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Tennis’ return to Olympics in 1988 faced skeptics, too

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Like golf today, tennis’ return to the Olympics in 1988 was met with mixed reactions from top players.

Tennis was eased back into the Games for the first time as a medal sport since 1924. It had been a demonstration sport at the 1968 and 1984 Olympics.

Some top tennis players missed the 1988 Olympics for various reasons one week after the U.S. Open ended.

Start with the men. Eight of the top 10 in the ATP rankings the week of the Olympics did not play in Seoul, but most absences were forced.

Top-ranked Swede Mats Wilander reportedly pulled out due to shin splints two days after winning the longest U.S. Open men’s final in history, a near-five-hour, five-set win over Ivan Lendl.

There was further reason to doubt the seriousness of Wilander’s injury based on comments earlier in 1988.

“An Olympic gold medal wouldn’t be like winning the Davis Cup or a Grand Slam tournament,” Wilander said, according to The Associated Press, conjuring recent comments from Adam Scott, the world No. 7 golfer who is skipping the Rio Games.

Wilander returned from his injury to the ATP Tour during the Olympics, winning an event in Palermo, Italy.

Lendl, then No. 2, didn’t play in Seoul due to reported citizenship issues. He couldn’t get cleared to play for the U.S. in time and wouldn’t play for Czechoslovakia.

The U.S. men’s team was actually chosen in December 1987. It did not include Andre AgassiJimmy Connors or John McEnroe.

“There wasn’t a great deal of enthusiasm in the U.S., and that kind of hurt the Olympic effort in general,” longtime tennis reporter Peter Bodo said. “On the other hand, the Europeans, as usual, were more Olympic conscious. The U.S. was a little more lukewarm. The Americans were a lot like the golfers are today.”

Agassi was ranked No. 4 the week of the Olympics but was outside the top 20 in December 1987, not high enough given nations could enter a maximum of three singles players per gender in Seoul.

Agassi could have been placed on the U.S. team later on in 1988, as Chris Evert was controversially, but that didn’t happen.

Agassi, Connors and McEnroe “all said they were not interested in participating in the Olympics,” according to The New York Times. McEnroe later said he regretted not playing. Agassi later won gold at Atlanta 1996.

Excluding Lendl, Connors and McEnroe were two of the top three U.S. men in December 1987.

The U.S. men’s singles team in Seoul instead included the other top-ranked U.S. men, Tim Mayotte and Brad Gilbert, and doubles star Robert Seguso, who was ranked in the 130s in singles in December 1987.

Two more top 10 players in 1988, Australian Pat Cash and Frenchman Yannick Noah, missed the Olympics with no widespread reports of injury.

Cash cited family and tournament commitments in July 1988 for backing out of the Olympics, according to The Associated Press, conjuring the recent Rio withdrawal of South African golfer Louis Oosthuizen.

Noah was indifferent toward the Olympics and said tennis players don’t belong at the Games, according to the AP.

In all, seven of the ATP top 20 the week of the Olympics played in Seoul. Most of the absences were due to injuries or ineligibilities, such as the three-players-per-nation rule that limited Americans and Swedes.

Fifth-ranked Boris Becker reportedly said after losing at the U.S. Open with a foot injury that he would go to Seoul “with a broken leg” if he had to. Becker later withdrew due to injury but still planned on attending the Games as a non-participant before that idea was reportedly quashed.

Two more top-20 players — Argentina’s Guillermo Pérez Roldán and Austrian Thomas Muster — played other ATP tournaments instead of the Olympics.

No. 3 Stefan Edberg was the only player in the top nine left to compete in Seoul. He was upset by Czechoslovakia’s Miloslav Mečíř in the semifinals. Mečíř went on to beat Mayotte for gold.

“I don’t really know whether we should be here in tennis, but it is worth giving it a chance,” Edberg said in Seoul, according to the book, “Olympic Tennis — An Historical Snapshot.” “It needs some time. … Now here, all the top players aren’t competing so that hurts it a little bit. Plus, we have all the Grand Slam events we play in, and those are the most important right now to us. But this is only played every four years, so there’s nothing wrong with trying it.”

On the women’s side, all but one player ranked in the WTA top 20 the week of the Olympics played in Seoul if they were eligible.

The omission was No. 2 Martina Navratilova, who said it wasn’t essential and that Olympic sponsorship rules made it like the star tennis pros were being treated like children, according to the Chicago Tribune in 1988.

“I don’t think of tennis as a real Olympic sport,” Navratilova said, according to the newspaper. “It has to establish itself.”

Navratilova later did play in the Olympics, falling in the doubles quarterfinals at age 47 at Athens 2004.

Rival Evert wasn’t named to the initial U.S. team in December 1987, even though she was No. 3 in the year-end rankings.

Evert declined then because of a “tense political situation” in South Korea and a scheduled wedding in the fall, according to The New York Times.

Evert, who was engaged to U.S. Olympic Alpine skier Andy Mill, changed her view after watching the Calgary 1988 Winter Games.

”I watched the gold medals being hung over the athletes’ heads in Calgary and tried to relate to that,” Evert said, according to the newspaper. ”I imagined what it would be like for me. I know what it feels like to hold up the Wimbledon plate and the U.S. Open trophy — it’s a great thrill — but no one in tennis knows how it will feel to get a medal in the Olympics.”

Evert was controversially placed on the U.S. team in July 1988, moving up her wedding date and replacing Elise Burgin, who had fallen in ranking from the 60s in December 1987 out of the top 100 due to knee surgery.

Evert joined Pam Shriver and Zina Garrison, all ranked in the top 10, as the U.S. singles players in Seoul. Four more Americans in the top 20 couldn’t play because of the three-per-country rule.

But German Steffi Graf would take gold, completing a calendar Golden Slam after sweeping the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open. No other singles player has accomplished that feat in one year.

“I’ve been trying to think about it, to decide whether I really feel included in this Olympics,” Evert said in Seoul, according to “Olympic Tennis — An Historical Snapshot.” “So many of the other athletes here — well, for four years, their goal is the Olympics. They have other meets, but all their training is essentially for the Olympics. … We just finished the U.S. Open a week or so ago, and that makes me look around at the other athletes in other sports — they are so hungry for this — and wonder just how many of the tennis players are really that hungry.”

Tennis’ place in the Olympics is now secure, even if it is not seen as equal with the Grand Slams.

Roger FedererRafael NadalNovak Djokovic and Andy Murray all played at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, save Nadal’s health problems that kept him out of London. All are expected in Rio.

Serena Williams has said she would save her Olympic medals first if her house caught fireVenus Williams rushed her return from Sjögren’s syndrome, an energy-sapping autoimmune disorder, in 2012 to qualify for her fourth Games.

“It was a brilliant stroke to have tennis at Wimbledon [in 2012],” Bodo said. “It’s become legitimate.”

VIDEO: Nicklaus, Player concerned about stars skipping Rio

Lin Dan, badminton legend, retires: ‘It is very difficult to say goodbye’

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Lin Dan, arguably the greatest badminton player in history, announced retirement Saturday, citing “pain and injuries” in bowing out a year before the postponed Tokyo Olympics.

“I have been with the national team from 2000 to 2020, and it is very difficult to say goodbye,” 36-year-old Lin wrote to his four million Weibo fans, according to Badminton World Federation (BWF) translation. “Pain and injuries no longer allow me to fight with my teammates. I have gratitude, a heavy heart and unwillingness.”

Lin, nicknamed “Super Dan,” won Olympic singles titles in 2008 and 2012, plus five individual world titles. It’s the greatest resume for any badminton player from China, which owns twice as many medals as any other nation in the sport that debuted at the 1992 Barcelona Games.

He competed at the last four Olympics, won the sport’s Super Grand Slam (nine major titles) and had his own wax figure at Madame Tussauds in Shanghai.

Lin’s outbursts on and off the court led to some calling him the John McEnroe of badminton, but he is revered. In 2015, he was the second athlete on Forbes China‘s most popular celebrities list behind tennis player Li Na.

Lin’s pursuit of a fifth Olympics in Tokyo was looking out of reach. He dropped to No. 26 in the Olympic qualifying rankings, trailing four countrymen, including No. 5 Chen Long (Rio Olympic champion) and No. 11 Shi Yuqi (2018 World silver medalist). A nation can qualify a maximum of two individual players per gender for the Games.

“From where came his mastery? In short, his prowess was essentially due to the completeness of his game – in skill, physical ability and mental strength,” the BWF wrote in a press release. “Such was his craft that even well into his 30s, normally considered an advanced age for men’s singles, he could outplay younger and fitter opponents.”

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

MORE: Who is China’s greatest Olympian?

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MyKayla Skinner’s motivation for Tokyo: her Rio Olympic experience

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MyKayla Skinner remembers the little room at the SAP Center in San Jose. She remembers the wait, somewhere between 10 and 20 minutes.

After the 2016 U.S. Olympic Women’s Gymnastics Trials, the competitors (14 total performed) assembled while a selection committee convened in another space.

The committee finalized the five-woman Olympic team (plus three alternates), marched into the athletes’ room and delivered the verdict.

“They say the first four names, and then there’s that one spot left,” Skinner recalled. “I’m like, is it going to be me? You’re so tense just waiting there. All of us holding each other’s hands in the room. We’re all sitting there. It’s just, like, frozen dead silent. Then they say that fifth spot.”

Skinner doesn’t remember who was the fifth name. Just that it wasn’t her.

“I just broke down crying,” she said in a recent interview. “All that hard work I put in still wasn’t good enough. Even though it was. It’s just who they needed for the team.”

Skinner placed fourth in the all-around at those Olympic Trials, the highest finisher who was not named to the Olympic team. She was one of three alternates. If the Olympic team was chosen by all-around standings, a selection committee would not be necessary. Instead, gymnasts are puzzle pieces, chosen as who best fits the Olympic format: three gymnasts per apparatus in the team final and up to two per nation per individual final.

Skinner’s mind raced while she waited for the committee’s decision. She eventually settled on a gut feeling, that she would not make the team.

“I thought that it should be enough, but at the same I didn’t think that it would be,” said Lisa Spini, Skinner’s coach at Desert Lights Gymnastics in Chandler, Arizona. “I thought the team was already decided before the Olympic Trials.”

Spini said it was her toughest night as a gymnastics coach.

“Being an alternate is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in gymnastics,” said Skinner, who traveled to Brazil and, with fellow alternates Ashton Locklear and Ragan Smith, trained separately from the Olympic team. “The whole time I was in Rio, I probably cried every single night

“The Olympics should be something so special, but I feel like it was definitely miserable at times. It was really hard to enjoy being an alternate. With this comeback, that has pushed me so hard just because I was so close.”

You may have read about Skinner back in the spring, after the Tokyo Olympics were postponed to 2021.

It’s a devastating delay for a female gymnast, whose peak often lasts for one Olympic cycle (sometimes even shorter). Skinner is an exception, excelling for the better part of a decade on different levels.

She made her first world championships team in 2014. After Rio, she matriculated at the University of Utah, where she was twice an NCAA all-around runner-up and hit an NCAA record 161 straight routines without a fall. In 2019, she decided to come back to international competition — for an Olympic run — with one year left of NCAA gymnastics.

She is 23, the oldest of the 16-woman U.S. national team. She is trying to become the oldest woman to make a U.S. Olympic gymnastics team since 2004. And the first with NCAA experience to do so since Alicia Sacramone in 2008.

“The reason why a lot of college gymnasts couldn’t come back and do it is they’ve been so injured over the years,” Spini said. “Their body wouldn’t hold up. She’s been really lucky that way.”

Skinner could have easily followed the path of so many other stars who signaled the end of an elite career by going to college, where training and routines are less demanding.

She questioned herself often after the Tokyo postponement whether it was worth it to return to elite training. The Olympic team event roster size has been cut from five to four. Simone Biles is an overwhelming favorite to earn one spot. In the face of those odds, Skinner can’t shake a memory from Rio.

“I just go back to the moment of when I was sitting in the stands,” watching the Final Five earn gold, Skinner said. “I was so close to making the team. This has been my dream ever since I went to Desert Lights when I was 12.”

Skinner’s comeback is already a success. Last year, on three months of elite training, she placed eighth at the U.S. Championships. She was convinced to accept an invitation to the world championships selection camp, where six women would make the traveling team (one later named an alternate).

Like in 2016, Skinner placed fourth in the all-around competition before the roster was chosen.

Again, the gymnasts gathered for the announcement. This time, Skinner made the cut as the sixth woman named. Biles, the other 20-something at the camp and a friend, jumped in excitement.

The team traveled to Germany in late September. After training, one woman had to be designated the alternate. High performance team coordinator Tom Forster took Skinner aside one day on the way to lunch. She knew what was coming and broke down in tears, flashing back to 2016.

“Simone was like, hey, let’s go to the bathroom. She helped talk me through it and helped me calm down and definitely made me a feel a lot better,” said Skinner, who supported Biles and the U.S. team that competed in Stuttgart. She then wed Jonas Harmer in November and decided what must be done to make the Olympic team.

“We’re going to try to add in some big skills, which will put her difficulty level, probably, second only to Simone,” Spini said.

Skinner is documenting her last year-plus in elite gymnastics on a YouTube channel with 29,000 subscribers. She has been fortunate during the coronavirus pandemic to train at her gym if no more than 10 people were present. Many other gymnasts — and athletes across Olympic sports — spent weeks or months out of their facilities.

“I definitely don’t think I would have been able to have that much time off,” she said. “That’s really hard with gymnastics because you feel like, you take two days off, and it’s like you had a year off.”

One day this spring, Skinner’s mom called, in tears, fearing for her life with an illness that turned out to be the coronavirus. Both of her parents, in their 60s, had it and briefly lost their senses of taste. Her mom had breathing problems, but they recovered.

One night last month, Skinner had a dream about next year’s Olympic Trials. The Final Five all came back to compete, and Skinner was again named an alternate. She woke up. Skinner doesn’t know how she would handle that kind of disappointment in real life, again.

“So it’s kind of scary,” she said. Then Skinner thinks back to Rio, and that burning she felt while watching the Final Five win gold medals.

“This is what I’m supposed to do. This is what I’m meant to do is elite gymnastics,” said Skinner, who was born via life-threatening, early-labor C-section, needing to be revived by doctors. “I think it’s cool that I can have this opportunity to go and push myself one last time so I can reach that end goal.”

MORE: Gymnast Grace McCallum won a coin flip to become world champion

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