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A Brief History of Olympics Trash Talk

Duels, doping, and the nut shot heard round the world

Getty Images
Getty Images

Trash talk is an elemental mode of expression because it springs from simple, universal feelings: anger, a thirst for revenge, and the ancient, instinctual desire to kick an opponent’s ass. It signals a corruption of the pure, play-the-right-way ideals of athletic competition. Trash talk is, by definition, disrespectful, and that’s why it’s great and unseemly at the same time. In a world where multimillionaire athletes and corrupt governing bodies make money hand-over-hand-over-fist, and the “sanctity of the game” seems to be drowning under a sea of cash, trash talk tells the viewer that the athlete authentically cares. Of course, the money helps.

The Olympics has never been a particularly rich trash-talking venue, though. Not everyone speaks the same language, and the games’ heady brew of nationalism, postcolonialism, and general political animus create an atmosphere conducive to bona fide international incidents. But in 2016, Olympic decorum, like everything else good and pure in this steadily shitifying world, is breaking down.

Here are some of the notable Olympic trash-talk moments in the history of the modern games.

Antwerp, 1920: Trash Talk Leads to a Duel

The thing about being famous for any kind of fighting art is people are constantly testing you. Italian swordsman Aldo Nadi was one of the greatest fencers of his generation. He also had a fondness for real-life duels. At the Antwerp games in 1920, Nadi won three gold medals (team foil, team épée, team sabre) and a silver (individual sabre). He also, apparently, trash-talked a countryman, Filippo Bottino, a weightlifter from Genoa. Bottino, arming himself with a wooden beam, challenged Nadi — who, for some reason, was carrying a riding whip — to a duel. The fight ended when Nadi cracked the whip, Indiana Jones–style, across Bottino’s hand, causing his opponent to drop the plank. I wish something like this would happen today.

(In 1924, Nadi challenged a journalist to a duel, with real swords, for the crime of printing the score of an exhibition match between French fencing champion Lucien Gaudin and Italian champion Candido Sassone. Though Gaudin reportedly won the match easily, the paper reported a Sassone victory. Even printing the results of exhibition matches — which would generally go unscored — was apparently a huge deal in 1924.)

Barcelona, 1992: Charles Barkley Knows Very Little About Angola

Before the Dream Team’s game with Angola, the United States’ opening match of the tournament, the irascible Barkley was asked what, if anything, he knew about the Angolan team or his opponent. His answer: “I don’t know anything about Angola, but Angola is in trouble.” Many thought (actually, no one did) that Charles might have been referring to the Angolan Civil War, then well into its second decade, or the historic drought that was then gripping southern Africa.

During the Dream Team’s 116–48 Godzilla-vs.-Bambi demolition job, Charles, turning upcourt after a dunk, delivered a now-iconic elbow to the sternum of shocked Angolan forward Herlander Coimbra. When asked about the incident after the game, Barkley wondered aloud if Coimbramight be like Manute Bol” (Bol was from Sudan, on the other side of Africa from Angola), by which Charles meant “he might have had a spear.”

P.S. Don’t forget to set your DVRs for the upcoming TNT miniseries The Race Card, debuting in early 2017.

Sydney, 2000: Cool Waters, Hot Beef

Success begets confidence. But constant success can breed arrogance. Coming in to the 2000 Olympics, the United States men had won gold in every 4x100 freestyle relay since the 1984 Games, and was the obvious favorite to win the event. So when U.S. swimmer Gary Hall Jr., who had won two gold medals in 1996, including one for the 4x100 freestyle, blogged (BLOGGED), “My biased opinion says that we will smash them like guitars. Historically the U.S. has always risen to the occasion,” it was a lukewarm take, at best.

Unfortunately, the only hard and fast rule of trash talk is this: You must back up your trash talk. This, Hall and his teammates did not do. As a result, they were forced to watch the victorious Aussies strum away on air guitars, looking like a bunch of country singers stricken with alopecia.

London, 2012: Nic Batum Savages Juan Carlos Navarro’s Testicles

“I wanted to give him a good reason to flop,” said Batum, after France’s quarterfinals loss to Spain, regarding a play in which he chased down Juan Carlos Navarro and threw a haymaker of such savagery into the Spaniard’s nutsack that the victim was slightly lifted off the ground. Technically, this isn’t trash talk, since it was uttered in response to a fight, and not in place of one. Whatever. In four years, the play has not lost its WTF-inducing power. The intensity of intra-European sports rivalries is often an outgrowth of centuries of economic, military, and political competition. That doesn’t apply in this case — I’m just trying to come up with a reason for why Batum legitimately looked like he was trying to exterminate Navarro’s ability to procreate by One-Punch-Man-ing the Spaniard’s junk up into his torso. It’s probably my favorite non–Team USA international basketball moment of the past eight years.

Rio, 2016: Lilly King Splashes Rival, Unleashes Mutombo Finger Wag

When Lilly King wagged an aqua-matronly disapproving finger at her Russian rival, Yulia Efimova — who has twice tested positive for illegal substances — after the Russian raised a finger as if to say “number one,” my initial snorting-red-white-and-blue-nationalistic reaction was a sage nod and some vigorous fist pumps. When King responded to Efimova, weeping after coming in second to King, by saying, “You know, I am not an emotional person,” I spent several minutes perusing GIFS that I might use to convey my delight.

Of course, I am able to feel this way because I am 100 percent positive that our fine athletes are clean and the Russians (and basically competitors from any country that isn’t us) are up to their gills in cutting-edge supplements and other sundry PEDs. I am. I feel that deep down in my bones. I just know it.

Rio, 2016: Drug-Cheat Accusation Turns Into an International Emoji War

Ahead of the 400-meter freestyle final, Australia’s Mack Horton (whom I would describe as a cross between Waldo and pre-lewd-conduct Hugh Grant) called China’s Sun Yang, who had previously tested positive for a banned substance, a “drug cheat.” Horton was then inundated with a blizzard of social media hate, some of which was transformed into mad/beautiful Cormac McCarthian bars of fire by whatever translation algorithm rendered them into English. Personal favorite:

“You’re alive, I’ll blame you here, you don’t escape. You have died, but also for the I’ll let you in hell, life is scold you, death is a crusade against your ghost. You don’t happy, You will never in the heaven!”

YO: “DEATH IS A CRUSADE AGAINST YOUR GHOST.”

Rio, 2016: Phelps Murderface