The 10 Most Underappreciated Stars of the 2012 Olympics

Avi Wolfman-ArentCorrespondent IIAugust 11, 2012

The 10 Most Underappreciated Stars of the 2012 Olympics

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    They come to these Olympic Games seeking medals, validation and—perhaps above all—a place in the ledger of public memory.

    Precious few succeed.

    In the 17-day sprint to immortality, scads of worthy athletes get lost—buried behind more accomplished, attractive, compelling peers.

    So before you divert your attention to training camps and pennant races, we're throwing one final shout-out to the London 2012 Olympic achievers who fell a shade short of fame everlasting.

    We're calling them "underappreciated stars," in hopes that you may read this list, agree with us and maybe, one by one, help us off that pesky qualifier.

Kayla Harrison, United States, Judo

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    There's no way around it. Competitive judo wasn't made for television.

    Impenetrable rules combined with a stylistic tableau reminiscent of bears wrestling in honey make the sport far harder to digest than taekwondo—its sleeker Korean cousin.

    Which, perhaps, explains why Kayla Harrison's monumental gold-medal victory didn't receive much pub stateside.

    In winning the women's 78-kg division, Harrison became the first American ever to capture gold in judo.

    And, it's not like the discipline is new. Judo has appeared in 12 Olympiads, awarding, by my count, 108 prior gold medals.

    But none to an American before Harrison—a survivor of sexual abuse who went public with her story last year hoping to inspire other victims.

    Her breakthrough title win against British fighter Gemma Gibbons will surely go down as one of the most significant bouts in American judo history, even if it wasn't must-see TV in Harrison's home country.

Lin Dan, China, Badminton

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    American fans are probably well aware that "some Chinese guy" wins the men's singles badminton title at seemingly every Olympiad.

    They probably don't know that for two Summer Games running, "some Chinese guy" has been the same Chinese guy.

    His name is Lin Dan, and he is, by most accounts, the greatest badminton player who ever lived.

    Nicknamed "Super Dan," Lin, 28, is the four-time reigning world champion and the only player to have won all nine of badminton's major international tournaments.

    In London, Lin beat longtime rival Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia to secure his second straight Olympic gold.

    The final—a back-and-forth epic that evoked shades of Federer-Nadal—made headlines around the world, with the BBC writing:

    It was a tight affair, with the lead again changing multiple times. But Lin proved the stronger and prevailed, wheeling away in celebration at the finish with Lee, who will not compete at the next Olympics in Rio, seemingly inconsolable.

David Rudisha, Kenya, Track and Field

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    David Rudisha's performance in the men's 800-meter final couldn't have been much better.

    His timing, however, couldn't have been much worse.

    Running well ahead of a field that was the fastest in event history, the Kenyan sensation—still just 23—smashed his own world record by one-tenth of a second. It was the cherry atop a brilliant two-year stretch in which he posted six of the eight fastest times ever at 800 meters.

    Rudisha's singular feat lingered in the public consciousness for all of about an hour, whereby it was summarily displaced by Usain Bolt's historic victory in the men's 200.

    That's life for most great runners these days, operating in the shadow of a supernova sprinting talent.

    But Rudisha isn't just great, he's a once-in-a-lifetime. And as the scheduling gods would have it, his virtuoso performance was obscured by yet another milestone marker in Bolt's dash to history.

    Shame, really.

    If it's any solace, at least one prominent figure kept Rudisha in mind.

    Lord Sebastian Coe, chairman of the London Organizing Committee and a former world-record holder in the 800, told the BBC, according to Tom Rostance:

    "David Rudisha is the outstanding 800m runner of his generation. And I will say it, probably on paper the most impressive track and field athlete at these Games—I would say that, wouldn't I?"

Allyson Felix, United States, Track and Field

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    Perhaps, it's time to accept that Allyson Felix, no matter what she does on the track, will invariably end up on lists like this.

    And although Felix is undoubtedly one of the most recognizable figures in American track and field, there still seems to be a fundamental disconnect between her fame and all that she's accomplished.

    Starting when she was 17—nine years ago—Felix has been one of the best, most versatile sprinters this world has ever seen, racking up 10 World Championship medals at three different distances.

    So when she finally broke through in London with her long-awaited first individual gold medal, what did we see?

    For the most part, headlines extolling Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh abutted by previews of the women's soccer finals.

    The talented, attractive, squeaky-clean Felix was, as usual, an afterthought, confirming her place as the most puzzlingly unfamous track star in U.S. Olympic history.

Allison Schmitt, United States, Swimming

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    We media types expected Missy Franklin to be the breakout swimmer of these Games, so much so that it almost belies the concept of a breakout star.

    When Franklin won five medals in London, we were impressed, but not shocked. And when the 17-year-old wooed audiences back home with her happy-to-be-here attitude, many of us were already well-versed in her charms.

    But Allison Schmitt? Now, that was a story.

    Four years ago, at age 18, Schmitt won a relay bronze and finished just ninth in her sole individual event. At the World Championships in 2009 and 2011, she showed modest improvement, but won only three combined medals and no individual titles.

    Then came 2012, and the 22-year-old Pittsburgh native took off.

    She blitzed an early June meet in Austin, Texas, and followed that up with a scintillating performance at the U.S. Olympic trials.

    In London, Schmitt was even better, racking up five medals, including three gold.

    Schmitt's signature performance came as Team USA's anchor in the women's 4x200-meter freestyle relay, a race where she entered with a deficit and turned it into a commanding 1.49-second victory.

    Still young and on the rise, Schmitt may well go medal-for-medal with Missy again in 2016.

Kim Rhode, United States, Shooting

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    Michael Phelps never did it.

    Neither did Carl Lewis.

    Mark Spitz wasn't even close.

    Only one American ever has medaled in five consecutive Olympic Games. Her name is Kim Rhode (rhymes with "Jodie"), and you've probably never heard of her.

    The shooting ace won her first medal—a gold in double trap—16 years ago at the Atlanta Games. When double trap was eliminated from the Olympic program following 2004, Rhode transitioned to skeet and has now won silver and gold consecutively in her adopted discipline.

    Her latest triumph was her most impressive. Rhode won gold, tied a world record and did it all despite a plane-ticket snafu that had her operating on precious little sleep.

    In her own words (via Greg Wyshynski of Yahoo! Sports):

    "I stayed home, trained there and then came directly from L.A. to London so essentially I didn't get all the time adjustment. I'm a little jet-lagged, but other than that, things are good."

    Indeed they are, so much so that Rhode states she'll be back for Rio 2016:

    "The oldest shooter to win a medal in the Olympics was 72. I still have a few more in me."

Saori Yoshida and Kaori Icho, Japan, Wrestling

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    Remember Aleksandr Karelin, the barrel-chested Russian who was upset by Rulon Gardner at the 2000 Sydney Olympics?

    Of course you do—because he lost.

    Keep right on winning and you're liable to fly under the radar, just like Japanese duo Saori Yoshida and Kaori Icho.

    In London, both female wrestlers won their third straight Olympic title—Yoshida at 55 kg and Icho at 63 kg.

    More impressive still, Yoshida has won the last nine World Championships, a streak that dates back to 2002.

    Icho might be able to say the same if not for the fact that she sat out the 2008 and 2009 World Championships.

    Slacker.

Kirani James, Grenada, Track and Field

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    The headlines stateside might as well have been all caps:

    "NO AMERICANS IN MEN'S 400-METER FINAL"

    The perplexity was understandable given Team USA's history in the event, a pedigree that includes seven consecutive Olympic champions (1984-2008) and podium sweeps in 2004 and 2008.

    Lost in the national freak-out was Kirani James, a 19-year-old phenom and one of the most intriguing athletes to hit this event in some time.

    Born and raised in the tiny island nation of Grenada (pop. 110,000), the reigning world champion came to London as a favorite and left with gold.

    The victory gave Grenada its first-ever Olympic medal and prompted Grenadian Prime Minister Tillman Thomas to declare an impromptu national holiday.

    But, the party is just getting started.

    With his prime still to come, James has the look of a budding legend. One only hopes an American can challenge him in the years ahead—if only to shine a light on his remarkable talent.

United States Women's Basketball Team

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    There is a threshold—undefined but ever present—by which greatness transitions from "inspiring" to "dull."*

    The U.S. women's basketball team crossed that threshold in about 1996.

    For the fifth straight Games, Team USA emerged victorious. For the second straight Games, no team came within 10 points of the Americans.

    Their lone "close call" was an 86-73 semifinal victory over Australia in which they outscored their opponents, 43-26, during the second half.

    Real collar-tugger, eh?

    While the gap in other prominent women's team sports like soccer and softball seems to be closing, basketball is trending in the opposite direction. And as a result, the women's Olympic tournament has become a perfunctory snooze-fest (not unlike the women's NCAA tournament in certain years).

    Quite frankly, it's hard to watch—or care.

    Even if we know empirically that Candace Parker, Tina Charles, Diana Taurasi and Maya Moore are worthy of our attention, they've become easier and easier to ignore.

     

    *Otherwise expressed by the mathematical property: "One can only watch a superior collective of talent throttle its opponents so many times before one wonders what's airing on Cartoon Network."

The Other Female Hurdlers

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    We may someday reach a point where we've committed so much energy to the fact that Lolo Jones has overshadowed the rest of her hurdling peers that said peers will no longer qualify as overshadowed.

    Today is not that day.

    Hours after the fastest women's 100-meter hurdles final in Olympic history, the bulk of the buzz still revolved around Jones, a fourth-place finisher.

    Had she been vindicated?

    Was she still all hype?

    And what's up with that seething interview she did with Savannah Guthrie?

    How weird was that?

    To be fair, silver medalist Dawn Harper and bronze medalist Kellie Wells did make a few headlines of their own—when they dissed Jones in a televised interview.

    It all comes back to Lolo.

    Even gold medalist Sally Pearson—who has been about as dominant in the hurdles since 2011 as David Rudisha has been in the 800—seems relegated to the role of "super-fast Australian woman who isn't Lolo Jones."

    Let's not begrudge Jones for any of this. The woman came from nothing and deserves every cent of marketing spoils she can muster.

    But, it must be said that there are some other fantastic female hurdlers on this planet, and none of them get due praise.