The task of picking the team of 2016 was a tough one, with so much greatness from which to choose: There were the Golden State Warriors, who set a never-to-be-broken NBA single-season wins record then lost three-straight games to choke away the NBA Finals after having not lost back-to-back games all season. The team that beat them, the Cleveland Cavaliers, were a more logical NBA choice (though the Warriors’ story was more riveting). Two summers after LeBron James stunned the world by returning to the city he’d abandoned in 2010, the King got Cleveland a decades-in-the-making title, doing so with the aforementioned comeback and a Game 7 block that’ll go down as one of the great plays in the history of the league. The Denver Broncos won a Super Bowl with the greatest quarterback in the history of the league who was barely able to drop back to pass, let alone throw one. Villanova won the NCAA tournament on a buzzer beater, something that’d only happened once before — or, depending on how you view it, had never happened in the 77-year history of the greatest tournament in the world. (Watch the N.C. State-Houston clip. The ball goes in before the buzzer. Technically not a buzzer beater.) And then there were the Cubbies.
In any other year, the Cubs would have been a no-brainer choice — ending a 108-year drought with a 3-1 series comeback that was capped by a classic Game 7 that was easily the game of the year in all of sports. It was easy. The post writes itself. So why not the Cubs? Well, somebody has to win the World Series every year. It’s only a matter of mathematical probability that the Cubs or Red Sox or Indians or Nationals will win at some point. That’s nothing against this Chicago team, which will be remembered for a generation and captivated a nation for 10 days in October. But while there’s always a World Series winner, there’s no such guarantee for national Olympic success. And what Team USA did at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro makes them our no-doubt team of the year.
Unlike other Olympics, the Americans didn’t enter these Games with grand expectations. There were the identifiable stars (Phelps, Ledecky, Biles), the sure things (both basketball teams) and the obvious allowance for surprises. A win in the medal count was expected, as usual. And then Team USA went out and outperformed even the loftiest of expectations, taking home 46 gold, 37 silver and 38 bronze medals, for a total of 121 overall.
They won 19 more golds and a staggering 51 more medals than any other country, their best showing since before World War II (not including the boycotted 1984 Games). For the first time since 1932, the U.S. won the most of every medal — and did so by double-digit margins in each, no less. It was domination, pure and simple.
With the exception of the Beijing Games, where China won the official medal count (determined by golds) and the U.S. took the overall medal count (total medals), Team USA usually has come out on top of these rankings since communism fell, but it’s been by a few gold medals and maybe a handful of overall. For a country that had eight more golds than any other country in 2012 and were 15 behind China in 2008, going +19 is a staggering achievement. The 121 total medals is the most since the Soviets won 132 back at the 1988 Seoul Games.
While the macro level is impressive, the micro level might be more so. Rio was the first time in the 120-year history of the modern Olympics that the United States won the medal count in each of the big three sports: swimming, track and gymnastics — a staggering achievement even for a country that prides itself on its sporting culture.
At the swimming venue, the U.S. won 16 swimming golds, the highest total in the past 40 years, and five times as many as the second- and third-most decorated countries. Combined, the rest of the world had 19 golds combined. Given that there are 34 swimming events (35 golds were awarded because of the tie in the women’s 100 free), the U.S. won gold in just under half. If Simone Manuel went .03 seconds faster in the 50 free or Josh Prenot had touched .07 seconds earlier in the 200 breast, Team USA would have pulled that unbelievable feat. It was a historic showing, yes, but despite occasional pushes from Australia or the old East Germany or Soviet Union, Americans have always dominated the pool (just not to this extent).
The track has traditionally been the American’s milieu but their Rio performance was even more historic, as they went for 13 golds, 10 silver and nine bronze, for a total of 32 medals — as much as the other best three countries combined. That was four more golds and four more medals than London, six more golds and nine more medals than Beijing, four more golds and seven more medals than Athens and almost double the totals of each from Sydney. Even in the Atlanta Games, where the U.S. dominated (as Olympic powers traditionally do on their home soil), Americans won the same amount of golds but had nine fewer medals.
But it was at the Rio Olympic Arena where the U.S. had its greatest Olympic showing. Led by Simone Biles, the “Final Five” won both the medal count and the overall medal tally in gymnastics. That came after showings of third in London, second in Beijing (nine golds behind China), second in Athens and a staggering 15th in Sydney (where the U.S. took home a single bronze in the sport). Even in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, with the famous team win on the Kerri Strug vault, Team USA was third in the medal count and fifth in overall medals. It wasn’t so long ago (1988) that Americans finished 20 gymnastics medals behind the Soviets. And before that, gymnastics were purely an Eastern Bloc sport. From 1936-72 Americans didn’t win a single medal in gymnastics. The turnaround, led by Biles, was the greatest part of a great Games.
The basketball teams dominated as usual (it’s not even interesting anymore). Both volleyball teams medaled. Equestrian, water polo, cycling, fencing, rowing and archery teams did too. The U.S. won a dozen relays across the track and the pool.
Looking even more specifically, the individual performances that led to the team greatness were inspired. At 31, Michael Phelps extended his lead as the most dominant competitor in Olympic history and improbably did it by becoming the most decorated athlete in Rio with his five gold, one silver performance. Katie Ledecky became the first woman in 40 years to pull the 200-400-800 triple, doing so in dominant fashion that didn’t just rewrite the record books — it changed the entire concept of what women’s long-distance swimming can be. Simone Manuel became the first African-American woman to medal in any swimming event and did so in style, tying for gold in the 100 free and then narrowly missing another in the 50 free, where a silver was her consolation prize.
The first day of the Games were a harbinger of what was to come. The first medal ceremony of the Games featured the American flag on top, as Ginny Thrasher, a West Virginia University student, had gold around her neck for her win in the women’s 10m air rifle. Matthew Centrowitz became the first American runner to win the 1500m since 1908. American women — Brianna Rollins, Nia Ali, and Kristi Castolin — swept the 100m hurdles, the first time U.S. women had swept a track event. (It had happened in other sports and men had done it on the track 61 times, interestingly.) Anthony Ervin won sprint gold 16 years ago, suffered through drug, alcohol and various other abuses, before coming out on the other side and somehow winning that same gold in Rio. Helen Maroulis became America’s first female wrestling gold medalist. There were medals in sports with little to no recent American tradition of success such as archery, fencing, judo, shooting, equestrian, long-distance running and steeplechase.
All 121 of those medals have a tremendous story and a lifetime of work behind them. Given the pressure of spending four years building toward one event and how American athletes rose to that challenge in Rio, there was no doubt that Team USA deserved one more gold as the greatest team of 2016.