By Adam B. Vary
July 31, 2012 at 12:20 PM EDT
Gregory Bull/AP

“The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” may be the slogan for ABC’s defunct Wide World of Sports, but rarely has it been as apt as on the third day of NBC’s Olympic primetime coverage. The U.S. pulled in some major hardware in the swimming pool — though Ryan Lochte faltered for the second day in a row, and went home without a medal for the first time at this Olympics. America landed its first medal for men’s diving since 1996 — but diver Tom Daley, Great Britain’s most famous Olympian and one of its best chances for gold, failed to reach the medal stand. And while the host nation celebrated its first medal in men’s team gymnastics in 100 years, the favorites for gold, the United States, suffered through an agonizing slow-motion collapse, and finished a distant fifth.

Meanwhile, John McEnroe talked bikini bottoms with Bob Costas. The human drama of athletic competition, everyone! Let’s get to it: 

The nefarious monstrosity that is the pommel horse STRIKES AGAIN!

The U.S. men’s gymnastics team entered the arena like the beefiest megastar boy band ever: Sam “Hollywood” Mikulak, the carefree party boy; Jake Dalton, the quiet dreamboat; Jonathan Horton, the boy-next-door “old man”; John Orozco, the sensitive dreamer; and Danell Leyva, the talented and handsome frontman destined to cut his own solo album and kill on SNL. They were the leading team during the qualifying round, and NBC commentators Al Trautwig, Tim Daggett, and Elfi Schlegel thought nothing of lauding this team as the U.S.’s best hope of a gold medal since we’d won the Soviet-boycotted Games in 1984.

But with the very first event, things began to run off the rails when Mikulak landed badly during his floor routine and placed both hands on the mat. But it wasn’t until the team reached the pommel horse — an ungodly torture device created only to crush dreams and foul up wrists — when things went from bad to watching-through-my-fingers worse. First, Leyva fell off the horse. (As he waited in agony for his score, we heard the crowd audibly wince. Daggett noted Japan had just made a huge mistake on vault. “And perhaps an injury,” added Trautwig. One guess on whether we actually got to see it or not.) Then Orozco faltered so many times on the pommel horse, he was hit with over three points in deductions. “I don’t really know if Team U.S.A. can recover from this,” said Daggett, and, even though this could have been the inspirational movie moment where Team U.S.A. unites for an impossible comeback fated to make grown men misty by the mere mention of it, recover, they did not.

As if to underline how badly the U.S. was doing (in men’s gymnastics and national Olympic telecasts), we cut to a hurried and disjointed montage of other teams absolutely killing their routines. The U.K.’s awesomely coiffed Louis Smith on the dreaded pommel horse: Killed it. Ukraine on vault: Killed it. Japan on parallel bars: Killed it. China on parallel bars and high bar: Absolutely killed it, all the way to a gold medal.

The nail in the U.S.’s coffin came when Orozco’s vault ended with him landing hard on his butt. As a coach wrapped his arms around Orozco’s shoulders, you could literally watch the Bronx native’s heart breaking in real time. It was incredibly difficult to watch. Horton — who we never ended up getting to see compete at all — tried to rally his team, but it was too little, too late. As Orozco wiped away his tears, the commentators wrote off Team U.S.A. as medal contenders. Bob Costas cut away for another hour of swimming, and when we returned for the last round of gymnastics competition, we didn’t see a single second of the U.S. team competing, skipping the high bar and the rings entirely. Feh! If you’re not winners, why even bother watching you try?!

But that didn’t mean the drama was over. To a roaring home town crowd, the Great Britain team managed to buck 100 years of history and rally to a silver medal, with Prince William and Prince Harry cheering from the stands. But wait! Utilizing an arcane formal protest procedure that is sure to provoke hours of fulmination from folks who didn’t give a rip about gymnastics seven days ago, Team Japan successfully boosted the score of their star athlete’s wobbly pommel horse routine (POOOOMMMMMELLLL HORRRRRSSSSSSE!). Japan leapt from fourth to second place, bumping the Brits to bronze and Ukraine from the medal stand altogether. And that is the story of how the Japanese men’s gymnastics team became the Official Villains of the 2012 Olympics. Congratulations, guys! I just knew those anime haircuts would put you over the top!

Lochte stumbles, Phelps succeeds, but there’s a new swimming superstar

First and foremost, Monday night’s swimming events were about the official arrival of Olympic Stud of the Day Missy Franklin in America’s hearts and minds and cereal boxes. She got the only up-close-and-personal segment of the night, but with no hardship to speak of in her life, the segment instead focused on how Franklin is the most practically perfect teenager in every way. And also apparently a cyborg, since she qualified for the 200m freestyle and then won gold in the 100m backstroke with only 10 minutes’ rest in between. The 17-year-old’s thrilling sprint to the finish in the final 25 meters of her winning race is the reason the Olympics remain awesome television despite how much NBC tries to eff it up. Expect your mother to post on Facebook/text you/call you to tell you about how adorable she is, if she hasn’t already. She just got her braces off, everybody!

Monday was also about the continued humbling of Ryan Lochte. Still reeling from his (comparatively) shaky showing in the 4 x 100m relay on Sunday, Lochte failed to medal in the men’s 200m freestyle, missing by just 11 hundredths of a second, which commentator Rowdy Gaines chalked up to a poor finish. “That’s a slow time for me,” Lochte mumble-slurred after the race. “I know I can go a lot faster. I don’t know really where I fell off. I guess you live and learn.” Manufactured rival Michael Phelps, by contrast, easily qualified for his signature event, the 200m butterfly. He managed to hilariously embarrass Gaines in the process, goading the voluble commentator into wondering why Phelps did not look sharp in the first 150 meters of the race — and then turning on the afterburners for the final 50 meters. “Can I take that back?” asked an abashed Gaines after Phelps won his heat. Yes, Rowdy, of course you can.

Elsewhere in the pool, the U.S. snagged gold and silver in the men’s 100m backstroke, proving that Americans are awesome at doing things when we don’t have to turn our heads to breathe. And U.S. swimmer Breeja Larson instantly became the most self-conscious person in all of London when a malfunctioning starter bell caused her to be the only person on the blocks to jump in the pool. Awwwwkwaaaard!

The Daley Show hits dead air

Men’s diving, the most naked of Olympic events, made its debut Monday night, with the men’s synchronized platform final. The nominal star was the U.K.’s Tom Daley, who commentator Ted Robinson called “arguably the most scrutinized, the most publicized Great Britain athlete.” Like a dreamy chipmunk with unnervingly perfect abs, the 18-year-old Daley seemed to let the scrutiny and publicity wash over him like the shower he kept returning to after each round. That is, until a botched dive in round 4 dropped him and teammate Peter Waterfield (I’m not making that name up) from first to fourth, where they remained for the rest of the competition. Curiously, NBC never cut to an in-depth human interest story on Daley, whose father passed away last year, though Robinson did speak rather enviously of a BBC documentary on Daley with “incredible access” of his father’s final weeks. If only NBC’s cameras could have captured all those telegenic tears!

With the Brits out of contention, the Chinese diving juggernaut continued, with Cao Yuan and Zhang Yanquan, two teenagers heretofore unknown to the diving circuit, taking gold. (“The supply of divers from China is endless,” said commentator Cynthia Potter, evoking a vast factory where uncomfortably youthful Chinese workers assemble an army of uncomfortably youthful Chinese divers. China is a big country, y’all.) The Mexican contingent of Ivan Garcia Navarro and German Sanchez Sanchez (I’m not making that name up either) won silver thanks to their arsenal of high octane dives, including the most difficult dive in Olympic history, an inward 4 1/2 somersault tuck. And David Boudia and Nick McCrory of the U.S. took home bronze, the first U.S. men’s Olympic medal in diving since the Atlanta games. The duo’s deadpan pre-dive back-and-forth felt straight out of a Coen brothers film, and had me giggling every time I heard it: “Ready?” “Yup.” “Up. Ready?” “Yup.” “1, 2, 3, go.”

A close call for Misty & Kerri

In their match against the team from the Czech Republic, two-time defending beach volleyball champions Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings came within two points of ending their undefeated streak of winning sets at the Olympics, at one stage falling behind 18-15 in their second set. Thanks to the promise of a multi-colored cupcake to celebrate her birthday, however, May-Treanor dug deep at the end and helped eke out a win.

But I’m burying the lead here: They wore pants! Thanks to a night game in the chilly London air, viewers were not privy to the duo’s skimpy bikini bottoms, about which Walsh Jennings was very clear in their pre-Olympic interview with NBC’s official bro correspondent, John McEnroe. “We love that our sport is sexy, but our suits are our equipment,” she said. “I don’t think we need to go and be trashy, and I don’t think we’ve got even close to there.” Johnny Mac and Bob Costas, on the other hand, had no problem getting close to there, chortling about how much apparent beach volleyball virtuoso (and infamous basketball lothario) Wilt Chamberlain would have loved May-Treanor and Walsh Jennings’ equipment. “He would have approved of the bikinis on the women,” said McEnroe as if making a hysterical observation. “HUGE thumbs up!” agreed Costas. Hey, at least Seacrest wasn’t around to tweet about it.

Check back tomorrow for more NBC Primetime Olympics coverage.

Follow @adambvary

Read more:

Olympic Stud of the Day: Missy Franklin

Olympics recap, Day 2: Swimmer Dana Vollmer strikes gold while gymnast Jordyn Wieber stumbles

Olympics recap, Day 1: The Fall of Michael Phelps

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