Inside Ted Ligety's masochistic plan to take over the ski universe, starting with the Sochi Olympics ... IT'S A JULY MORNING in Park City, Utah, and U.S. Ski Team star Ted Ligety, six of his teammates, and I are locked in an intense game of basketball. From the first inbound, Ligety, who is five foot eleven and 185 pounds of power, drives hard, tosses elbows, and blows through picks. Then—"Ahhhh!"—he comes down hard on his ankle, turning it over. It starts to swell, and Ligety limps around with clenched teeth, but after ten minutes he shakes off the pain. He has to: the Winter Games in Sochi are only seven months away, and Ligety is expected to contend for numerous medals. There's a lot of training to do. ... "Ted figured out a way to ski that nobody has duplicated"
To this day, no one close to Phelps will say that he has a drinking problem ... Sixteen years after his first Olympic appearance, Phelps will be a gold medal favorite in three individual events and, pending the state of U.S. relay teams (they struggled at the world championships), he could contend for three others, a span of excellence that is wildly unprecedented. “My sport is a numbers sport,” says Phelps, the nerdiest of swim nerds, a walking database. “I have goals that I want to hit.” He would become the oldest swimmer to win an individual gold medal (the current record holder is the legendary Duke Kahanamoku, who won a gold medal at age 30 in 1920) and the first to win individual gold medals 12 years apart. (Phelps is one of three swimmers to win gold medals eight years apart.) His medal record, already unimaginable, will become surreal.
Golf is returning to the Olympic Games after a 112-year absence. Sixty men and 60 women will play in separate tournaments, putting the game associated with upper-class networking and manicured country clubs on more than 3 billion television screens worldwide. ... The games come at a fraught moment for golf. As of now, just 10 countries — chiefly the United States, Japan, Canada, England and Australia — account for nearly 80 percent of the world’s golf facilities. The sport's major markets in the U.K. and U.S. are stagnant or in decline. Industry leaders see Olympic golf as an opportunity to create more die-hards like Stapff in Asia and Latin America, where a growing middle class presents an attractive potential market. The $70 billion golf industry — including course designers, equipment makers, professional tours, charity events — would reap the benefits. ... The common reasons given for the decline or stagnation are threefold: Golf can be prohibitively expensive and is perceived as elitist; in a fast-paced society, a four-hour round of golf isn't appealing or even feasible for many people; and courses have becoming increasingly difficult, pushing average players away from the game in frustration.
Being immersed in the mostly white, mostly privileged slice of the DMV (District-Maryland-Virginia), of overinvolved adults and overscheduled kids, I’ve seen plenty of young Katie Ledeckys. I know it’s not just comfort that kills the drive for athletic greatness. It’s options. It’s perspective—the knowledge that deep down, hitting a baseball or swimming fast is hardly the most common route to success. ... On paper Ledecky is like many of the area’s elite, only more so. ... And yet, Ledecky has a relentlessness that even family can have trouble grasping: She swims as if it’s a matter of rent and food. After recording, at 15, the second-fastest time in history to win the 800 in London, she spent the next four years taking full ownership of the event ... She has never lost a major international race.
Cheese-rolling. Pole-vaulting. Wife-carrying. Figure skating. Cup-stacking. Bobsledding. Ferret-legging. Golf. Somewhere someone right now is endeavoring to become more proficient at every one of these activities. Half the sports on that list are imbued with the prestige and promise of an Olympic medal, but is there anything more intrinsically worthy about performing a triple salchow than there is about keeping an angry ferret inside your trousers for two minutes? ... The upcoming Summer Olympics from Rio de Janeiro will feature 306 different events in 42 sports, or so the official Rio2016.com site tells us. But how many of those sports, such as synchronized swimming or equestrian events, do you consider a sport?
Phelps' issues centered largely on his complicated relationships with two of the most influential men in his life -- the one who had been there for him and the one who pretty much hadn't. Phelps' parents divorced when he was 9, and he'd long felt abandoned by his father, Fred. The pool was his escape, and Bowman was a surrogate father of sorts. In the water, he pushed him to perform. Outside the water, he taught him how to drive and knot a tie. ... after his arrest, family and friends persuaded Phelps to get help. Here was his chance, they told him, to face the issues he had avoided for so long. That first day at The Meadows, he barely spoke to anyone. He ate alone and cried himself to sleep. But gradually, he opened up and began to understand his snake nightmares. ... The stories of their many fights are legendary. At the Meadowbrook Aquatic & Fitness Center, where Phelps trained, there's still a massive dent in a door frame, courtesy of Bowman's right foot after one of their arguments. A trainer has the cracked stopwatch Bowman once chucked at a wall in disgust. And no one will soon forget the time Bowman and Phelps both peeled out of the Meadowbrook parking lot in a testosterone-filled "Days of Thunder"-like rage, middle fingers fully extended. ... Bowman says training sessions often went one of three ways: Phelps would misbehave, undermine Bowman's instructions or be so focused and dominant that he would demoralize everyone else. And god forbid Bowman show excessive attention to any of his other swimmers.
When an Olympic archer readies to shoot, she is staring down a distance of seventy meters — roughly three quarters of a football field — and aiming to hit a circle the size of a CD. An elite archer does not grip her bow tightly, fearing what anxious jitters might do; she attaches it to a string that wraps around her hand, extends her arm forward, and holds the bow in place with the skin between her thumb and index finger. As she draws, more than forty pounds of resistance weighs on her fingers and back, and her bow stores so much energy that if she were to fire without an arrow the bow could break at both ends. The physical strain is never evident on her face, which remains in stern repose as she brings the string back to the same spot on her lips as the shot before and the shot before that. It presses against her mouth, pulling it into a frown, as if she were afflicted with a temporary bout of Bell’s palsy. ... She must hold steady — moving her release point by more than the width of a ballpoint pen would result in a miss. This is difficult enough on a good day, but arrows are not bullets. They dip under the weight of raindrops and veer in a gust of wind, which can force an archer to aim entirely off the target ... When an arrow is loosed, it does not fly straight; it wriggles like an eel. From bow to target, it will arc to a height of about ten feet, traveling at 150 miles per hour, and arrive at its destination in one second. ... Archery is in the middle of an unprecedented boom: membership in USA Archery, the sport’s national governing body, has quadrupled since 2011, and youth participation has quintupled. ... more than 20 million Americans pick up a bow every year, from hunters to yuppies on Groupon dates. ... Archery is meant to be a pursuit, not a performance, and even the most impressive shots make for quiet entertainment. All the action happens inside an archer’s head, and until ESPN hooks up archers to a brain scanner, there won’t be much for spectators to see.
When International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach announced the 10 members of the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team in June—after a yearlong global vetting by 17 national Olympic committees and the United Nations Refugee Agency and after countless tryouts in Europe and Africa that resembled nothing so much as the hunt for Willy Wonka's golden tickets—he clearly intended the impact to redound far beyond sports. ... the crisis is so great, and the journeys of some athletes have been so harrowing, that the Refugee Team's march into Maracanã Stadium under the Olympic flag during the opening ceremony, just before Brazil's delegation, figures to be irresistible. ... Their routes to these Games differ, but all the Olympic refugees share the same mission: to change the conversation. They know that refugees have become easy scapegoats in scared societies, easy applause lines for politicians and all too easy to caricature as criminal or unclean. In Rio they hope to present an alternative to all the wire photos of crowded camps and dead bodies washed ashore, relieve the basic human fear of the other. They want to show that they can march in a parade, wave, smile, run and compete—just like everyone else.
Around the world, nearly 80 research groups in 25 countries are honing their technologies for the €5-million (US$5.5-million) event. They range from small, ad hoc teams to the world's largest manufacturers of advanced prostheses, and comprise about 300 scientists, engineers, support staff and competitors: disabled people who will each compete in one of six events that will challenge their ability to tackle the chores of daily life. A race for prosthetic-arm users will be won by the first cyborg to complete tasks including preparing a meal and hanging clothes on a line. A powered-wheelchair race will test how well participants can navigate everyday obstacles such as bumps and stairs. ... The venue — Zurich's 7,600-spectator ice-hockey stadium — should combine with the presence of television cameras and team jerseys to give the Cybathlon a sporting vibe similar to that of the Paralympics, in which disabled athletes compete using wheelchairs, running blades and other assistive technologies. The difference is that the Paralympics celebrates exclusively human performance: athletes must use commercially available devices that run on muscle power alone. But the Cybathlon honours technology and innovation. Its champions will use powered prostheses, often straight out of the lab, and are called pilots rather than athletes. The hope is that devices trialled in the games will accelerate technology development and eventually be used by people around the world.
Increasingly over the past half century, the Olympics have been seen as an opportunity for host cities to instigate large-scale urban improvement programs, from infrastructure building to the regeneration of entire segments of the city. The hard deadlines associated with the event can provide extra momentum to pursue wishlist projects, like new airports and transit lines, as well as the incentive to make big investments that might otherwise be politically challenging. ... The International Olympic Committee and local organizers are now trying to avoid these kinds of planning missteps and bad investments; leaving behind a positive "legacy" is the new Olympic imperative. London, which spent roughly $15 billion hosting the 2012 Summer Olympics, has been the most proactive in thinking about its Olympic planning as a way to generate long-term benefits for the city, focusing its investments on redeveloping an economically struggling part of the city. Rio de Janeiro, days away from the opening ceremonies of the 2016 Olympics, is hoping to parlay its hosting duties into improved housing and transportation infrastructure—though there are many signs organizers are falling short.
The great dash men of recent history have been overtaken by the specter of doping. Four of the five fastest men ever, whose records were all set in the last eight years, have tested positive for steroids or stimulants. The preceding generation of sprinters, like Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis, was no less defined by doping. Gatlin won a 2004 Olympic gold medal in the 100 meters when he was coached by Trevor Graham, a former Olympian who later received a lifetime ban from track for helping his athletes obtain the drugs they used to dope. Graham’s best runners, including the Olympic sprinters Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery, tested positive for banned substances. Gatlin’s current coach, Dennis Mitchell, also a former Olympic sprinter, was suspended after a positive test in the late 1990s. ... The pressure to seek chemical advantages in a sport where the margins of victory are so small cannot be overstated. Gatlin finished first at the United States Olympic trials earlier this month. Michael Rodgers finished two-tenths of a second behind him, in fourth place, and did not qualify for the Olympics in that event. ... An industry has popped up to certify which supplements are clean of banned substances. A no-less-vigorous underground industry of pharmacists and endocrinologists boasts to athletes and coaches of being able to increase muscle mass and endurance and speed the healing of injuries while evading ever more sophisticated tests. Anonymous surveys suggest that significantly more athletes dope, often in microdoses, than are caught.
Olympic officials and anti-doping advocates tout the ever-lengthening frontier of drug testing as a deterrent and an assurance that they will pursue athletes who dope, even years after the fact and right up to the statute of limitations. But the system for disqualifying those athletes, reshuffling results and reallocating medals is so cumbersome and prolonged that, by the time it plays out, economic and psychic payoffs for the new recipients have long since evaporated. ... "The reality is that the only people to get punished in the sport from doping [are] the clean athletes." ... Delayed medals never quite add up to full gratification for athletes. Instead, they symbolize the butterfly effect of an altered trajectory. The difference between gold and silver alone can swell to seven figures over a career. Prize money can sometimes be restored, but that's generally a pittance compared to the contractual and commercial opportunities that vanish, impossible to re-create. And there's no way to reconstitute the pomp and emotion of the moment. ... Only half of the summer sports medalists disqualified over that period had positive drug tests during Olympic competition. The other medals were stripped based on retests up to eight years after the fact, or evidence unearthed by law enforcement (such as in the BALCO investigation) or the scrubbing of a sanctioned athlete's results over a period of time, as was done in Lance Armstrong's case. WADA's statute of limitations is now 10 years.
It seemed absolutely crazy. The idea that an Iowa housewife, equipped with the cutting-edge medical tool known as Google Images, would make a medical discovery about a pro athlete who sees doctors and athletic trainers as part of her job? ... First, it was with her family’s Emery-Dreifuss, then when she thought they had lipodystrophy, and now she thought that she and Priscilla just must have a mutant gene in common because of the exact same pattern of missing fat. But how, then, did Priscilla get a double-helping of muscle while Jill’s muscles were scarcely there?
Thirty-one US alternates—sometimes called replacement athletes, reserves, or spares—are headed to the 2016 Games. The overachievers who never expected to make it this far will be thrilled, but most are not. Describing the Olympic alternate experience, they use words like “painful,” “frustrating,” “humbling,” and “incredibly difficult.” ... The Olympic team selection process varies by sport. Athletes from individual sports like fencing, equestrian, and gymnastics earn spots based mainly on tournament results and trials. Team sports like soccer and field hockey are wholly subjective, with roster decisions made solely at the coaches’ discretion. ... Unlike the countless books that have been written about the Olympic Games and athletes alike, no such tomes exist about alternates. There is no list of names of Americans who have served as Olympic alternates ... No estimated number. No real history at all.
The gym is the Red Bull High Performance Center, a 270m2 space inside the company's North American headquarters in Santa Monica, California. It's a vast building that includes a cinema, recording studio and gaming room. Here, the Red Bull-sponsored athletes are looked after by a team of performance experts and use an extensive assortment of equipment. ... Not all US-based Red Bull athletes participate in the High Performance Program. Those who do, such as Chamley-Watson, are part of one of the world's most sophisticated and experimental training programmes, whose partners include institutions such Cirque du Soleil, Intel, elements of the US Department of Defense and a vast network of universities and scientists. "We have all this talent and from the start we made a decision to learn as much from them as we could, to test them and understand their mastery," says Andy Walshe, Red Bull's director of high performance. "We started collecting data without knowing what we were going to do with it. Blood work, brain scans, psychometric questionnaires… It's not big data, it's complex data and we're just focusing on collecting as diverse a range as possible."
You crave the recipe of his secret sauce. You believe you've identified some of its special ingredients: draft foreign players, shoot corner 3s, emphasize defense, share the ball, victimize trembling sideline reporters. ... You'd like to believe you've captured the essence of the bearded coach stomping along the sideline -- a blend of Midas, Yoda and occasionally a teeth-baring pit bull. ... But, in truth, you haven't -- you never could -- because you don't fully realize the simple truths of his journey: how the man who demands respect through discipline and selflessness was once an impatient Air Force cadet who complained vociferously (and repeatedly) to his coach about a larger role. How his bid to represent the United States in the Olympic Games as a player was squashed by petty politics. How his wish to coach the 2008 Dream Team was crushed by miscommunication and subterfuge. How he was passed over -- twice -- for the very Spurs job he now holds. How when he finally got that job, he spent his weekends passing out free wieners in a parking lot hoping to generate basketball interest in a football-crazed state. ... Talk to players, coaches and executives who have worked with Gregg Popovich, and they'll say these are the events that shaped him. Tremendous obstacles. Cold, hard truths. Popovich may float above the fray now, but he earned that ascent -- one gritty step at a time. ... The team's continuity, Pop explains, is why they succeed. Owner Peter Holt, Popovich and Buford have unconditionally backed one another for 22 years.
Earlier this month a fire from a flying lantern torched the roof of the Rio velodrome, badly damaging its Siberian Pine track. After the Games, the city solicited bids for private companies to run the park, but no one bid, leaving Brazil's Ministry of Sport with the task -- and expense. The maintenance alone will cost the government approximately $14 million this year. Rio's new mayor, Marcelo Crivella, has scrapped plans to turn the handball arena into four public schools. And the 31 towers that made up the athletes village, which were set to be transformed into luxury condos, now sit largely vacant. ... Even some of the medals awarded to the athletes have tarnished or cracked, with more than 10 percent of them sent back to Brazil for repair. Rio officials blame poor handling by the athletes. ... Almost a year since the Games closed, the Rio 2016 Organizing Committee still owes $40 million to creditors. Bloomberg reported in April that the Olympic organizers were attempting to pay creditors with air conditioners, portable energy units and electrical cables. In July, the organizing committee asked the International Olympic Committee for help with its debt; the IOC said no.