The Olympics are underway, and it’s hard not to get swept up by the tide of athletic-national support. The national pride seeps into every fiber of our country. Our flag becomes synonymous with the games, the enduring symbol of our support for our athletes, and is plastered across clothing, food, stores, and TV screens everywhere.
But the Olympics aren’t like other sporting events. Sure, you have your favorite athletes that are competing, and you probably recognize a few of the popular sports being played. But only a handful of the 41 athletic disciplines get their own highlights on SportsCenter. And that’s okay. You’re not going to become an expert on Dressage in the next few weeks. But when you come home from work or head into a bar, you may look up at the TV to see a horse prancing around and you’re going to ask yourself “who do I cheer for?”
Well, I have some advice.
Cheer for Your Country
The US has 554 competitors in Rio across 31 sports. Our biggest names are set to dominate in the pool, on the court, on the field, on the track, and in the gym. There’s a certain pride in keeping tabs on the medal count, and the competitive atmosphere goes beyond the individual events. It’s not enough to win in a few events; we want to win it all. We expect to win it all. We expect to be crowned the best in the world when the games are over. If (when) the US wins the most medals in 2016, it would the sixth consecutive Olympics (summer and winter) to see the US at the top of the table.
It’s fun to see the US at the top of the table. And for a passive observer of the Olympics, that’s probably enough to fill you with pride. But take the medal count apart, one-by-one, and think about the individual and team moments of excellence that comprise each medal. Here are some of those individuals to watch for in Rio:
In the Pool: Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky, Missy Franklin
In the Other Pool: Tony Azevedo in Men’s Water Polo
In the Gym: Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, and the whole women’s team
On the Track: Allyson Felix and Ashton Eaton
In the Sand: Jennings and Ross in Women’s Beach Volleyball
On the Pitch: Hope Solo and the Women’s Soccer Team
On the Links: Jordan Speith and the first Men’s Golf Team
Playing with Swords: Ibtihaj Muhammed in Women’s Saber
In the Ring: Claressa Shields in Women’s Boxing
And when our athletes win, you’ll see them embrace each other, their families, their friends, and wrap themselves in (Old) Glory. There are few feelings better than pairing athletic victory with national pride. You can almost hear the national anthem playing now.
Now I know you’ll be cheering hard for the US when they compete. But there are some events across the next few weeks that will not have US athletes in them, and what’s the fun in watching sports without cheering for someone?
Here are some recommendations.
Cheer for the Host Country
Root, root, root for the home team! It’s been hard to ignore the negative news around Brazil’s handling of some of the Olympic preparations (and don’t worry, we’ll revisit that post-games). But with the Olympics, home-field advantage doesn’t mean much. In fact, I think it actually works in the opposite direction; there’s a pressure to perform better, to represent yourself and your country in the best way possible.
That’s not hard to do with team Brazil. They have some stellar athletes you should keep an eye on:
Neymar and the Men’s Soccer Team: After losing the 2012 Olympics 2-1 to Mexico and suffering a crushing defeat in the knockout round of the 2014 World Cup on home soil, the Brazilian men’s team will look to bring home gold in their country’s most popular sport.
All four beach volleyball pairs: Franca and Antunes are currently ranked 1st coming into the Olympics in Women’s Beach Volleyball, but their counterparts de Freitas and Bednarczuk are reigning 2015 world champions. On the Men’s side, Cerutti and Schmidt also enjoyed a 2015 world championship gold while their counterparts Solberg and Gonclaves took bronze. Basically, if you see Brazil on the beach volleyball court, they’re likely the ones dominating.
Would you cheer for a guy who is entering his SIXTH Olympics?! Who wouldn’t! Sailor Robert Scheidt has won a medal at all of his previous five Olympic games, including his first gold in Atlanta 1996. Despite the complaints about the water conditions, Scheidt is set to compete in what will have to be his last games, and the host country’s hopes are high for their veteran.
Another veteran of the games is hoping to earn Brazil only their second track and field Olympic gold in this century. You can catch Fabiana Murer on pole vault track, fresh off a silver in last year’s world championships. After setting Brazil’s all-time record during qualifying, she, too, is hoping to end a long Olympic career on a high note in front of the host country’s fans.
Cheer for Your Favorite College
It sounds funny, but college athletics aren’t as prominent around the world as they are here in the States. As a result, many of the most promising athletes looking to compete at the highest level come to US colleges and universities. It’s not uncommon to hear the announcers mixing the backgrounds of international track athletes and swimmers with hometown colleges.
As a die-hard, orange-blooded Syracuse fan/alum, allow me to bias you by promoting a few of my fellow graduates competing for countries across the world.
Carmelo Anthony and the US Men’s Basketball team: Okay, it’s maybe not the best case to illustrate my point, but I’m pretty sure at this point Carmelo has played more games with Jim Boeheim as part of Team USA than while he was at Syracuse. Nonetheless, go Orange also means go USA.
Speaking of Men’s Basketball, fresh off our surprising (even for me) Final Four finish, Michael Gbinije will be representing Nigeria on the court.
Rower Natalie Mastracci will be back in the water with Canada’s Women’s Team, hoping to turn 2012’s silver into 2016 gold.
Maybe the most exciting is Flings Owusu-Agyapong, former Big East champion and All-American in the 100-meter dash and the 4×100 relay. Not only will she be competing for her home country Ghana, but on Friday, she had the distinct honor of being their flag bearer during the opening ceremonies.
Cheer for the Underdogs
For the first time, Kosovo and South Sudan will participate in the Olympics. You can see their athletes in several track, cycling, judo, shooting, and swimming events. These athletes come from countries dominated by violence, insecurity, and civil unrest. Their mere presence at the games is controversial and almost caused other countries to boycott. But their athletes are here under extraordinary circumstances and need support more than most. Get to know them.
From Kosovo, Majlinda Kelmendi is the athlete to watch during Women’s Judo. She has taken gold in the 2013 and 2014 world championships and the 2016 European championships. Although she has represented Albania in previous Olympics, she will serve as Kosovo’s first flag bearer during the opening ceremonies.
For South Sudan, Guor Mading Maker is the man to watch in the Marathon. Guor qualified for the 2012 Olympics, but he refused to participate under the Sudanese flag and was instead allowed to compete as an individual athlete. His story is a heartbreaking one, but I encourage you to read it.
The Olympics often feature independent athletes like Guor who compete under the Olympic flag. But in 2016 the Olympic flag will also be used to represent the first Refugee Olympic Team. This team comprises athletes from countries in conflict from Africa and the Middle East. You can see them compete in several track events, swimming events, and Judo.
One story you’ve probably already heard is Yusra Mardini, the 18-year-old Syrian refugee who literally swam for her life escaping her home country and now finds herself swimming for the refugee team in Rio.
Many of these athletes barely had the means to make it to Rio. It’s unlikely that you’ll see throngs of fans wrapped in Kosovo or South Sudan flags. You’ll be hard pressed to find their fans in the crowd at their events. And odds are no one will be there to sing their national anthems. So cheer loudly for them; in many cases they’re just happy to be there.
The Summer Olympics are a time-honored tradition of watching the world’s best compete. It only happens once every four years, and for many of these athletes, they get one shot to make the years of blood, sweat, and tears pay off. They all deserve a cheering section!