Perhaps the Olympics only come once every four years because they are an emotional rollercoaster. For every awe-inspiring success story there are dozens of tales of dashed hopes; there is no doubt that the road to gold is littered with heartbreak.
The 2016 Rio Olympics have been no different. While we saw the continued stunning success of Michael Phelps, the amazing performances from the “Final Five,” and an American sweep of the gold, silver, and bronze in the women’s 100m hurdles, there were also outstanding athletes who saw medals slip from their grasps.
Phelps was actually involved one of the first major upsets of the Rio Games. In the men’s 100m butterfly final last Friday night, he was beaten by 0.75 seconds by Joseph Schooling, who won Singapore’s first-ever gold medal. The 21-year-old grew up idolizing Phelps and said he felt he “finally earned” the rings on the Olympic tattoo he now sports on his right arm. Phelps didn’t seem to mind too much, brushing off the second-place finish (and tie with South Africa’s Chad le Clos and Hungary’s László Cseh) and going on to win his 23rd gold medal the next day in the men’s 4x100m relay.
While Phelps didn’t seem too broken up about his unexpected—and uncharacteristic—loss to Schooling, that was not the case for volleyball player Kerri Walsh Jennings.
One of the most heartbreaking upsets of the Games was Walsh Jennings’ loss in the beach volleyball semifinals to Brazilians Bárbara Seixas and Ágatha Bednarczuk. Despite Walsh Jennings’ gold medal record—she won gold with Misty May Treanor in 2004, 2008, and 2012—she and April Ross couldn’t quite put their game together on Wednesday.
“We could have squashed the other team, and we have in the past,” Walsh Jennings told reporters after the game. “Tonight they rose to the occasion and I certainly did not and there’s no excuse for it.”
While Walsh Jennings and Ross were favorites to medal in Rio, they faced quite a few challenges from the start, including the fact that the two hadn’t previously competed together at the Olympic level. The Americans had to face the Brazilian all-stars on their home turf in front of a rowdy crowd. According to Walsh Jennings, the duo never “got our mojo after” the aces the Brazilians scored early on in Wednesday’s match.
The two earned the bronze medal in their final game against another Brazilian team, Larissa França and Talita Antunes, but Walsh Jennings’ gold medal streak has come to an end.
Another major upset of the Rio Games was the early defeat of the Williams sisters in the doubles tennis tournament. Venus and Serena were the No. 1 seed in Rio and had just won their 14th Grand Slam championship title in Wimbledon in July. It was the sisters’ first defeat in 16 Olympic matches together, having won gold in 2000, 2008, and 2012; the two did not compete in the doubles tournament in Athens in 2004 after Serena pulled out due to an injury.
“We played terrible and it showed in the results,” Serena told reporters after the match.
A gold in the singles tournament was not in the cards either. In the third round, on Tuesday, Aug. 9, Serena Williams suffered a stinging loss 6-4, 6-3 to Elina Svitolina of Ukraine in what could be the tennis legend’s last Olympic appearance.
It seems Williams’s shoulder injury may have gotten the best of her. Some observed that she was “close to tears” when she left the court. Furthermore, on Monday, Aug. 15, Williams announced that she would not be competing in the Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati due to “shoulder inflammation,” a decision which could ultimately cost her the No. 1 tennis ranking. Williams is still scheduled to play in the U.S. Open, where she will have the opportunity to earn her 23rd Grand Slam title.
But the Williams sisters weren’t the only top-seeded tennis players to flare out early in the tournament. Novak Djokovic, who in June became the first man in 47 years to hold all four Grand Slam titles after winning the French Open, lost to Juan Martín del Potro of Argentina in the first round of the men’s singles tournament.
The 27-year-old del Potro is no tennis novice, having won the U.S. Open in 2009, but he entered the Games ranked 141st in the world after suffering injury problems for two years. Del Potro did not face a single break point during the match against Djokovic, who was trying earn his first Olympic gold and improve on his bronze medal performance in Beijing in 2008.
After the loss, Djokovic left the court in tears, telling reporters it was “one of the toughest losses in my career.” Having come shortly after his surprising third-round loss to American Sam Querrey in the Wimbledon tournament, this may have been another shock to the system for the world-class athlete. Disappointed but not completely defeated, he refused to allow his opponent’s “dream night” break his spirit. “You have to deal with it,” he told reporters. “It’s not the first or the last time that I have lost a tennis match. But the Olympic Games, yeah, it’s completely different.”
While all these athletes lost with grace, things went a little bit differently for the American women’s soccer team.
Ranked No. 1 in the world and regarded as one of the best soccer teams of all time—male or female— things were looking promising for Team USA. Having defeated Japan 5-2 in the 2015 World Cup, the women were the reigning champions and had the opportunity to become the first female team to win the World Cup and Olympic gold back to back.
But things didn’t go as planned.
After Hope Solo’s error early on in the match against Columbia on Aug. 9, it became apparent that the fight for the gold medal would be fierce. The goal against the Americans was made by a fumble in the 26th minute of the game, when Solo dropped down to snatch the ball off a low shot by Catalina Usme, but it slipped through her hands and legs. It was the first goal against Solo in the tournament. The match ended up as a 2-2 draw.
On Aug. 12 in the American women’s quarterfinal match against Sweden, a 1-1 overtime score forced the game into penalties. After trying to psych out Lisa Dahlkvist by pausing to swap out her goalie gloves, Solo failed to block the shot and brought Team USA’s race to the gold to a sudden stop. The defeat forced the earliest ever exit for the American team in a major tournament, which includes a run of seven World Cups and six Olympics.
But perhaps most shocking wasn’t the early exit, but rather Solo’s response to the upset.
In a post-game interview she told reporters, “We played a bunch of cowards. The best team did not win today. I strongly, firmly believe that.” The goalie later softened her attitude, saying, “You’ve got to take your hat off to them because they beat us.” Solo’s statement has led many to describe the already controversial goalie as a poor loser, and this isn’t the first time Solo’s attitude has been called into question.
While defeats can be shocking, upsetting, and frustrating to athletes who play their hearts out and give up everything to compete on the world’s stage once every four years, it can also help distinguish those who are truly generous in defeat. As the saying goes, “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.”
How to Live Stream the Olympics:
NBCUniversal’s networks and digital platforms will be showing nearly 7,000 hours of programing over 19 days during the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics. NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Sports app will also live stream coverage of the Games for paid TV subscribers via TV Everywhere. You can download the NBC Sports app to your Android TV, Apple TV, Xbox or Roku or use the iOS, Android or Windows Phone apps.
You can also view live stream Olympic matches from NBC here.