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News & Features » August 2016 » The Rio Dispatches: Day 1

The Rio Dispatches: Day 1

We’re absolutely thrilled that Akashic author Anthony Ervin is currently competing at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio! Get a behind-the-scenes look at his part in the 4×100 freestyle relay with a special dispatch from his Chasing Water: Elegy of an Olympian coauthor Constantine Markides.

ChasingWater_currentThe Rio Dispatches: Day 1
by Constantine Markides

In 2012 I watched Anthony Ervin race at the London Olympics in the finals of the 50 free. I would never have expected then that four years later I’d be arriving in Rio to watch him compete in that same event. Nor would I have expected that by the time I arrived he would have already won a gold medal, the medal that eluded him his entire career, as a member of the 4×100 free relay.

It’s the gold medal he’s always wanted, the medal that in 2000 the Australians deprived him and his teammates of, the medal for what is arguably the most exciting event in Olympic swimming. A few days ago he anchored the 4×100 prelims relay, swimming the fastest time of the four Americans. Normally, this would guarantee him a spot in the finals relay. But the coaching staff decided to instead put his prelims teammate Ryan Held in the final, even though Anthony’s split was faster.

When I first found out, I was overcome by disbelief, followed by outrage. Anthony was the experienced one, the team captain, and the fastest in the morning. Not to mention his entire swimming career—with its dramatic stock market–like graph of ups and downs and flatlines—had, over almost two decades, been gathering momentum toward this race. I wasn’t the only one who felt he had been shafted. As soon as the decision was announced, my phone started dinging with angry, explicit texts. As readers of Chasing Water might easily imagine, Anthony’s mother, Sherry, was not all too pleased.

The only person who was gracious about it was Anthony. I exchanged a few texts with him afterward and he bore no rancor or resentment. For him, it was all about putting the team first and being a good captain. And that night, from the stands, he watched as the US won gold. Even though he hadn’t swum in the finals, and even though he didn’t stand on the podium, he was a member of the prelims, and so he medaled. Finally got that gold I always wanted, he messaged me later. 

One doesn’t think of winning the gold as ever being bittersweet (unless it’s surrounded by doping suspicions, as is true of some other medals at these Games), but I remember feeling the complicating sense that his realization of a decades-long desire was tinged with injustice. He had astonishingly made the relay and furthermore won gold. But I couldn’t entirely let go of the fact that he had been left off the finals relay, probably because he was viewed as a wild card (this despite near flawless performances at Olympic Trials, at training camp time trials, and now at the Olympics). But then, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this was also a fitting way for Anthony to win that gold medal. Back in 2000, before his relay prelims, he and his teammate Jason Lezak were trash-talking over which one of the two of them would make finals; and although he swam in finals, cocksure, certain of victory, the US ended up taking silver. This time, despite winning prelims, he graciously accepted the coaches’ decision and ceded the televised primetime glory of the night swim to the younger Ryan Held, who did swim well. In doing so, Anthony won that gold medal without hubris, as a captain in the stands, cheering on his teammates. And it may even prove to be a motivating impetus for his 50 free. Despite at last getting that gold, he was deprived of that finals race, and that may leave him hungrier for his signature event, the 50 free. 

Anyway, that’s the backlog (or back-blog) on Anthony before today’s prelims swim. Meanwhile, Brazilians try to put on a good face amidst the political upheaval and recession, despite over seventy thousand of their countrymen being displaced or evicted to make way for the venues and despite getting pummeled from massive social services budget cuts. And all this to fund the neoliberal Trojan Horse, as our editor Dave Zirin calls it, that is the Olympics (you could even call this one a neoliberal Trojan Hydra considering the World Cup was last year). For one month, we the foreign hordes and companies charge through to party and pillage and then leave the Brazilians to deal with the mess and hangover. Our primary concern, however, is the very unlikely possibility of Zika. (I asked our taxi driver if she knew anyone who had gotten it and she said no.) Some athletes, mostly golfers, have decided not to attend at all, whimpering over concern for their families. Just imagine that: making the Olympics as an athlete (in the case of the golfers, of an Olympics where your sport is debuting for the first time since 1904) and not going because you’re afraid of the very small probability that you will get something that will probably just lead to a fleeting, mild, flulike illness. Tellingly, it’s the top-ranked male golfers who have pulled out, and none of the female ones. Makes perfect sense, considering the greatest danger from Zika is to pregnant women.

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ConstantineMarkides

CONSTANTINE MARKIDES is a New York–based swim trainer and former correspondent for the international daily newspaper Cyprus Mail. He has worked with CNN’s Anderson Cooper and was featured on CBC and NPR’s Marketplace. His essays and fiction have been published in various magazines and journals, including Rolling Stone. A high school state champion swimmer, Markides also swam for Columbia University. He is the coauthor of Chasing Water.

Posted: Aug 11, 2016

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