This is insane

RIO de JANEIRO — As everyone knows, there are five categories of Olympic sports. These are:

1. Transportation sports (running, walking, swimming, sailing, rowing, equestrian, cycling, etc.)
2. Fighting sports (boxing, wrestling, judo, Taekwondo, fencing, shooting, archery, water polo etc.)
3. Jumping and throwing and lifting sports (long jump, high jump, diving, gymnastics, hammer throw, javelin, weightlifting, etc.)
4. Putting a ball in a goal sports (soccer, basketball, hockey, golf, team handball, etc.)
5. Backyard sports gone mental (badminton, table tennis, beach volleyball, etc.)

The last category of sports is my favorite. Volleyball, you should know, is utterly unrecognizable. The United States men played volleyball against Poland on Wednesday and while I’ve watched this team play on television before — and, of course, played plenty of backyard volleyball — there was no way to prepare for what volleyball at this level really looks or feels like. It is pure violence. It is stunning in its force.

You might know this: Volleyball was invented in America by a man named William G. Morgan in the late 19th century. That was a golden age for American sports inventors. Morgan actually knew James Naismith, inventor of basketball. They went to the same YMCA training school. I like to think of their rivalry as the subject of the next Lin-Manuel Miranda musical.

Anyway, after Naismith invented basketball, Morgan thought it was a fine sport but it wasn’t for everybody. He wanted to invent something a bit less strenuous, with less running around. He borrowed heavily from tennis and badminton, put a high net in the middle of a court, put a few people on each side, and let them bat a ball around. He called the sport Mintonette (like little badminton). A fellow professor called it volleyball.

Unlike basketball, though, Americans didn’t take to volleyball as well as many other countries. Volleyball became an Olympic sport in 1964, and the U.S. didn’t even COME CLOSE to winning a medal in the first five Olympics. The Soviet Union was the dominant team in both men and women.

Then came 1984, the Los Angeles Olympics, and the Soviet Union boycotted. The U.S. men dominated, rolling through Brazil in the gold medal match (the women also played well and won silver). That men’s team of a young Karch Kiraly and flat-top Steve Timmons and the rest really introduced the sport to America. They were so athletic. They hit the ball so hard. I, like so many other Americans, loved that team.

But you look back now at that team and it’s like looking at a whole other age. Every sport evolves, of course, but volleyball had transformed into something entirely new. On that incredible 1984 American team, the best players ranged from 6-foot-3 to 6-foot-5, which seems pretty enormous. They all could jump. They hit the ball hard. A couple of them had strong jump serves.

On this team? Matthew Anderson is 6-foot-8 and he can spike from almost 12 feet off the ground. Aaron Russell is 6-foot-9 and can do the same. Maxwell Holt is also 6-foot-9. Taylor Sander is considered the little guy — in photos he appears to be like someone’s younger brother. He’s 6-foot-5. And he can fly.

They all can fly, that’s the thing you see up close, the athleticism, the jumping ability – it’s breathtaking. Everybody hits like John Isner serves. Everybody crushes the ball impossibly hard. Everybody looks like they’re jumping off little trampolines.

But, beyond the sheer athletic impressiveness, there’s the fury. Volleyball at home is such a happy game. At this level, it could be played in the octagon. In Wednesday’s match, Poland had similarly charged athletes, and the teams just kept hitting bomb after bomb at each other. The only comparison I could make was when Louisville and Houston played in the Final Four, that was the Phi Slama Jama Houston team and the Doctors of Dunk Louisville team, and the teams just kept raining down dunks on each other.

One team would pour down this impossibly vicious spike, and then the other would, and then one of the teams would leap at the net and reject one of the spikes (and this song “Monster Jam” to the old DMX tune for “Party Up” would play). Then an earth-shaking spike. Then a Mutombo-ike rejection. Players were getting knocked over by the ball. It was awesome.

And, apparently, it’s like this all the time at the highest level. The U.S. beat Poland to get into the semifinal. It was their fourth straight victory; the U.S. is playing really well now. “We have so much confidence,” Sander said. “I don’t know why.”

Next up, the U.S. plays Italy, another ridiculously good team with 6-foot-9 and 6-foot-10 X-Men.

This is the Olympics. Everywhere you go, you see ridiculous athletes doing ridiculous things, even in sports that you mostly know from Fourth of July barbecues. You don’t even WANT to know how insane the badminton players here are.

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    Booing and Brazil

    RIO de JANEIRO — You might have heard: They like to boo in Brazil. The Portuguese word for it is “vaia” which roughly translates to “hoot.” There is some serious vaia-lence going on here.

    I would like to seriously apologize to everyone for that horrifying stomach-turning pun — I blame my 14-year-old daughter who has become enraptured by puns, the worse the better. I’ve been gone from her too long.

    People boo everywhere, of course. Well, that’s not true, in some parts of the world fans whistle when they are unhappy. In some parts they stomp. I guess some people point their thumbs to the ground to express disapproval — or maybe that’s just in the 1970s sitcoms. Anyway, in general, whether it’s Philadelphia or Upper Darby or North Philadelphia or Swarthmore or South Philadelphia, there is booing.

    And this is especially true in Brazil.

    “This is part of our culture,” Rio 2016 spokesman Mario Andrada explains. He goes on to say that with Brazil being such a football-mad country, booing comes naturally. It is the passion of the country coming out. It is the fervor and madness that people here feel for sport.

    That said, yeah, he and everyone else might would prefer if maybe there was a little bit less passion coming out.

    At swimming last week, the booing of Russian swimmer Yulia Efimova was intense enough that she was in tears. The booing of French pole vaulter Renaud Lavillenie was so fierce — in large part because he was the main rival of Brazilian Thiago Braz da Silva — that he gave the fan the thumbs down sigh (see, it does happen!) and made an ill-advised comparison to the treatment of Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics. He apologized for being overdramatic but admitted he was shaken. He was then booed even more viciously on the medal stand.

    “I didn’t expect it to be so violent,” he said afterward.

    The Brazilian soccer team, of course, was booed, particularly during a couple of lackluster nil-nil draws against South Africa and Iraq. They are used to getting booed. Heck, star Neymar was booed in the mixed zone — by journalists. Then there’s the story of a tennis ball boy who couldn’t quite get the handle of a ball — he got booed. The USA chant has been booed. The women’s Romanian handball team has been booed. They’ve had to stop the action at beach volleyball, at tennis, even at shooting, because of booing.

    Andrada and the IOC has had to step in and ask people here to stop booing.

    “I was in South Africa for the World Cup,” Andrada said. “Over there, they had the vuvuzelas (translated: horribly annoying horns). It was part of their culture. By the second week, nobody could stand the vuvuzelas. … I think that’s how it is with the booing now.”

    “Brazilians seem to be pretty egalitarian,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams said. “They seem to be able to boo athletes from many countries.”

    They both said that while everyone wants the Brazilian fans to feel the joy and emotion of the Olympics, well, those fans just need to stop booing everybody and everything. The Olympics, they insist, are supposed to be bigger than that, they are supposed to be about unity and sportsmanship, they are supposed to be … just STOP with the booing already.

    But it’s one thing to ask people to stop booing (“We need to help Brazilians understand,” Andrada said) and quite another to change people’s habits and nature. I’m reminded of the time I watched a baseball game in Japan. It was just DIFFERENT. Same sport I’ve known all my life. Same rules. But the fans were so different, they clapped at different times from what I’d known, sang songs out of nowhere, waved inflatables that apparently had a special meaning, were utterly silent when I expected raucous cheers. It was wild and eerie and, I realized, this was not just how Japanese fans watched baseball. This was the heart of Japanese sports fan on display.

    So it goes here. Everybody knows that the country is dealing with numerous scandals all at once — political, economic, security. These Olympics spark a wide variety of emotion in people here from pride to rage. And don’t even get anyone started on Ryan Lochte. This is my ninth Olympics and each of them has a unique feel. Sydney was a big and happy party. Beijing was about precision and control. London was musical and cosmopolitan and glamorous.

    And Rio is about the fire and spirit of the Brazilian people. Nobody likes booing at the Olympics, particularly when booing athletes on the medal stand. It’s not right. But, as one Brazilian volunteer explained, “We can’t always keep it in. But please remember, we cheer loud too.”

    Genesis story

    RIO de JANEIRO — Think about this for a moment: Forty years ago, the United States Olympic Committee did not even expect the women’s basketball team to QUALIFY for the Games. When they won the qualifying tournament, there was a mad effort just to get the team accommodations in Montreal.

    That was the first Olympic women’s basketball tournament, forty years ago, and the United States played in the first game, against Japan.

    The headline in one American newspaper after that game:

    “Japan Downs United States Gal Cagers.”

    And the lede:

    “It took the American men 36 years to lose their first Olympic basketball game. It took the American women just one day.”

    The U.S. lost convincingly to Japan that day, 84-71, and it was no surprise because women had not yet convinced American they could play team sports. Title IX had only just begun, and it was controversial. The “women don’t even WANT to play sports” columns were American newspaper staples. On the Olympic front, the U.S. women’s volleyball team had not qualified for the Olympics in eight years.

    Nobody expected much from the U.S. women’s basketball team even if basketball was sup-posed to be America’s sport. In addition to losing to Japan, the U.S. lost by 35 to the Soviet Un-ion. The Soviets scored the first 17 points of the game — that was the gap between the two countries. The U.S. did manage to win a silver medal based almost entirely on their scrappiness. It was considered a magnificent triumph for American women.

    That was just 40 years ago.

    So, yes, now, as you know, the U.S. women’s basketball team is probably the most dominant team in the world, any Olympic sport. When the U.S. beat France in the semifinal on Thursday, it was their 24th consecutive DOUBLE-DIGIT victory at the Olympics. The 19-point win was also one of their closest; over those 24 games the U.S. average margin of victory has been 36 points.

    In all — including a couple of close ones more than a decade ago — the U.S. has won 48 Olympic games in a row. Here’s how long it has been since the U.S. women last lost an Olympic basketball game: That loss was to the Unified team, the odd conglomerate of countries thrown together in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse way back in 1992.

    So how does this happen? How does the U.S. become so overwhelming in women’s basket-ball. It’s not like this was a given. The U.S. women’s volleyball team lost on Thursday, just a couple of hours before the basketball team took the floor, and that means that the United States women still have not won an Olympic gold medal in the event. There have been many, many great women’s volleyball players in the U.S. — the sport thrives in colleges across the country — but still zero gold medals. Why has basketball been so different?

    I’ll give you my theory: It’s the WNBA. The WNBA is almost 20 years old, and the U.S. has never lost an Olympic basketball game since it began. The team on the floor on Friday included WNBA megastars like Diana Taurasi and Maya Moore, Tina Charles and Tamika Catchings and Brittney Griner. And in truth, two WNBA players who did not even make the Olympic team — Candace Parker and Nneke Ogwumike — are probably better than any player on any of the other teams.

    That’s the depth the WNBA has created. It has given girls a dream. It has given young wom-en a goal. And perhaps most directly, it has given great American basketball players a home so that they don’t burn themselves out playing overseas. You look at this team, and Sue Bird, Tamika Catchings and Diana Taurasi are all going for their FOURTH Olympic gold medals. That’s 12 years of staying on top of the world. That’s the WNBA.

    When you think back 40 years, you see that there were few obvious athletic goals for American women to aspire to. There was figure skating, swimming, it was a pretty limited field. That year, 1976, Nadia Comaneci gave young girls a dream to become gymnasts, and eight years later Mary Lou Retton emerged, another decade or so and America has the best gymnastics team in the world.

    Not long after, a man named Richard Williams in Los Angeles was watching a women’s tennis match on television, saw a Romanian named Virginia Ruzici cash a nice check, and he determined that he would raise his daughters, the newborn Venus and the soon to be born Serena, into the best tennis players on earth.

    And so on — every few years, a new sports dream came along. Jackie Joyner Kersee opened up a new world. Nancy Lopez opened up a new world. The U.S. women’s soccer team opened up a new world.

    Most of all, women’s basketball — first the growth of the college game at Tennessee and later Connecticut and other places, then the WNBA — created the greatest flood of women’s basketball talent in the history of the game. There is little question that this team right here is the best of all time. The 2012 team was probably the best of all time (and the 2008 team before that). Now the team adds Griner and WNBA MVP Elena Della Donne and the game’s next superstar Breanna Stewart. It’s extraordinary.

    Put it this way: The U.S. will play Spain in the final. They have already beaten Spain at this tournament by 40 points. Anything can happen, of course, and you never count victory before it happens. But let’s be realistic. Almost 20 years ago the WNBA came along. And even though some people mocked it, and some people questioned it, and some of that still happens, the WNBA changed the sports landscape in America. Among other things, it gave America one invincible basketball team.

    Success and failure in Rio

    RIO de JANEIRO — All Olympics, I waited for this event. Sure, the Michael Phelps stuff was gripping, and Simone Biles was amazing and Usain Bolt and the tennis and the golf finish and the beach volleyball and the fencing and the judo and the table tennis and Matthew McConaughey and …

    This was what I came to Rio to see.

    I came to watch Christian Taylor break the triple jump world record.

    The idea of a world record — of doing something, anything, better or faster or higher or more often than anyone has ever done it — has always fascinated me.

    Everything about world records are entrancing, even Guinness World Records. I love comparing races to world record splits. I love the little world record yellow line that swimmers chase on TV. I love that in Kuala Lumpur, setting world records is sort of the thing to do. Among the records set in the Malaysian capitol recently: Longest distance traveling with a football balanced on the head (6.9 miles); most coconuts pierced with a finger in 30 seconds (4); most selfies taken in an hour (613).

    Most of the time (and rightfully so), athletes sort of reject my over-enthusiasm for the world record. They seem to think of world records the way power hitters think of home runs — you don’t TRY to get one. They just happen. Winning is the point. Competition is the point. Records, yeah, that’s just icing on the cake, that’s just the cherry on top, that’s just the cliche of your choice.

    And that’s why it was so great to meet Christian Taylor a while ago. He does not hide his ambition. He does not downplay his dreams. He trains like a madman with one goal in mind: To break Jonathan Edwards’ 21-year-old triple jump record.

    Edwards set that record at the 1995 World Championships in Gothenburg, Sweden. It was some kind of day. Edwards is now a BBC commentator, and he remembers that on that day he felt like he could fly, like there was no limit to his jumping. He ran, jumped, and landed past the 18-meter mark — he knew right away that it was a world record and the first legal 18-meter jump ever recorded. It came in at 18.16 meters, or, roughly, 59 feet, 7 inches.

    Ten minutes later, he came down the runway and jumped even longer, 18.29 meters, 60 feet on the nose, the magic number that everyone has chased since.

    Lots of people have wanted that record, but only Christian Taylor has really threatened it. He won the gold medal at the London Olympics, but his winning jump of 17.81 meters was a foot and a half shy of the record. It just wasn’t good enough.

    So Taylor completely revamped the way he jumps. Instead of lifting off from his left leg, the way most people are taught, he decided to switch so that he lifted off from his right leg. He compares it to a pitcher switching arms. He didn’t make the switch JUST for the record — there were injury concerns too. But, yes, the record was on his mind too. The record is always on his mind.

    “Did I know I would jump longer off my right leg?” he asks. “No. But I had faith.”

    It took him a year just to feel normal after the switch. He did not even make it onto the podium at the 2013 World Championships in Moscow. There he saw France’s Teddy Tamgho become just third man (after Edwards and American Kenny Harrison) to jump 18 meters. It frustrated him. And it motivated him.

    “Of course I wish that was me,” he says.

    Soon after the right-legged jumping started to feel good. He was jumping longer and longer in practice. He broke 18 meters at a meet in Qatar at the beginning of 2015. And then, in Beijing at last year’s world championships, he broke free. He jumped 18.21, the second longest triple jump in history, eight centimeters away from Edwards jump.

    “Eight stinking centimeters!” Taylor told me.

    “It’s a cigarette!” Taylor told me.

    “It’s a stick of chewing gum!” Taylor told me.

    Yes, this was the passion for world records I was looking for. And so while all these other Olympic events have been nice, impressive, awe-inspiring, fun, glorious and whatever other Olympic adjective you like, this was my main event. I came to see Christian Taylor break that record.

    On his very first jump of the morning, Taylor went a staggering 17.84 meters. In other words, he more or less clinched the competition right away. That distance was not only longer than his gold-medal jump in London, it would have been long enough to win every Olympics going back to 2000.

    “Well,” Jonathan Edwards tweeted, “he’s won gold. What else I wonder?” And then he put a red-cheeked smiley face for all to see.

    Taylor’s friend and competitor Will Claye — who would have his own glorious day — jumped a couple of moments later, and he too soared. He jumped a patriotic 17.76, the longest jump of his life. This all seemed like a good omen. “We both thought, ‘Whoa!’” Taylor would say. “We never get out of the box like that. … We thought, ‘Oh, something special is going to happen today.’”

    Taylor is great fun to watch triple jump. First thing he does is pump himself up. “Right now!” he shouts at himself. “This is it!” he shouts at himself. And then he unleashed a death stare down the runway, and you can tell he’s visualizing every step, imagining every leap. After a couple of seconds, while he stares, he will begin clapping over his head to get the crowd involved. Clap. Clap. Clap. Come on! The stadium was mostly empty but with this being a morning final, Edwards was actually impressed with how many people showed up. “I thought there might be like 100 people,” he said. He said their energy seared through him.

    On the second jump, Taylor went 17.77 meters, another fantastic jump – but not fantastic enough. He was still almost more than a foot and a half away from the record. Taylor fouled on his third jump. On the fourth, he again jumped 17.77. And then on the fifth jump, he fouled again.
    “I don’t know,” he says. “Maybe I was too pumped up. Maybe there was too much energy.”

    After the fifth jump, Taylor shouted to the crowd, “One more! One more!” This was his last chance to break the world record (and Harrison’s Olympic record of 18.09). When he set up for his final jump, the gold medal already belonged to him. He would enjoy that later.

    Taylor began his routine. Pump up. Stare. Clap. Scream. He could feel the energy surging through him. This was the time. This was the place. This was the record.

    He ran down the runway, took off, and from the second he took off, you just knew this was it. Everything was in perfect sync. His first of three jumps was low and fast (“You don’t want to go too high,” former track star Carol Lewis says). On the second jump he glided. Then he took off for the third.

    When he landed in the sand, it was clear. He was past the yellow line.

    He’d done it. He’d broken the world record. He began to feel that surge inside.

    And it lasted for about one second. Then he looked back and saw … the red flag. He had fouled. In truth, he had fouled badly, his foot was way over the line. “I sort of lost where I was,” he admitted later.

    The great Carl Lewis — Carol’s brother — likes to say: There are no long fouls. “I would hear people say, ‘Oh, I had a long foul,’” Carl Lewis says. “No you didn’t. You didn’t have a jump.” Christian Taylor’s foul isn’t a jump. But, maybe, it is motivation. He can do it. He knows he can do it. “Those,” he says of the foul, “are the things that keep you going. … I still think, very soon, something special is going to happen.”

    Oh, by the way, we should not just overlook the fact that Christian Taylor won his second straight gold medal, becoming the first triple jumper in 40 years to repeat, and the first American to do it since 1904. The disappointment of not breaking the record faded quickly and Taylor cried for joy a little on the medal stand. Olympics only come along every four years. And world records — well, you can break those anytime.

    “He’ll get it one day,” Jonathan Edwards tweeted after the competition. “Great champion and a real gentleman.”

    Why 696 is better than 700

    Numbers, you know, are just numbers. We are the ones that assign them meaning. You take a random set of numbers — 5,694, 23,821, 660, 1,499,850, 56, 444,444 9,349, 82 — and they might mean nothing at all.

    Then, a couple of those numbers might jump out at you. Maybe you saw 660 and thought: Willie Mays. He hit 660 home runs in his career.

    Maybe you saw 56 and thought: Joe DiMaggio. He hit in 56 straight games.

    Maybe you saw 82 and thought: Kobe Bryant. He scored 82 points against the Toronto Raptors, the second-most ever scored in an NBA game.

    Maybe you saw a different number and — WAIT! Kobe Bryant didn’t score 82 points in that game. He scored 81 (yeah, did that on purpose, you can stop writing that angry tweet/email/comment). The point is that numbers can carry powerful meaning. But they carry the meaning we give them.

    All of which brings me to Alex Rodriguez — and why I think it’s better for him to finish with 696 home runs than to finish with 700.

    Baseball fans — American sports fans in general, but particularly baseball fans — have long worshiped at the alter of round numbers. We love ‘em. You have your .300 average, 100 RBIs, 30 homers (or 40 or 50 or 60 or, gasp, 70), 20 wins, 200 strikeouts (or 300) and so on. Round numbers are our guideposts.

    This has long been true of career numbers, too (3,000 hits, 500 homers, 300 wins). We have watched many athletes linger past their expiration date in pursuit of one of those round numbers. Craig Biggio wasn’t as effective his last two years in the big leagues, but he stuck around for 3,000 hits and it’s probably good that he did — it probably made his journey to the Hall of Fame easier. My friend Dale Murphy tried desperately for two more homers so he could get to 400. And so on.

    But let’s get back around to the original point: Numbers are just numbers. Even round numbers don’t mean anything if we decide they don’t. We are the ones who, in the words of Bill James, give numbers the power of language.

    And lately, for obvious reasons, the meanings of some of baseball’s round numbers have lost their meaning. For more than a half-century, 500 home runs meant immortality. It meant the Hall of Fame. It was called “a club” or even “an exclusive club” and baseball fans, on bar bets, would name everyone in it.

    In recent years, though, 500 home runs has lost its wonder. It has raised PED suspicions. It has motivated people to think nostalgically about the past.

    Of course, 600 home runs was an even more exclusive club. Three members — Ruth, Mays, Aaron. That was it: The immortals. Now, it is a mishmash of names that carry varying degrees of curiosity, pride and disgust: Bonds, Sosa, Griffey, Thome and, of course, A-Rod.

    And 700 homers, well…

    The idea of A-Rod hitting 700 home runs began at least 15 years ago. It was exciting then. He was piling up numbers faster than anyone before him. He had 200 home runs at 25 years old. In those days, it seemed likely that Ken Griffey Jr. would challenge Henry Aaron’s home run record. And then A-Rod would roar past both of them.

    And, as we all know, a lot has happened since those days, both in baseball and with Rodriguez. Bonds broke Aaron’s record. A historic rush of people blasted a historic number of homers. And A-Rod’s entire persona turned inside out because of numerous missteps he made, and because of even more harmful choices he made to get around those missteps. Two failed PED tests. A lot of lying. A lost game of chicken with MLB. A year-long suspension. After all that, he was just a shell. He was a shell of himself as a player. But he was also a shell of himself as a baseball figure — the numbers he had put up no longer meant much of anything to anybody. He had 600-plus homers, for instance. Few cared.

    But here’s something about Rodriguez, something that even some of his foremost critics have said: He has been a different public person since returning from his suspension. He hasn’t complained about his plight. He hasn’t made excuses. He hasn’t allowed himself to get embroiled in the controversies that, for him, are always ready to blossom.

    He has been, dare I say it, something like admirable. Even the way he handled the hacky retirement business with the Yankees — with the team forcing him out for roster spots that will be available in two weeks anyway — has been commendable. “With all the screw-ups and how badly I acted” he said, “the fact that I’m walking out the door and Hal (Steinbrenner, Yankees owner) wants me (as) part of the family, that’s hitting 800 home runs for me.”

    That’s a pretty good statement filled with humbleness and regret.

    We talk all the time like we are willing to forgive — happy to forgive — if only people would face their issues and at least seem honestly contrite. Well, A-Rod for the last two or so years has done that. I mean, you never know about a person — all we ever see is the public face — but publicly he has seemed interested in being a better person and he has seemed open to sharing his story to help others.

    That’s why retiring with 696 home runs instead of 700 is a better look. Yes, 700 home runs still maintains some of its splendor — how can it not? That’s the stratosphere of Ruth and Aaron, but it wouldn’t for A-Rod. People would see his 700 homers and think about PEDs and all that went with it. We don’t know what PEDs REALLY did for A-Rod, but at this point it doesn’t even matter. No one would see 700 homers as authentic. The number would not carry any of real meaning.

    But 696 home runs, well, you know what? That might just remind us a little bit of the end, when A-Rod carried himself with some dignity and humility and walked away rather than chase glorious numbers that can never bring him glory.

    To the limit

    If you are a casual gymnastics fan – a once-every-four-years watcher – you have probably lamented the loss of the perfect 10 in the sport. I certainly have. The perfect 10 was what introduced me to gymnastics, what gave the sport its Olympic power. Imagine – the sport seemed to be saying – being PERFECT. That’s a pretty fascinating idea.

    Well, don’t weep for the perfect 10. Its destruction created this glorious and implausible athlete called Simone Biles.

    Let’s talk about the perfect 10 for a moment. I was just 9 years old when Romania’s Nadia Comaneci scored the first 10 in Olympic gymnastics history, but I remember it. If you are old enough, you remember it too. It was 1976, Montreal. This 14-year-old slip of a girl with ribbons in her hair and the poise of a queen did the same routine on the uneven bar that every other gymnast did – it was the compulsory portion of the competition. But she did her routine with more grace and elegance than anyone else.

    The ancient digital scoreboard did not have the bandwidth to display a 10, so instead it showed a 1.00. At first, Comaneci and her coach Bela Karolyi were confused and wondered if she had fouled somehow. Then, as everyone became aware of the perfect score, there was an overwhelming roar and the sport was fundamentally changed. At that very instant, little girls all over the world had a new dream, a bigger dream than before: To go to the Olympics and be perfect like Nadia.

    One of those little girls, Mary Lou Retton, would become the first American to win an all-around gymnastics gold medal. And she would inspire a whole bunch more.

    Well, these 10s were awe-inspiring. But the trouble with the perfect 10 is, well, where do you go from there? It’s like the line from “This is Spinal Tap” about the band’s all black album cover – “There is something about this, that’s so black, it’s like: ‘How much more black could this be?’ And the answer is: “None. None more black.”

    Same thing here: How much more perfect could gymnasts get if they were already getting 10s? And the answer is: None. None more perfect. Once judges started giving out 10s, they could not stop. Comaneci had seven perfect 10s in Montreal. And what is often forgotten is that her rival Nellie Kim had three 10s herself.

    In Moscow, four years later, nine gymnasts scored a Perfect 10 (Comaneci had two more). And then, it gets really crazy. In Los Angeles in 1984, there were a staggering FORTY-FOUR perfect 10s – and remember the Soviet bloc countries, who had dominated gymnastics, didn’t even come to Los Angeles. In Seoul four years after that, there were 28 more perfect 10s.

    At this point, everyone began to realize that things were getting ridiculous. People were tripping over cracks in the sidewalk in New York and getting perfect 10s. So they more or less shut things down. There were only two perfect 10s given out in 1992 and then there were no more. According to Dvora Meyers’ comprehensive book “The End of the Perfect 10,” the last perfect 10 was achieved by Lavinia Milosovici in the floor exercise. The striking part, as Meyers explains, is that Milosovici’s routine was not a difficult as some of the others. This was a crossroads for gymnastics. A question had to be asked.

    Was the sport more interested in:

    1. Perfection?

    2. Evolution?

    Tough one. See, if the ultimate goal of gymnastics is perfection – doing a routine with perfect precision — then there is no great incentive to take chances, to push the boundaries, to try things that could result in bobbles or falls.Comaneci’s first 10, after all, involved only the simplest of moves (and Nadia herself has said her performance was not perfect).

    But if the ultimate goal is evolution then you have to give up very notion of perfection because perfection signals an ending, not a beginning. A perfect 10 suggests that a routine cannot ever be topped — all worlds have been conquered.

    Gymnastics chose evolution. Ten years ago, they dropped the whole idea of the perfect 10 and instead came up with an exceedingly complicated judging system that unquestionable has created a lot of confusion, some drama and more than a little bit of controversy.

    But, if we are criticizing the new system – and mourning the ol’ perfect 10 – we do have to pause and appreciate the extraordinary and unprecedented athleticism now on display in gymnastics. It’s mind-blowing what gymnasts are doing now. This is the direction that the new scoring has taken the sport. And, of course, no one symbolizes this thrilling new age more than three-time world champion Simone Biles.

    It goes without saying that Biles finished first in the all-around qualification on Sunday. Her only “competition” – and let’s put quotation marks around that word – came from her U.S. teammates Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas. The United States team is so much better than every other team that if its four best gymnasts – Biles, Raisman, Douglas and Lauren Hernandez – were all allowed to enter the all-around competition, they would likely finish 1 through 4. Alas, countries are limited to two all-around competitors and so Douglas, the defending Olympic champion, will not compete for the all-around gold. She finished third on the team. She also finished third overall in qualifying.

    In any case, the Americans are so much better than all the other gymnasts and, to be frank about it, Biles is so much better than her extraordinary teammates. The differences are not subtle. On her floor exercise, just as one example, she leaps a foot or two higher than anyone else in the world. On the balance beam, she seems to be bolted to the beam in a way that no one else can match. She is in every way a new sort of gymnast – faster, stronger, higher.

    And this is what the sport now rewards. It prizes groundbreakers. It savors innovation. Every score is built around a start value, which is essentially the degree of difficulty. The harder the routine, the higher the possible score. Biles’ floor exercise is the hardest in the world, the hardest in the history of the world, and so by nailing that routine she scored a staggering 15.733, almost a full point better than any non-American (Raisman with a fantastic routine finished about a half-point behind).

    Yes, of course, Biles would have been great in any era. She brings plenty of grace and energy into her routines. If she had been competing in 1984 with Mary Lou or 1976 with Nadia, she would have been very different, but she would undoubtedly have managed to get some perfect 10s. My colleague and 2008 Olympic silver medalist Samantha Peszek said that she has been judged by both systems – in fact, she scored a perfect 10 in college.

    “That must have been a thrill getting a perfect 10,” I said.

    “Eh,” she replied. She much prefers this current system because this current system challenges gymnasts to challenge themselves.

    And with Simone Biles, well, this is the perfect time for her, the perfect era that pushes her, challenges her, continuously asks her: “OK, what ELSE can you do?” Yes, it’s true, Biles’ spectacular 16.050 on the vault Sunday does not have quite the same ring as a perfect 10. But it does something even better. It make you wonder just how much higher she can go.

    Cheering in the press box

    RIO de JANEIRO – As a sportswriter, the first rule is “no cheering in the press box.” Well, no, actually the first rule is to make sure you get the score right, and then there’s something about spelling names right and an inverted pyramid or something and a bit about the best ways to accumulate Marriott points. But somewhere near the front is the no-cheering thing.

    It makes sense really. A good sportswriter should have passion, but it is passion for the story, passion for the drama of the moment, passion for the athletes and what makes them go and a quest for justice and all that. Passion for a team or player can get in the way of that. It can make close calls look like referee blunders (or, in the extreme, referee dishonesty). It can make a person overlook the other side. Nobody would want a sportswriter to be bloodless, to lose their emotion or a love of sports. But, yeah, no cheering in the press box.

    Monday, I totally blew the rule. I mean, no, I didn’t cheer out loud. But inside, yes, I was cheering like mad. Inside, I lost all sense of composure and distance. I was absolutely and with all my heart cheering for a 100-meter backstroke swimmer named Kathleen Baker.

    A few days ago, I wrote a bit about Kathleen Baker and her battle with Crohn’s Disease. See, our oldest daughter has Crohn’s. We have watched the effects and damage of Crohn’s first hand, and the effects and damage will likely continue for the rest of our daughter’s life. It is a chronic disease. When the flare-ups come, when the bouts of exhaustion hit, when the powerful aversion to food strikes, we as parents find ourselves breathing the same silent prayer: “Please let our daughter live the biggest life she can imagine.”

    So, no, I was not an objective sportswriter Monday night, not for this race.

    Baker has endured so much as a swimmer with Crohn’s. It’s a daily thing. She endures regular treatments and constant blood tests. She must avoid many kinds of foods (dairy, corn, fresh vegetables, nuts, etc. – the hands-off menu becomes locked in your mind). She has had to completely reconstruct her training methods. Baker loved to train – on two-a-days she would beg for a third practice. Now she can only practice once per day and sometimes she has to break from training entirely just to let her body recover. This, it goes without saying, drives her absolutely bonkers.

    And she has had to narrow her focus. If it had not been for Crohn’s, Baker would have had a chance to be one of those multi-gold threats – her coach David Marsh says that her four strokes are all so good that she could probably qualify for more events at the Olympic Trials than any swimmer in the country. But Crohn’s doesn’t give her that option. She concentrated on one and only one race in her Olympic quest – the 100m backstroke. With Crohn’s, she simply does not have the energy to try for more.

    None of this was easy to accept, but for Baker there was really on one dream: Be an Olympic swimmer. She never stopped believing it would happen.

    Yes, of course I was rooting for her. Through her, I was rooting for my daughter.

    Now, I should say, I was not rooting for Baker to win a gold medal. For a story like this, that doesn’t matter. I was just rooting for her to have the best meet of her life, to be ecstatically happy when it was over. To be honest – I was mainly rooting for her to make the final. That was no sure thing coming in. She swam the time of her life in Omaha at the Olympic Trials, and it was still only the seventh-best time in the world. Eight make the finals.

    But something crazy and wonderful happened to Kathleen Baker here in Rio: She found her rhythm. In the qualifying round, she swam the best time. And then in the semifinal, she again swam the best time. Baker did not just make the final, she ended up with the coveted middle lane.

    “This is the first time in my career I’ve actually only focused on one race,” she says as explanation. “So I think I’ve done a lot of fine turning over the last few weeks. And it’s really come together at the end.”

    Monday, as she jumped in the pool to get ready for the start, I thought this: “Come on Kathleen, swim the greatest race of your life.”

    And she did.

    In the end, her greatest race was good enough for a silver medal behind Katinka Hosszu, who had already won gold and smashed the world record in the 400-meter individual medley. But, again, this wasn’t about the color of the medal. When Baker looked up at the clock and saw her fastest-ever time and saw that she had won silver, well, I think of the joy of the greatest days in my life, my wedding day, the days our two daughters were born, the day I got my first byline … that was the joy on her face.

    “I couldn’t be happier,” she said, but she didn’t have to say it. You could see it. Her happiness meter was at 11. Of course it was. So was mine.

    When I asked Baker why she swam her three fastest times here in Rio, she gave me that answer about concentrating on one event and fine tuning, and that’s undoubtedly true. But I think there’s something else too. Four weeks ago, Baker went public about her Crohn’s disease in The New York Times. It was a bold step for a 19-year-old kid about to go to the Olympics; believe me when I tell you that people with Crohn’s don’t like talking about it.

    “I prayed on it a lot,” she says.

    Maybe it’s the sportswriter in me, but I think that’s why she swam her best times. When Baker was first diagnosed with Crohn’s, she would remember asking: Why? It’s the same question my daughter has asked me. It’ the same question every Crohn’s patient has probably asked at some point. Why?

    But “why” is not the important question. The important question is: “What are you going to do about it?” Kathleen Baker decided she was going to go to the Olympics and when she got there she was going to tell every kid with Crohn’s that, not, it won’t be easy, and it won’t be straightforward, but you can live the biggest life you can imagine.

    “I think this is something I’ve been put here to do,” Kathleen Baker says. “I’ve never given up on my dreams. I hope people are the same.”

    Introducing Katie Ledecky

    Until Tuesday night, Katie Ledecky was one of those brilliant athletes/performers/artists who needed just a little bit of translation. Oh sure, you knew she was great, that part was obvious. She won her first Olympic gold medal at 15, an unexpected thrill, at least for the rest of the world. Nobody really knew who she was, and then she went out and swam the second-fastest 800-meter freestyle race ever. In the four years since, she has set 12 different world records, and in the long distance events like the 800m and 1500m (which is not an Olympic event for women); Ledecky routinely wins her races by 10 seconds.

    So, yes, the greatness part was easy to see. But how great? What makes her great? What pushes her to be great? No easy answers there. Excellent writers and analysts have inventively and creatively turned to charts, to analysis of her stroke rate, to investigations of Bethesda, where she grew up. But there has been something stubbornly ineffable and indefinable about Ledecky’s magnificence. When you talk to the people around her – coaches, fellow swimmers, friends – they keep coming back to her drive. She wants to win more than anyone else wants to win. They know it’s a cliché. But they simply can’t think of another way to say it.

    And Ledecky herself, well, suffice it to say she just isn’t too interested in self-analysis and even less interested in self-promotion. It is utterly ridiculous, of course, to judge a celebrity’s popularity based on the number of Twitter followers he or she might have, but it seems relevant that Michael Phelps came into the Olympics with almost two million followers, Ryan Lochte had a million and Missy Franklin about 400,000. Ledecky had barely 50K.

    Before the Olympics began, Ledecky’s swimming teammate Maya DiRado posted a hysterical photo of Ledecky photographing two women. Apparently they had asked her to take their picture – WITHOUT LEDECKY IN IT. They had no idea who she was.

    You get the overwhelming sense that none of this bothers Ledecky or even concerns her. She swims. Her dominance does not impress her. She keeps her goals to herself, she keeps her motivations to herself, she tends to speaks in the most general and detached ways. For instance, after she won her first gold medal of these Games – and smashed the 400m freestyle world record by swimming a time of 3:56.46 – her one quote in the New York Times was: “To see 56 (seconds) up there feels real good.”

    Nor was she especially more expansive in her hometown Washington Post: “We set our goals for the week,” she said. “And to finally hit one of them feels really good.”

    So this is where we were coming into Tuesday night. And then something happened. Ledecky was swimming in the 200m freestyle final, which is her toughest event. Ledecky is better the longer the events. It is not hyperbole at all to say that, barring injury or a catastrophic event, Ledecky will win the 800m freestyle Friday night. She is unbeatable at that distance.

    She is so good at long distance, in fact, that swimming people routinely lament there not being a 1500m freestyle event for women (there is one for men and they do not swim the 800m). There is simply no telling what wonders she could pull off in an Olympic 1500m race. It’s a shame for all of us that we don’t get to see that.

    But her goal for these Olympics was to win at shorter distances as well. This is one of those parts of Ledecky’s virtuosity that requires a bit of translation – it takes different training techniques, different muscles and different attitudes to swim the sprint races like the 200m and the long races like the 800m and 1500m. This is why only one swimmer (the United States’ Debbie Meyer in 1968) has ever swept the 200m, 400m and 800m. Building the speed to win at short distances and the endurance to win at lone ones is a near-impossible combination.

    But Ledecky is a once-in-a-lifetime swimmer – maybe even a once in a millennium swimmer – and so through various training techniques she made herself into the favorite for the 200m freestyle. But, as mentioned, this was her toughest race. She was only a slight favorite over Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom, one of the great sprinters in the world.

    The first 150 meters of the race went more or less like expected. Ledecky actually got out a little bit slower than she would have liked, but she had a breathtaking second and third 50 meters, so she led Sjostrom by four-tenths of a second coming off the wall for the final turn. There was every reason to believe that she would have the advantage the last 50 meters because she is, after all, a distance swimmer who never seems to tire.

    But, see, swimming full blast for 200 meters takes a different sort of energy and rhythm. And on the final lap, you could see it: Katie Ledecky was dying.

    It was fascinating and stunning all at once to watch Sjostrom chase Ledecky down, pull even, perhaps even pull slightly ahead. The Brazilian crowd (with plenty of Americans) was absolutely bonkers. Up to this moment, Ledecky often seemed more machine than swimmer, more Terminator than athlete – meaning that maybe her superiority eluded us because it wasn’t anything we could relate to. She never lost. She never struggled. She never seemed in any danger.

    But now we could see something more. There was danger. There were 25 meters left, and the race was a virtual tie, and Ledecky was unquestionably struggling like we had never seen her struggle.

    “It hurt,” she would say. “It hurt a lot. That was – I came close to throwing up.”

    Then, Ledecky began to fight back. You didn’t have to understand stroke rates or muscle groups or even swimming to get lost in this. Ledecky so clearly turned something else on – this was the drive that the coaches could never quite articulate. This was the greatness that so many of us could not put into words. She began to pull away from Sjostrom, pull away and pull away.

    “I think I just kind like got mad at myself,” she would say. “I was like, ‘No, I’m not going to let this hurt. I’m just going to get my hand on the wall.”

    Ledecky got her hand to the wall 0.35 seconds ahead of Sjostrom. Gold medal No. 3. And then, after catching her breath, she realized what she had done. And she was ecstatic. Well, the whole arena was ecstatic. There was no need for translation this time. We had just seen Katie Ledecky reach deeper into herself than ever before. And when she reached deep she found that something more, that something only the best find. That story never gets old.

    It’s magic

    RIO de JANEIRO — All Usain Bolt does is run. Yes, I realize this is a pretty sketchy way to begin a celebration of Bolt, but let’s follow this silly line for a second.

    All Usain Bolt does is run. People run in just about every sport. True, they don’t run as fast as he does, but they also have various handicaps such as the necessity to dribble a ball at the same time, or they are draped with about 25 pounds worth of padding and armor, or they must run with the unwelcome knowledge that they will likely soon get hit very hard by another person or a wall.

    All Usain Bolt does is run.

    We’ve seen faster runners. He doesn’t run fast compared to, say, a cheetah. Heck, you don’t have to go all the way to cheetah — he doesn’t run as fast as a wildebeest or a greyhound or a kangaroo or a Zebra.

    All Usain Bolt does is run.

    He doesn’t run far either. You know: 100 meters. Maybe 200 meters. The distance you usually have to walk your dog to get her to do her business. His races last 10 seconds, 20 seconds, that’s it, a traffic light, an elevator ride, the time it takes after your swipe your credit card for the little signature box to pop up.

    And so, all this being true, why in the world is Usain Bolt the most thrilling athlete on planet earth? Why is Usain Bolt the one athlete at these Olympics, the only one, who transcends country, who rises up over nationalism, who is front page news in every newspaper on six continents?

    This was the thought that kept echoing Sunday night as Usain Bolt lined up for his third 100-meter Olympic final. It’s the thought that ALWAYS echoes in my mind when watching Bolt: Why is this so awesome? I’ve been lucky enough to be there for all three of Bolt’s Olympic productions, and I can tell you: There’s no rush in sports quite like it. I just don’t know why.

    Well, the first time, in Beijing, there was the element of surprise. We didn’t know him yet, not really, and so everything he did left us thunderstruck. He didn’t just debut at those Olympics, he landed — the way the Beatles landed, the way Apollo 11 landed, the way Pokemon Go landed.

    He was so ridiculously fast then that speed actually bored him. He ran the 100-meters three times, and he pulled up in all three races. In the final, he ran hard for maybe 70 meters, 75, pulled into a coast, and STILL set the world record. How fast could he have run that day? He smiled broadly. “Faster,” was all he would say.

    Later he set the 200-meter world record too, a Michael Johnson record many thought unbreakable. And then Bolt danced around the stadium and celebrated with the crowd and, on the spot, invented the superhero called Usain Bolt.

    The second time, in London, Bolt was more businesslike. We knew him. We had expectations of him. These weighed Bolt down. Yes, he still clowned around, still mugged for the cameras, still wore the golden shoes and still talked the brash talk. But there were doubters to vanquish. He’d had a sketchy couple of years. He’d fouled out of the world championships. He’d been passed in many people’s minds by his countryman Yohan Blake. He wanted to prove the skeptics wrong. He wanted people to acknowledge him as the greatest sprinter who ever lived.

    And so he won the 100 and 200 again, first man to ever win both events at consecutive Olympics.

    Sunday, nobody was entirely sure what to expect. Bolt is 29 now. He was hurt badly enough that he had to pull out of the Jamaican Olympic Trials. Track writers prepared their Bolt obituaries, you know, just in case.

    And then he got to the start, and the crowd in Brazil roared. Then there was silence. There is nothing like that silence before a Bolt race, so filled with anticipation and curiosity and hope that we will see something miraculous. At the gun, Bolt seemed a touch late. American Justin Gatlin and Canadian youngster Andre de Grasse pulled ahead. In this race, unlike Bolt’s other two 100-meter Olympic races, it wasn’t clear that Bolt would catch them.

    And then, suddenly, about 60 or 70 meters into the race, it became clear. Bolt may not be as explosive a runner as he was in Beijing or even London. But, if you put him in front of a crowd and tell him a gold medal is on the line, Bolt will fly. He sprinted by the second- and third-fastest men on earth like they were on Acme jet powered roller skates. And, after an exhilarating three or four second burst, the race was won. Before Bolt got to the finish line, he turned left and mugged for the camera. As he got to the finish line, he pounded his chest in victory.

    His time of 9.81 was considerably slower than London and Beijing, but Bolt already set his times. He’s done racing the clock. Winning is all that matters now.

    After it ended — while Bolt picked up a huge stuffed Olympic mascot and took off his golden shoes and posed for the cameras and entertained the crowd — I wondered again, like I’ve wondered for eight years, why his races are so gloriously wonderful and gripping and electrifying. Why he amazes the world. All he does is run.

    Then again, all Adele does is sing. All J.K. Rowling does is write books. All Morgan Freeman does is narrate. All Chuck Norris does is kick ass. Yes, all Usain Bolt does is run. But when you watch a person do something better than it’s ever been done before, it stops being just that thing. Somehow, it morphs into magic.

    To the golfers

    To: Jordan Spieth
    Cc: Jason Day; Rory McIlroy; Dustin Johnson; Adam Scott; Hideki Matsuyama
    Bcc: Vijay Singh
    Subject: Rio!

    Hi guys, sorry for the bulk email. I just wanted to see if you had a chance to watch any of that Rafael Nadal-Juan Martin del Potro tennis match from here at the Olympics. It was pretty thrilling stuff. Those two guys blasted thunderclaps at each other for three crazy sets. Then the third set went into a tiebreaker. Each point was like a novella. The crowd was delirious, practically incoherent with joy. It was incredible.

    Anyway, I know tennis is not your sport but I was wondering if you happened to see Nadal in that tiebreaker. You know, Nadal is a pretty accomplished guy. Fourteen grand slam titles. Nine French Opens in 10 years. Four-time Davis Cup champ.

    And there he was in that tiebreaker, grinding with all his heart, playing with every ounce of emotion in his body, caring so deeply. Why?

    Because this is the Olympics.

    I guess the point is, all due respect, you guys blew it.

    Sure, I understand why you decided not to come to Rio to play golf. I get it. Golf is a weird fit for the Olympics. The Olympic Games really should be the Mount Olympus for sports, meaning it should be each sport’s most important event — like it is for for track and swimming and gymnastics and dozens of other sports. It can never be Olympus for men’s golf. No, men’s golf has the Masters and the U.S. Open and the Ryder Cup and the President’s Cup and the Open Championship and the PGA Championship and the World Golf Championships and the Players’ Championship — so many championships.

    And yes, it’s true, golf wasn’t in the Olympics when you were kids, so you never dreamed about being here, never planned a spot in your life for the Olympic Games.

    And, yes, there were concerns about Brazil — are concerns about Brazil — about Zika and crime and security and political upheaval and logistical breakdowns. I get it.

    But you blew it, guys.

    You blew it in two ways. One of those ways has been discussed at length but it remains true — you blew it for golf. It seems that in the countless warnings and cautions and bad omens leading into these Rio Games, you forgot something basic: Just how BIG the Olympics really are. Leave it to USA Boxing coach Billy Walsh, in his glorious Irish brogue, to explain: “There were, what, 40 million people around the world watching Pacquiao-Mayweather?” he asked. “We have 3.5 BILLION people watching the Olympics. Forget everything else. This is the biggest (bleeping) show on earth.”

    The biggest (bleeping) show on earth, guys, and you had a chance to be a part of it. You had a chance to show new parts of the world just how wonderful your sport is. You had a chance to support women’s golf, to support amateur golf, to blow the mind of some kids who might never have seen this crazy game before.

    Yes, you had a chance to give the sport you love, the sport that has given you dream lives, a boost, a big stage. I don’t like the phrase “grow the sport.” But everybody knows that golf is in a bit of a lull. Nike just pulled out of the equipment business. Participation stagnated. The Tiger hangover isn’t going away anytime soon. Nobody expects that the Olympics turns everything around. But it’s something new and fresh. It’s an opportunity.

    “They don’t want to promote golf and they don’t realize how lucky they are,” an angry Gary Player told reporters. “They don’t realize what the Olympic Games can mean for the sport.”

    Thing is, I suspect you did realize it. You just decided to pass anyway. You’ve talked about it. Rory, you talked bluntly and with admirable honesty about your disinterest in growing the game. “I don’t feel like I’ve let the game down at all,” you said. “I didn’t get into golf to try and grow the game. I got into golf to win championships and win major championships.” I respect you being that honest. And I think it’s an astonishingly bad attitude about a sport that earns you tens of millions of dollars.

    But forget what being here might have done for golf. I’m more interested in the second way you blew it — guys, you blew it for yourselves.

    This was, literally, a once-in-a-lifetime chance for you. Yes, there will be other Olympics and at least one of them will have golf in it. But it will never again be the FIRST Olympics with golf. It will never be like it is here on Sunday, with a beautiful blue Brazilian sky and a miraculous little golf course carved out of nothing and a sellout crowd coming out to see a sport many of them have never seen before.

    You will never play in a tournament that has the spirit of this one, where all the odds were stacked against it and yet it came together and people had the time of their lives.

    You will never again see it like it was at the 18th when fans gave Brazilian golfer Adilson da Silva such an ovation that he broke down in tears.

    Or how about that moment when Rickie Fowler and Bubba Watson got to go hang out at the practice pool with the U.S. swimmers. As they left, the swimmers rang the bell. This is what they do whenever one of them heads out for a race.

    Fowler and Watson did not know what was happening, so they turned around. And they saw and heard the U.S. swim team, the greatest swim team in the world, chanting “USA! USA!” for them.

    “Words can’t really put it into perspective,” Fowler would say.

    You think that happens at the Buick Championship?

    Or how about a group of Brazilian fans following around Matt Kuchar just so they can shout “Koooch!” as he charged on Sunday.

    Or how about coming down the stretch on a Sunday at the Olympics with what turned out to be a fantastic leaderboard — Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson and Matt Kuchar shooting it out for themselves, for their countries, for a little piece of history.

    This isn’t just a golf tournament. This is different. You play golf, sure, but then you go watch some of the best athletes in the world — and they’re all incredible. The athleticism you see at team volleyball or rowing, it’s overwhelming. You walk around with synchronized swimmers and team handball players and shooters and archers and judokas and gymnasts, and they all speak different languages, and they all look so different. And you’re connected to them. You’re all Olympians.

    You missed it. Hey, that’s not to say that it’s perfect here — it isn’t. Rio is a sprawling and complicated place and while there is so much spirit here, there is anger, too, and there is poverty, there are inconveniences, issues, mosquitoes, risks. Just like everywhere. You guys don’t live in a bubble. This is a big and tangled world. You don’t let these things keep you from living.

    In the end, I don’t know if golf belongs in the Olympics. But that’s not the point — golf IS in the Olympics, and you guys had a chance to be here at the start, to be part of this bold experiment for the game you grew up playing. And you decided to stay away. You had a chance, Rory, to win Ireland’s first gold medal at these Games and only the second gold medal in the last 20 years. You had a chance, Jason and Adam, to be part of the Australian Olympic team, which is like one giant party train moving through Rio.

    You had a chance, Jordan, to be part of the happiest week in golf. And that’s what it is here: Happy. It isn’t like any other golf event on earth. Nobody is saying it is as important as a major championship or the Ryder Cup or any other big money tournament. It isn’t as important.

    But that was never the point. Why does it have to be like a major? When Rafael Nadal was playing Juan Martin del Potro in that third set tiebreaker, with a shot at a gold medal on the line, he wasn’t thinking: “Yes, I will try, but this isn’t as important as Wimbledon.” He wasn’t thinking, “I would sure like to win, but I do not feel the same emotions I would feel in New York at the U.S. Open.”

    No, he pushed to the same level of extreme, and he got lost in the moment, and he was utterly heartbroken when he lost, because these are the Olympics. True, it’s not a 100-meter race against Usain Bolt. It’s not the 200-meter butterfly against Michael Phelps. It’s not a balance beam duel with Simone Biles.

    But it is the Olympics. The biggest (bleeping) show on earth. And I’m sorry you missed it.