1. Show stoppers
Wayde van Niekerk achieved the near-impossible by sharing centre stage with Usain Bolt, often portrayed as the saviour of athletics. But just minutes before his Jamaican friend won the 100m, the South African stunned the world by breaking the 400m world record set by the great Michael Johnson in 1999.
In running 43.03 seconds, Van Niekerk became the first African to hold a sprint world record.
Ethiopia’s Almaz Ayana smashed another mark that was long believed to be unsurpassable. Speculation over the legitimacy of the 10,000m record set by Wang Junxia in 1993 intensified earlier this year after a letter was published which suggested the Chinese had doped – an allegation the IAAF is currently investigating.
So perhaps it was understandable when the former Olympian and BBC commentator Steve Cram described Ayana’s ability to knock 14 seconds off that old mark as “one of the greatest pieces of distance running you’ll ever see”.
2. Africa v Michael Phelps
If US swimmer Michael Phelps were an African nation, he would be third on the continent’s all-time list with his 28 medals, behind Kenya and South Africa. This may be more to do with how Africa funds its athletes than raw talent.
However, in the number of total medals won, this was Africa’s most successful Olympics – the tally of 45 beating the previous best set of 40 in Beijing in 2008.
Photo credit: AFP
Despite a troubled build-up, Kenya extended their lead as Africa’s most successful Olympic side of all time by finishing as the continent’s highest-ranked side in the medals table. Their six golds, and 13 overall, took them to 15th, one place above Jamaica. South Africa were second for Africa, with Ethiopia third while Ivory Coast finished fourth after winning their first-ever gold.
3. Twitter champions
It wouldn’t be a modern Olympics without social media creating a stir – and few made as big an impact as Namibian cyclist Dan Craven. He had tongues wagging when it appeared that he was tweeting his thoughts during his road race, only for it to later emerge that his girlfriend had been doing so on his behalf.
Later on, after being asked by Rio organisers to enter the time trial, he asked his Twitter followers whether he should enter -spawning a variety of memes about which other events he could compete in.
Likewise, an Instagram post by Snoop Dogg created a star out of rower Chierika Ukogu, after the US rapper wrongly claimed she had won a silver medal for Nigeria. US-born Ukogu told the BBC she thought something weird was going when “hundreds of people starting following me on social media”.
4. From Eric the Eel to Robel the Whale
Ethiopian swimmer Robel Habte, also found fame on social media where he was dubbed “Robel the Whale” because of his paunch. He said he took up swimming as he wanted to do something different for his country, which is usually associated with runners. The son of the Ethiopian Swimming Federation president swiftly retired from the sport after finishing half a lap behind anyone else in his heat – drawing inevitable comparisons with Equatorial Guinea’s Eric the Eel.
But he then changed his mind, saying he will target 2020 – and wants to set up the Robel the Whale Foundation to help more Ethiopian swimmers compete in the Olympics. At present, just £45 ($60) of the £1m he is looking to raise has been donated.
5. Crossing the line?
The Olympics is often as much about sport as it is about politics – but few athletes ever combine the two quite so powerfully at the same time.
When the American duo Tommie Smith and John Carlos famously flashed the black power salute at the 1968 Olympics, they were standing on the podium. Ethiopia’s Feyisa Lilesa was actually still competing, starting his protest – by placing crossing his hands above his head – several yards before he crossed the finish line of the marathon to win a silver medal.
The IOC bans such political displays. Feyisa says was speaking out on behalf of his fellow Oromo people, who have suffered brutal police crackdowns in Ethiopia. He later said he might be killed or imprisoned if he returns home – something the government denies. But it has led to an extraordinary crowd-funding campaign to help him get asylum.
6. From drug addict to medal winner
Was there a more dramatic turnaround in fortune by any athlete in Rio than that of Luvo Manyonga? Two years ago, the long jumper was battling an addiction to crystal meth – widely known as “tik” in South Africa – and a non-performance enhancing drug for which he had already been banned after testing positive in 2012.
In 2014, his habit was still so bad he missed the memorial of his coach Mario Smith, leaving home all set for the event but bumping into some of his drug friends en route.
But after receiving belated help by local sports officials, Manyonga resumed training last year – and missed out on gold in the long jump by just one centimetre, taking silver.
7. Female firsts
Africa’s women made history in Rio, with a number achieving some notable firsts. Chief among them was Sara Ahmed who became the first Egyptian woman to ever stand on the Olympic medal podium when she took bronze in weightlifting. The 18-year-old was forced to miss school exams to bring sporting glory to her country, since the education ministry had refused her a delay.
Days later, her compatriot Hedaya Wahba became the first African woman to ever win a medal in taekwondo. Tunisian Ines Boubakri did the same in fencing – and used her triumph to point out to her country “that women exist and they have their place in society”.
Other notable performers were Mauritian triathlete Fabienne St Louis, who competed despite being diagnosed with cancer in December. Caster Semenya put the endless column inches about her gender to one side as she cruised home for 800m glory, with Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba taking silver – the first Burundian woman to win an Olympic medal.
8. Biggest blunder?
Kenyan sprint coach John Anzrah was sent home from Rio with his tail between his legs. He borrowed the accreditation pass of 800m Ferguson Rotich, supposedly to have a free breakfast in the Olympic Village, but was then unexpectedly cornered by doping officials looking for Rotich. Despite the situation and the fact that his 61-year-old face may have clarified he was no athlete, Anzrah went along with the test.
And Egyptian judoka Islam El Shehaby could win the prize for the most unsportsmanlike conduct. He was sent home after refusing to shake hands with his opponent Or Sasson because of his Israeli nationality.
9. Plastic surgeon to Nigeria’s rescue
When Nigeria’s football team was badly delayed in reaching Brazil, because of a shortage of funds, the most unlikely source took pity: a plastic surgeon from Japan.
Katsuya Takasu travelled from Tokyo to personally hand over the cash, some $390,000 in total, shortly after watching the team win bronze. This was Nigeria’s only medal in a Games littered with logistical problems.
The footballers’ arrival in Brazil just hours before their opening game prevented Mikel John Obi from being Nigeria’s flag bearer at the opening ceremony, while the kit for that opening ceremony only reached Rio just three days before the end of the Games. Nigeria finished below Niger on the medals table.
10. Divided loyalties
You’d have got long odds on it a while back but a former gymnastics champion from Hungary became the first female judo athlete to compete for Ghana. Szandra Szogedi qualified for the West African nation through her Ghanaian husband but was in tears after exiting a minute into her bout – claiming she had let her country down.
Also notable was the first gold medal for Bahrain, which was won by Kenyan-born Ruth Jebet in the women’s steeplechase. She received a $500,000 bonus from Bahraini authorities who might not have been too impressed when she flew home to celebrate – quite literally, since she went straight back to Kenya. “I ran for Bahrain but I’m still a Kenyan by blood. That’s why I came here directly from Rio,” the 19-year-old said upon her arrival.