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At the start of the summer Olympics in 1936, the focus of news coverage was the imposing perfection of it all: The masterpiece Olympic village designed by Wolfgang Furstner, a Wehrmacht captain; the new 100,000-seat track and field stadium, built to outshine the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum that hosted the Olympics four years earlier; and the 326-acre sports complex in Grunewald named the “Reichssportfeld,” built under the direction of the nation’s 47-year-old head of state, Adolf Hitler, who was determined to use the Olympics for propaganda purposes.

“Every vista suggested coiled might,” author Lauren Hillenbrand wrote in “Unbroken,” the biography of Louis Zamperini, who competed in the games.

“Nazi banners papered over everything. As much as a third of the male population was in uniform, as were many children. … The only visible wisp of discord was the broken glass in the windows of Jewish businesses.”

Eighty years later, the coverage leading up to the XXXI Olympiad in Rio de Janiero was quite the opposite.

Those of us in the media wrote extensively about the threat of the Zika virus. We wrote about Brazil’s problems with finances, crime and construction delays. And we wrote about open-water risks ranging in size from bacteria to floating couches.

The Rio Games were supposed to be as much a disaster as the 1936 Berlin games were to be a showcase of power and Hitler’s warped belief in racial supremacy.

But in both cases, the outcome has been something very different. The stories of the athletes have prevailed.

In 1936, it was tales of people like Zamperini, who became a crowd favorite by laying down one of the fastest final laps in the history of the 5000-meter run and went go on to become an American war hero. It was people like Elizabeth “Betty” Robinson Schwartz who was so severely injured in a plane crash in 1931 that she was mistaken for dead and placed in the trunk of a car. Despite 11 weeks in a hospital and four months in a wheelchair and crutches, she managed to make it on the legendary U.S. women’s 4×100 meter relay team that defeated a heavily favored German foursome for gold. Most of all it was about Jesse Owens, the Ohio State star who took home four gold medals in sprint and long jump events, severely dampening the Führer’s hopes of making it an Olympics remembered for Aryan supremacy.

We are only halfway through the 2016 Rio Games but, once again, the stories of the athletes — not nations or viruses — are capturing the world’s attention.

These games are about people like Simone Manuel, 20, from Texas who became the first African-American woman to win a gold medal in swimming Thursday with her stunning victory in the 100-meter freestyle. Her tear-filled celebration has earned a place among the great moments in sports history.

It’s about Syrian refugee Yusra Mardini, 18, who while in a small sinking boat bound for Lesbos off the coast of Greece a year ago, jumped in the water and, with the help of her sister, pushed and pulled the boat to shore, saving 20 lives. Last week, she jumped in the water again, finishing out of the running in the 100-meter butterfly, but making history nonetheless as a member of the first refugee team to ever compete in the Games.

And, of course, it’s about athletes like Madeline “Maya” DiRado who is familiar not just because of media coverage but because she is one of our own here in Sonoma County. As many know by know, DiRado, 23, a former Santa Rosa resident, was a swimmer for the local Neptunes Swimming club and a graduate of Maria Carrillo High School.

Many of us have stories about this champion. For me, I’ve known Maya and her family for nearly 18 years. One of my favorite stories was about the time we were sitting with her parents, Marit and Ruben, at a Sonoma County Crushers (semipro) baseball game in Rohnert Park sometime around 2000 when I turned to see Maya and her sister, Sarah, tucked between the bleacher seats behind us — reading. When I asked them what had them so absorbed, they introduced me to someone called Harry Potter. (As it turned out, they made the right choice. Potter lasted far longer than the Crushers.)

But those who watched what she did in recent days in coming away with four medals in swimming — two gold, a silver and a bronze — now have their own story. Maya’s victory in the 200-meter backstroke on Friday, in particular, was the stuff of storybooks. I’m still not sure how she touched the wall before the “Iron Lady” of Hungary. Annie Grevers, a former national swimmer and now writer for Swimming World magazine, called it “the golden lunge.” Maybe it was magic.

But what makes her story unusual is that this was her first and last Olympics. She says she is ready to get on with her career and with her family life.

What a uniquely un-American thing to do.

It’s not often we witness such restraint and dedication to the simple truth that some things in life are more important than sports.

Whatever you think of her choice, these are the kinds of authentic stories that make the Olympics worth watching every four years.

But threats exist.

Eighty years ago, it came from Hitler, who wanted to control the outcome by excluding or discouraging some athletes — primarily Jews — from competing. Today the threat is more covert. It’s about giving athletes a competitve advantage through doping. The latest report on the systemic, state-run cheating by Russia shows the extent of the problem. The International Olympic Committee’s feckless response to it has been far from encouraging.

Fortunately, some of the athletes themselves have begun to speak up about it, including American swimmer Lilly King, whose finger wag at Russia’s Yulia Efimova, a three-time Olympian, is now famous. Efimova was suspended 16 months for testing positive for a steroid hormone and recently tested positive for meldonium, the same drug that Maria Sharapova admitted to using, but somehow Efimova was allowed to compete anyway.

History, I suspect, won’t be kind toward the IOC when the final chapter is written about doping in these games. But with luck, it won’t matter much. It’s the stories built by athletes, not nations, that will stand out — athletes like Manuel, Mardini and DiRado. They always do.