RIO DE JANEIRO — As Manu Ginobili walked off the basketball court, a legion of Argentina fans crowded around the tunnel where players exit.
“Ole, ole, ole, ole! Manuuuu! Manuuuuu!”
Ginobili slapped hands and waved to a crowd that could not have been more delighted. And it came after a 19-point loss to Spain in group play. The 39-year-old Ginobili soaked in the admiration, just like he’s soaking in his fourth Olympics. And it underscores that for so many athletes in Rio de Janeiro, the “go gold or go home” mantra couldn’t be further from the truth.
“My main goal is to enjoy the experience one more time,” Ginobili said. “I had a blast in the last three editions. I’m older now so I value things a little differently. I came here to play my best basketball possible, help my team, but enjoy the daily experience of being in the Olympics.”
Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt and the Olympics’ biggest stars are hailed back home for all of the gold hanging around their necks. For the vast majority of athletes competing, and their home countries who sit on the edge of their sofas watching from afar, merely getting to the podium is more than just good enough. It’s cause for a national holiday.
Olaf Tufte and Kjetil Borch popped the bubbly and feasted on cake with red and blue icing while Norwegian newspapers hailed them as heroes for their bronze medal in rowing. Filipino weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz received a personal message from the president — and nearly $53,000 — for finishing second and celebrations broke out in towns across Colombia during boxer Yuberjen Martinez’s unexpected run to the silver medal.
Heck, when Joseph Schooling defeated Michael Phelps in a heat of the 100-meter butterfly, his native Singapore celebrated as if he had won the gold medal — before he ACTUALLY won the gold medal.
Throughout the tennis tournament, the loudest cheers came for Juan Martin del Potro, never more so than when he fell short against Andy Murray in the gold medal match. When it was all over, you never would have known from del Potro — or the boisterous Argentine fans in the stands — that he had lost.
“Now I’ve got the silver medal, which means gold for me,” said del Potro, who won bronze at the 2012 Olympics. “I cannot believe I will bring another medal (home) for my country.”
There were big celebrations in Chigorodo and Turbo, two towns near the Panama border that have been plagued by guerrilla and drug-trafficking violence, after Martinez beat Joahnys Argilagos of Cuba in the semifinals of the 49-kilogram division.
Colombian media reported live from the boxer’s family home in Chigorodo, where family and friends greeted cheering neighbors.
“My brother is a warrior and he’s going for more,” his brother Didier told Caracol Radio after the semifinal bout. “We suffered a lot watching the fight, but we knew he was going to win.”
The 24-year-old Martinez was born in Turbo and moved with his family to Chigorodo. He told Colombian media after losing the gold medal bout to Hasanboy Dusmatov that his only disappointment was that he wouldn’t win enough money to buy his mother a house. He will receive 96 million pesos (about $36,000) for the silver. It was the first boxing medal better than bronze for Colombia.
“Considering the strength of his opponent, Martinez can leave these games with his head held high,” wrote the Bogota Post, “and can be exceptionally proud of his country’s greatest ever boxing performance at the Olympic Games.”
That appears to be the key for so many athletes and fans at the Olympics. The biggest games on the biggest stages in leagues back home come with a winner-take-all conclusion — the Golden State Warriors won’t get second-place rings after losing to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals.
In Rio, there is room on the podium — and hardware to take home — for three.
“Of course it’s a little bit different tournament than the Grand Slams,” said tennis player Angelique Kerber, who won silver in women’s singles. “But it’s also really high on my list because I was always dreaming to play in the Olympics for my country and (play) in the final. I really tried to enjoy it and to go back home with a medal, it’s a really special feeling.”
So it’s less about the gold they lost than the silver or bronze they won. In Rio, there are points for second place. And third, too.
Ginobili knows the chances of a magical run to gold in Rio are small. His team shocked the world once when they won the title in 2004 and sparked a renewed commitment to international play from the mighty United States.
This time around, it’s about enjoying the ride. Sometimes, for the athletes competing and the fans who love them, that is more than enough.
“I feel very fortunate to be here at 39 (years old),” Ginobili said. “At the same time we’re playing well, we made it to the quarterfinals, it’s not a given, and we’re going to try and play our best basketball possible, no matter who we play.”