Neymar nails the final penalty kick to win gold
Brazil captain Neymar broke down in tears after scoring the penalty that earned his country’s first ever football gold medal (Photo: Getty Images)

Brazil had so much to be proud of at the 2016 Rio Olympics:

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Players who did not travel on the fatal flight paid tribute to their teammates at the club’s stadium in Chapecó. Photograph: Douglas Magno/AFP/Getty Images

“We ask for permission to approach, we have a fuel problem!”

“Nine thousand feet! “Vectors! Vectors!”

Those were, according to this article, reported to be the last words of the pilot who, on November 29, suddenly lost control of a plane carrying 77 people, including members of the Chaepecoense soccer team. The Chapecoense team was travelling from Sao Paulo, Brazil to Medellin, Colombia when their Avro RJ85 jet crashed, killing all but 6 fortunate passengers, three of them members of the team of 22.

Up to that moment, Chapecoense was living large, playing the role of lovable upstart, making the finals of the Copa Sudamericana, a major soccer tournament in South America. From a small town called Chapeco in Western Brazil, the Chapecoense Warriors were playing well against the rich teams since the end of the Rio Olympics in August, strong teams like Argentina’s Independiente and San Lorenzo. But tragedy struck unexpectedly and football fans across South America mourned, but none more so painfully than the hometown fans. Here’s how The Guardian described it:

Among townspeople, there is a sense that the loss of most of their plucky team of giantkillers wasn’t just a local tragedy, but something bigger: the loss of a tight, well-organised, and competent unit that stood out for its unexpected success in a country that has lost its way.

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This is a deeply divided nation which in the past year has been roiled by a debilitating recession, a gargantuan corruption scandal and the divisive impeachment of an unpopular leftwing president. At times it has seemed that Brazil is no longer sure how to manage itself; Chapecoense was a small team that knew exactly what it was doing.

In the history of aviation disasters involving sports teams, soccer squads have had more than their fair share of tragedies. As listed in this article, there was the crash in Turin Italy in 1949 that claimed the lives of 22 members of the Tornio soccer club. Nine years later, 8 members of Manchester United were among 23 deaths in a crash outside Munich airport in Germany. And in 1987, a plane carrying members of Alianza Lima crashed in the Pacific Ocean, killing 16 players and the team coach.

Olympic teams have not been spared. The United States ice figure skating team lost its entire 18-member team when it’s plane to Prague, Czechoslovakia crashed in Belgium. And then there was the US men’s boxing team, a group of 22 boxers aspiring to a shot at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, before the American government mandated a boycott of those Games. I wrote about that tragedy here.

The video below was taken just after their draw with San Lorenzo, which sent them to the Copa Sudaamericana finals, which was cancelled. Their elation only compounds the horrific sense of loss.

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Dr Katsuya Takasu and the 2016 Nigerian soccer team in Rio.

They were training in Atlanta since early July, and expected to fly into Rio de Janeiro a few days prior to the opening of the Olympic Games. But when it was time for the Nigerian soccer squad to leave, they learned that the Nigerian government had not paid for their tickets to Brazil. Days were ticking down to their opening match on August 4, and still tickets had not been secured. Perhaps an indication of financial issues, the Nigerian coach had actually gone unpaid the previous five months.

Finally, funds were transferred, tickets were purchased and the Nigerian “dream team” as their fans called them landed in the jungle city of Manaus, Brazil at 2:19 pm on Thursday afternoon. Their first game was to take place less than 7 hours later against Japan. Exhausted, tense from the monumental worry that they might not make it to the stadium in time for their opening match, the Nigerians took the field. And to add insult to injury, the organizers played the wrong national anthem for Nigeria.

I watched that game against Japan. I had no idea what the Nigerian team had been through. But I do recall a very fast and energetic match – four goals were scored in the first two minutes, two apiece by each team. One would think, based on what we now know, that Nigeria would have faded into the Brazilian night. But in the second half, Nigeria continued to attack, tacking on three more goals to lead 5-2. Japan would indeed take advantage of Nigeria’s tired legs towards the end to pull within one, but Nigeria emerged victorious 5-4.

Enter Dr. Katsuya Takasu.

Takasu is a cosmetic surgeon who runs Takasu Clinic. For those of us who live in Japan, you can’t help but see his commercials, the latest one of him flying in a helicopter in Dubai, interacting with foreigners, punctuated at the end with him smiling into the camera saying his trademark “Yes! Takasu Clinic!”

He’s a cosmetic surgeon, so maybe you can forgive him for creating these somewhat solipsistic commercials. But no doubt, he’s an interesting person. Putting his money where his mouth is, he invested in surgery in his own face to demonstrate how dramatically younger he could make you look. In fact, he recorded his transformation and showed the world how he did it. It’s not a video for the weak of heart.

Of course, doctors are known to play golf. Takasu took that to an incredible level by setting a Guinness World Record for a pair of golfers – completing 261 holes in 12 hours (with the aid of a golf cart).

But more seriously, Takasu is generous with his money, and has developed a reputation as a philanthropist. In 1995, Takasu organized cosmetic surgeons in the aftermath of the 1995 Great Hanshin earthquake in Japan, which killed over 6,000 people. He arranged for free plastic and reconstructive surgery to victims of the earthquake.

When Takasu heard about the plight of the Nigerian Dream Team, he launched into action. He went to the Nigerian Embassy in Tokyo with the intent of asking their help in sending the team USD200,000, with incentive bonuses if they medaled. He realized that it would be better if he hand delivered the contribution, so he promised to fly to Brazil and root them on to victory.

2016 Rio Olympics - Men's First Round - Group B Nigeria v Japan
Nigeria beats Japan in soccer in Rio.

As it turns out, Nigeria went on to defeat Sweden to make it to the quarterfinals, and then Denmark to make it to the semifinals. They finally lost to Germany, but then defeated Honduras to earn a bronze medal. Takasu arrived to award the Nigerian team a magnanimous sum of USD390,000.

The outpouring of gratitude from Nigerians was overwhelming. Oma Akatuba, a German-based Nigerian journalist, said this in his video.

This video is specially dedicated to a man who is not a Nigerian, to a man who is not an African, but saw something good in Nigeria. He saw something good in Nigerian football at a time when the Nigerian team at the Olympic Games was completely abandoned by the Minister of Sports, the Nigerian Football Federation, and of course the Nigerian government. This man came into the picture and donated a heavy sum of money to the Dream Team of Nigeria, winning bronze at the just-concluded Olympic Games in Brazil, Rio 2016. His name is Dr Katsuya Takasu.

For more enthusiasm from Nigeria, watch this rather entertaining video report from Adeola Fayehun, who begins her broadcast with a joyful “Praise him! Praise him!” in reference to Takasu.

What can you say, except “Katsuya Takasu – Yes!”

 

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Jefinho celebrates his equalising goal against China (Photo: Marcio Rodrigues/MPIX/CPB)

Neymar delivered for Brazil at the 2016 Olympic Games. Now it’s time for “Paralympic Pele”.

That moniker feels a bit patronizing…until you see Brazil football sensation, Jeferson da Conceicao Goncalve, aka Jefinho, weave through a crowd with the ball in total control before blasting it by the goal keeper. It’s amazing to watch under any circumstances, but when you realize that the football players on the pitch are blind, you realize you’re watching something outer worldly.jefinho-portrait

If not for Jefinho, Brazil would not have made it to the finals against Iran in five-aside football at the 2016 Rio Paralympics. Brazil won 1-0, to take gold for their fourth straight Paralympics since the sports debut at the 2004 Athens Games.

“I always thought about this moment: listening to our national anthem in a packed stadium at home with a Paralympic gold medal around my neck,” he said in this article from paralympic.org. “We are used to winning, but doing it in our country is different and beautiful.”

In the semi-finals against China, with Brazil behind 1-0, Jefinho took control and scored two spectacular goals. Imagine playing five-on-five soccer with blindfolds on. You can hear the sound of the ball as they are designed with small objects inside that rattle around and indicate audibly where the ball is for the players. They can hear the directions of their coach and other players, as well as their goal keeper, who under the rules, can be fully sighted.

That’s why it’s so important for the spectators to keep it quiet so that the players can perform. And yet, this is Brazil, where they like to get loud, and it’s soccer, which is religion in Brazil.

“It’s so difficult. We’re trying but we really want to shout,” said Sonia Lima, in this Reuters article. “When they get near the goal I just want to scream: ‘Take a shot dammit.'”

Fortunately, Jefinho did. Watch the video below in amazement!

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Far left, China’s Fu Yuanhui, bronze medalist in the 100-meter backstroke
When you think of Brazil, you think of samba, you think of Carnivàle, you think of joy. And the Rio Olympics had its share of joyful moments.

Here are a few of my favorite examples:

Fu Yuanhui: The Chinese may have had an off-par Olympics in terms of medal haul, at least to them, but Chinese swimmer, Fu Yuanhui, became an overnight sensation. While the Chinese expect gold from every one of their athletes, the Chinese and the rest of the world fell in love with the 20-year-old bronze medalist in the 100-meter backstroke. There were few more expressive, more unfiltered, more joyful than the young woman from Hangzhou. Watch the clip for a few examples of why Fu Yuanhui lit up the Twitterverse with delight.

Justin Rose: The golfer on Team GB was outspoken in his criticism of other professional golfers foregoing the Olympic re-boot of golf after over a century. Justin Rose won gold in men’s golf, stating “It’s right up there with anything I’ve achieved in the game.” Rose won on skill and determination. But on the 189-yard par-3 fourth hole in the first round of the tournament, Rose walked into a bit of luck with his 7-iron, nailing the first ever Olympic hole in one. Watch the video to see Rose’s pleasant surprise.

David Katoatau: If you have never heard of the Republic of Kiribati, you may be excused. This nation of 33 atolls and reef islands spread out over 3.5 million square kilometers lies on the equator in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. On one of those islands resides David Katoatau, who came in 15th at the 2008 Beijing Games in the 85kg weight class, and 17th at the 2012 London Olympic Games in the 94kg weight class. At the Rio Olympics, Katoatau managed only 14th in the 105kg weight class, but came in first in the Olympic dance competition. In his last failed attempt in Rio, Katoatau fell over, rolled on his back, flipped himself up, hugged the weights, and started the most joyful funky dance you’d ever see from a weightlifter.

Monica Puig: If you weren’t following tennis in the Olympics closely and tuned on the television for the women’s finals, you would be wondering, Who is Monica Puig? Even casual fans of tennis would likely have recognized Australian Open champion, Angelique Kerber, but you could be excused if you didn’t know the unseeded Puig. 

However, every time Puig won, her home country of Puerto Rico began to rumble and roar. In an economic mess, Puerto Ricans have had little to cheer about in recent months. But as Puig continued her march to the medal round, an entire country stopped to watch. With monumental expectations on her shoulders, Puig did the unthinkable – she upset Kerber. Her medal was gold, her tears were of joy.

Monica Puig's tears of joy
Monica Puig cries tears of joy.
Brazil’s Soccer Team: When Neymar sent the winning penalty kick at the finals of the Olympic soccer championships, not only did Neymar collapse in tears of joy, the entire country of Brazil exploded in celebration.

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Brazilian goaltender Weverton rushes to celebrate with teammate Neymar.

Neymar knocked in the winning goal, securing Brazil’s first Olympic gold medal in its religion of soccer. But it was Weverton the goalie who arguably won the match for the Seleção, with his lunge to the left and save of Germany’s Nils Petersen’s penalty kick in the last moments of the Olympic finals.

Surprisingly, Weverton wasn’t even on the team five days prior to the start of the 2016 Rio Olympics. How did he get on the team, and find himself in the most intense moment, inside the pressure cooker of Maracanã Stadium, during Brazil’s most important sporting event of their Olympic Games?

To be blunt, Weverton was lucky. Three times, circumstances conspired to change his fate dramatically.

One of the world’s most prestigious football tournaments, the Copa América, is held in South America pitting the best of Latin America, with nations from North America and Asia. Unfortunately, Brazil had been going through a funk, and the team’s performance at Copa América in June was poor – so poor that team manager Dunga got the sack, a little less than 2 months before the start of the Rio Olympics. In a state of uncertainty and flux, Rogério Micale was appointed coach of the Brazilian squad that would assemble for the Olympics. While Dunga did not appear to consider Weverton for his Olympic squad, apparently Micale did.

The second stroke of luck was an injury. Micale had Fernando Prass as his starting goalkeeper. Prass, at the age of 37, was having a fantastic year leading his team, Palmeiras, to the top of the Brazilian first division. On July 25, 11 days before the start of the Rio Olympics, Prass injured his right elbow. He was expected to make it back to the pitch on August 1, but his injury didn’t get better fast enough to satisfy Micale.

The third circumstance that bent the heavens in Weverton’s direction was distance. Micale’s first alternative to Prass was Diego Alves, the goalkeeper for Spanish club Valencia CF. But Alves was not in Brazil, and with precious few days left before the start of the Summer Games, Micale needed someone in Brazil to begin preparations right away. That’s when he decided to place a phone call to the captain and goalkeeper for Atlético Paranaense, a professional football club in Curitiba, Brazil. His name was Weverton, and he was getting off the plane returning from this team’s loss to Sport Recife the night before.

Weverton makes the save
Weverton stops Germany’s penalty kick.

That phone call would drastically change his life. Coach Micale wanted Weverton, who at the age of 28 had never been selected for the national team, to join the Brazilian national team for the Olympics. Not only that, with the start of the Olympics only five days away, Micale wanted Weverton minding the nets as the starter.

How would Weverton Pereira da Silva do? Through the preliminary games, the knockout quarterfinals and semifinals – through five consecutive Olympic matches, Brazil and the newfound goalie did not give up a single goal. It took nearly 60 minutes into Brazil’s sixth match before Weverton gave up a score, a strike hit so sharply by Maximilian Meyer of Germany that no goalie would have had a chance. In other words, Weverton had already paid back the faith Micale had invested in Weverton. But it was at the very end of the finals, on that fateful kick by Petersen, when Micale’s investment paid dividends.

Weverton, the accidental Olympian, saved the day, the match and quite possibly, the Olympics for Brazil.

Neymar nails the final penalty kick to win gold
Brazil captain Neymar broke down in tears after scoring the penalty that earned his country’s first ever football gold medal (Photo: Getty Images)
It wasn’t a 7-1 victory. The universe did not bestow such poetic justice, the redemptive opportunity for Brazil to equal their slaughter at the hands of Germany at the World Cup in 2014. Brazil hosted that World Cup, losing to Germany by 6, and ending that tournament in shame.

On August 20, 2016, the day before the closing of the Rio Olympic Games, Brazil defeated Germany in the soccer finals, on the razor-thin edge of a penalty shootout. Despite the brilliance and success of Brazilian soccer over the decades, Brazil had never won an Olympic championship. On their 13th attempt, Brazil struck gold, and all of Brazil exhaled, and then danced.

After a tense 90 minutes of play that left the two powers tied 1-1, and then an additional 30 minutes of extra time, it came down to penalty kicks. Germany’s Matthias Ginter was up first, and he slotted the ball into the lower right corner, the Brazilian goalie, Weverton, guessing correctly but not able to handle it. The German goalie, Timo Horn guessed correctly on Renato Augusto‘s shot, but the ball zipped into the upper right hand corner of the net. On Germany’s second attempt, Weverton had Serge Gnabry‘s shot lined up, but it slipped under his arm pit and into the net. Marquinhos of Brazil sent his shot into the upper left hand corner of the net to equalize. And on it went, Julian Brandt, then Rafinha, Niklas Sule, and then Luan, their aim, all true.

When Germany’s Nils Petersen stepped up, with penalty kicks tied at 4-4, momentum was hinting at another score from Petersen. But momentum doesn’t last forever. Petersen’s shot went to Weverton’s left, and the Brazilian goalie got his hands out to block it. When the ball fell harmlessly aside, the Maracanã exploded. Everyone watching knew Brazil was on the verge of a magical moment.

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Weverton saves the match. Foto: LEONARDO BENASSATTO/FUTURA PRESS/FUTURA PRESS/ESTADÃO CONTEÚDO
Up stepped Brazilian sensation Neymar, who had performed superbly during this Olympic run, and in fact scored Brazil’s only goal on a perfect free kick in the first half of the match. Gold and glory for Brazil was his alone to grasp, as billions around the world held their breath.

Neymar nailed it, his knees buckling as he fell to the grass. A flood of tears streamed down his face, tears for so long kept at bay by the repressive weight of a nation. As he lay there on his back, his hands covering his face, there was nothing left for Neymar to give. But to Brazilians, he had given them everything as the stadium erupted in a cathartic fit of joy.

The fears of the zika virus. The pollution of Guanabara Bay. The impeachment of the Brazilian president. The worst economy in decades. The constant news of corruption and crimes, and the concomitant and constant criticism Brazilians endured not only by foreigners but within their own ranks.

At the moment the ball hit the back of the net, Neymar made it all right.

Sasson and El Shehaby
Or Sasson of Israel extending a hand to fellow judoka Islam El Shehaby of Egypt, to no avail.

The man in blue lay on the mat, a victim of a well-played seoi-nage, staring at his fingers for over ten seconds, while the man in white stood waiting.

When they faced each other, the Israeli, Or Sasson (in white) looked to the referee and bowed to the Egyptian, Islam El Shehaby (in blue). El Shehaby did not return the bow, which is essentially a requirement at the end of a judo bout. Sasson, who eventually won bronze in the  +100kg class, then walked up to El Shehaby and extended his hand, but the Egyptian judoka turned away and refused to shake his hand.

Was this a personal gripe? Was this a geo-political spat? However you look at it, El Shehaby earned significant points in quest of the title of Rio’s Biggest Sore Loser.

Close behind is American goaltender, Hope Solo, who was in net when the vaunted and heavily favored US women’s soccer squad lost to Sweden on penalty kicks. She was rightly proud of her team for showing “a lot of heart” for coming back to tie Sweden 1-1 late in the match, but then lost control of her emotions (again) by saying post-match that the Swedes played like “bunch of cowards.”

When we perform at the highest levels and win, win so often that losing is hard to come to grips with, words and actions can sometimes be unpredictable at best, shameful at worst. At the 2010 Winter Olympics, reigning champion in men’s figure skating, Evgeni Plushenko of Russia, lost to American, Evan Lysack. Plushenko’s reaction: “I was positive I won. I suppose Evan needs a medal more than I do. Maybe it’s because I already have one.”

Back in 1964, at the Tokyo Olympics, South Korean boxer Dong Kih Choh was suddenly disqualified in the first round of his bout against Stanislaw Sorokin of the Soviet Union. He was so peeved that he grabbed a chair, and refused to leave the ring for about an hour.

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Dong Kih Choh, south Korean Featherweight, from XVIII Olympiad Volume 10

And then there is the infamous American ice hockey squad. In 1996, the NHL and the IOC came to an agreement that enabled NHL pros to participate in the Olympics. At the 1998 Nagano Winter Games, the Americans, which included such stars as Brett Hull and Jeremy Roenick, performed miserably, winning only one game against a weak Belarus squad. After getting thumped by the Czech squad, the eventual gold medalists, the Americans are said to have washed away their sorrows in alcohol. Not sated by liquor, they turned to vandalism: smashing chairs, chucking fire extinguishers off the balcony, and causing several thousand dollars in damage. Equally distasteful  – no one on the team acknowledged any bad behavior.

A few weeks later, team captain Chris Chelios sent the Nagano Olympic committee a check for $3,000, and wrote in a letter, “I want to take this opportunity to apologize to the people of Japan, the Japanese Olympic committee, the USOC, and to all hockey fans throughout the world. Bitter frustration at our own level of play caused a few team members to vent their anger in a way which is not in the tradition of NHL/Olympic sportsmanship.”

Well, at least they apologized.

I kinda doubt we’ll see an apology from El Shehaby and Solo…..

US Women's soccer team 2016

292 women will represent the United States at the Rio Olympics. That is more than the 263 men on the US team, and more than the total team rosters of 196 of the 206 other nations competing in Rio.

Ever since the United States passed a law (Title IX)  in 1972 barring sex discrimination in education programs receiving funds from the federal government, girls have been able to develop their athletic skills to the point where US women have become dominant in team sports.

Before women’s softball was removed from the list of Olympic sports, US women had won three of the four gold medals from 1996 to 2008. The US Women’s basketball team has won 7 of the past 8 Olympic championships, including the past 5. The US Women’s soccer team has won 4 of the 5 Olympic competitions ever held, including the last 3.

The US women’s basketball team over the past five Olympics are 41-0. With WNBA stars Brittney Griner, Tamika Catchings, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi on the team, it is likely, as NPR put it, that the toughest challenge they will face is in their intersquad scrimmages.

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(L-R) Elena Delle Donne, Tamika Catchings, Candace Parker, and Sue Bird

The women’s teams from Australia and Spain will be the toughest competition for the US as those teams have players with considerable international experience. But no one is expecting anything less than gold for the female cagers from America.

The US women’s soccer team is also a near lock on gold in Rio. Not only are they Olympic champions, they are also world champions after their 5-2 destruction of rivals Japan in the 2015 FIFA World Cup. On top of that, the Olympics feature only 12 teams, half of those which compete in a World Cup. Thus, powers like Japan and Norway did not make the cut. However, Germany will be on the Brazilian pitches, and will post the biggest threat to the US. Rivals France and Brazil will also be looking to depose the US.

With stars Hope Solo, Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan and Crystal Dunn, the US Women’s soccer team is expected to romp to its fourth straight gold medal.

  1. Have you ever exercised?
  2. Have you ever pushed yourself to exhaustion in a workout?
  3. Have you ever pushed yourself to exhaustion, want to stop, but push yourself even further?
  4. Have you ever pushed yourself to the point where your body rebels, and whatever liquids or solids are in your stomach shoot up your system and out your mouth in an acidy expulsion?

I can say yes, to the first two questions, but for Olympians, the answer to #4 is yes, on a daily basis.

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Watch the above video to see how hard Team USA Olympians push themselves in the quest for gold and glory.

  • I get to the pool by about five o’clock, do about 45 minutes of prep work, and then I’m in the water at 6am. We see the sunrise in the morning when we’re already halfway through our practice. Natalie Coughlin, swimmer and 12-time Olympic medalist
  • It’s all about training when no one is watching. It’s all about training on holidays because I know most people aren’t training when they’re on holidays. Carli Lloyd, two-time gold medalist in soccer
  • Nothing is….”Oh this is fun! I enjoy the pain, the lactic acid, the burn that flows through my veins!” None of that. You don’t want any of that.Dawn Harper-Nelson, two-time 100-meter Olympic medalist