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In Rio, Amidst Corporate Nonsense, Olympic Magic Still Exists

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From 1956 until 1988, the Olympics had an adversarial, us-versus-them feel that made practically every event an ideological struggle between Capitalist good guys and Communist villains. It didn’t matter whether the U.S. was taking on Bulgaria in archery or fighting it out on the basketball court against the Soviet Union, every American had a stake in the outcome. It seemed as if the fate of the free world depended on whether a 16-year old figure skater could stick a triple axel after landing a perfect double salchow.

A sidelight to the quest to conquer Communists was trying to decide which of the USSR and Eastern Bloc athletes was using performance-enhancing drugs. The answer, of course, was all of them. A tip-off came when the Soviet women had fuller beards than did the U.S. men. It was infuriating and stomach-churning. And it was great.

That’s why the decisions by various international sporting federations to ban Russian athletes from the 2016 Rio Games are so disappointing. Yes, Putin’s army of runners, lifters, cyclists and other nefarious competitors should be punished. But by keeping them away from the Zika-ridden shores of Brazil, the sporting poohbahs are robbing the Olympics of drama and rivalry. Without the Russian druggists, we’re missing some top-shelf Simon Legree types. Wouldn’t it be great to watch the Russian women twirl their mustaches before propelling a discus further into space than some satellite launches go? El Hombre supposes we’ll just have to play guess-the-cheater every time a Russian competitor comes on screen. Too bad we won’t get a chance to examine some of the urine samples those folks produce. They probably look like yellowcake uranium.

While whatever remains of the U.S.-Russia drama plays out—not including hacked-then-leaked e-mails—viewers will be subjected to 17 days of self-promotion, melodramatic treacle and hero worship by the various networks under the NBC/Universal/Comcast corporate umbrella. By the time the Games end, just about every American will be so sick of NBC’s fall lineup—and probably Bob Costas—that no one will want to watch. And beware of false hype surrounding the Closing Ceremonies. In 2012, NBC promised The Who and then tormented viewers with a half-hour “preview” of an execrable new comedy.

Should you have the stamina to wade through the steaming piles of promotional guano, there are a few locals worth watching.

  • Phoenixville’s Tyler Nase will be a member of the U.S. lightweight four without coxswain. Nase is a lean, 6-feet, 155 pounds and began rowing 10 years ago at LaSalle High School and continued at Princeton University. In 2013, he earned a silver medal in the lightweight pair at the World Cup III in Lucerne, Switzerland. Sports Illustrated doesn’t list the U.S. among its predicted medal winners in the event, but Nase will get a chance to row with former Princeton teammate Robin Prendes and experience his first Olympics.
  • Twenty-year old Cierra Runge of Cochranville, a graduate of Octorara High School, has had great success on the U.S. junior national swimming team. The rising sophomore at the University of Wisconsin qualified for a relay spot in Rio. Last year, she swam a leg on the gold-medal winning team at the world junior championships and was part of an 800-meter relay quartet at Cal (she is transferring to UW this fall) that set NCAA and American records. Her father, Scott, played soccer at West Chester University, and her brother, Taylor, played baseball at Bucknell. Little sister Madison qualified for the U.S. Olympic trials in the 800-meter freestyle and will swim for Navy in the fall.
  • Katie Bam grew up in Blue Bell and graduated from Wissahickon High School and the University of Maryland, where she was a three-time all-America field hockey star. Bam has the perfect last name for her position, striker, and will be playing in her second Olympics as part of a U.S. team that has a distinct local flavor. Ten members of the 16-woman team are from Pennsylvania, while two more are from New Jersey and one hails from Delaware.

EL HOMBRE SEZ: In between watching Usain Bolt try to make history and Michael Phelps attempt to conclude his career with another couple gold medals, be sure to track the progress of the Refugee Team, a group specially created by the IOC, comprised of athletes driven from their countries by war and other upheaval. They will come in under the Olympic flag, just before host nation Brazil, and are the closest representation of the Olympic spirit. Learn more about the team from Sports Illustrated.