ledecky-Phelps?) was a winning ticket this summer. All it needed was a slogan. (Anyone know whether “Make America Great Again” is taken?) Phelps, already the most decorated Olympian in history at age 31, came out of retirement to win five more gold medals, and six overall, to push his career totals to 23 and 28, in many cases beating swimmers a generation younger who had grown up idolizing him. Meanwhile, the 19-year-old Ledecky won four golds (five medals overall) and set world records in the 400-meter and 800-meter freestyles, the 12th and 13th such marks of her career. In the latter race, she prevailed by an astounding 11.38 seconds, the margin too big to get both Ledecky and runner-up Jazz Carlin of Great Britain in the same television shot as Ledecky touched the wall.
The U.S. swim team also had plenty of compelling downballot races. America got to know Simone Manuel, the Stanford sprinter who became the first female African American swimmer in history to win an individual gold medal, a tie in the 100 free. We got reacquainted with Anthony Ervin, the eccentric, 35-year-old sprinter who won Olympic golds in the same event, the 50 free, 16 years apart. We saw Maya DiRado score four medals, including two golds, then walk away from the sport and into corporate America.
The Summer Olympics and the U.S. presidential election are always linked by their shared quadrennial cycles. But this year, at least thematically, they were sometimes hard to tell apart — except that one made you want to stand up in your living room and shout “USA! USA!” and the other made you want to vomit.
Undue influence by the Russians? Yep. Though there were no cyberattacks reported in Rio, a major Russian doping scandal broke in the days and weeks leading up to the opening ceremony, hovering over the competition. One of the indelible images of Rio 2016 was of Lilly King, the fiery, 19-year-old Indiana breaststroker, wagging her finger at Russia’s Yulia Efimova, a former world champion suspended in 2013 for doping, then torching her in the pool to win gold in the 100 breast and calling her a drug cheat on NBC afterward.
A well-known playboy and reality TV star with strangely colored hair — in this case, a sudden coat of silver — who sometimes has a difficult time telling the truth? Check. The night the Rio swim meet ended, Team USA veteran Ryan Lochte, whose only trip to the medal stand was a relay gold, took three teammates out for a night on the town, which ended, in the wee hours the following morning, with a confrontation at a gas station with armed security guards — an incident that went from an unfortunate episode to an international scandal after Lochte concocted a phony story about an armed robbery. Formerly the star of E!’s “What Would Ryan Lochte Do?” the 32-year-old, the second-most-decorated male Olympic swimmer in history behind Phelps, revised his story and apologized to the Brazilian people for preying on their worst stereotypes, but still lost all his major sponsors.
Much as the loser of a presidential contest does, the winners of Team USA faded slowly from our consciousness in the months following Rio, as we turned our attention to the start of football season and the baseball playoffs. Ledecky went off to college at Stanford, where she became Manuel’s teammate on an NCAA juggernaut. Phelps threw himself into retirement and being a dad. (For his part, Lochte, the one swimmer everyone wished would go away, showed up on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars.”)
But at times over these past few months, Phelps has found himself confronted with a three-word phrase that reflects not only his historical, sustained greatness but also our collective desire to hold on to the feeling that Rio left in us, as everything else about our country seemed to be turning so divisive:
“Four more years!” the nation cries. “Four more years!”
By: Dave Sheinin