Honestly, is there any sporting event more spectacular or grand than the Olympics? Like anything, I suppose one can argue the point, especially when you factor in personal taste. Yet, as entertaining as sporting events like the Super Bowl or World Cup are, I believe the two weeks of sporting competition, that brings together the best athletes from across the globe, is the epitome of not just sportsmanship, but a bridge of the congenial international relations that is possible between all people and nations of the world.
Just reflect on the scope of what we are talking about here – almost 11,000 athletes from over 200 countries competing in over 300 events. And for the most part, all of this is done without violence or deep seated acrimony. Take a moment and watch the parade of nations during the Opening Ceremonies – you’re sure to feel a sense of pride, and not just with the showing of your own nation, but also with the majesty that comes with ALL the nations of the world on display. Yes, the Olympics feature competitive sports, but the real essence of the Games are the compelling stories that exemplify the enduring human spirit.
With the Games of The XXX Olympiad gearing up in London, this seemed like a perfect time to reflect on the best and worst moments that the Olympics have intoned in our collective consciousness. We are going to begin this Olympic series of lists with the good stuff. Here are the Top 10 Best Olympic Moments– not necessarily the most memorable, but rather those that best reflect (I believe) the true Olympic spirit.
10. Ian Thorpe’s Gold Medals Redeems Australia
Generally, the host country of an Olympiad does remarkably well – or at least better than usual (in terms of their medal count/performance during the Games). This wasn’t the case, at least initially, for Australia at the 2000 Sydney Games. Indeed, up until Thorpe’s performance, Australia had been shut out of the medal count. The situation was made all the more worse, as the various media outlets picked up on the story and kept a running commentary on the issue, refusing to let it die.
A national embarrassment (if these types of things matter to you) was in the making. The set up was perfect, as Australia’s national pride was resting squarely on the shoulders of an 18-year-old swimming phenom. To be sure, Thorpe was expected to do well in the pool. But with the mounting pressure, a faltering would not have been completely surprising. After all, this was a kid that a nation was pinning its Olympic hopes to.
Thorpe, however, belying his young age, was up to the challenge. This water torpedo took to the pool, and left his challengers in his wake. He smashed the 400 meter freestyle world record in the midst of winning gold in the event, and captured two more gold medals in the 4 x 200 freestyle and 4 x 400 freestyle relay (and two silver medals as well). Australia would go on to fare well in other events, but the collective breath of a worried nation was let out when Ian Thorpe took to the pool and brought home gold, and national pride, for Australia. The Olympic spirit is as much about hope and inspiration as it is about competitive achievement.
9. The Performance of Eric “The Eel” Moussambani
Almost every Olympiad has a compelling story about some underdog from some obscure nation that most people have never heard of. Such was the case with the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, Australia. The swimming events are among the most popular competitions. Usually, these events are dominated by the Olympic powerhouses like Australia, the United States and China – often to the exclusion of smaller nations.
A change in the Olympic rule book sought to address this issue to a certain degree by the addition of “wildcards” into the competitive qualification draw. This procedure set the stage for Eric Moussambi of Equatorial Guinea, a 100-meter freestyle swimmer, to have an opportunity to shine. This was a unique situation, because it just so happens that the 22-year-old Moussambi had only learned to swim about eight months prior to the Games. This kid hadn’t even swam in a race that was longer than 50 meters, prior to his arrival in Sydney. Yet here he was, on the biggest stage in sports.
Naturally, the man that would become known as The Eel wasn’t expected to do very much. But fate had something else in store this day. The Eel’s qualifying heat only had two other swimmers, and they both managed to get themselves disqualified for false starts. Moussambani was the only swimmer in the pool when the heat officially began and, when he took off, the 17,000 fans and spectators in attendance roared. The Eel really couldn’t swim very well, and it took him almost 2 minutes to finish (the slowest time in Olympic history), but finish he did – with an official victory – to the cheers of the crowd, his country, and everyone who loves to see an underdog have his day in the sun. The Olympic spirit is not always about who’s the fastest or strongest, but rather who has the heart to undertake the challenge.
8. Opening Ceremonies of 2008 Summer Olympics in China
There were a lot of misgivings about China hosting an Olympiad. From the capability of their infrastructure to support such a massive event, to the all-too-real issues regarding China’s human rights record, there were many critics that questioned the nation’s ability, and right, to host the Games, and predicted doom.
The reality of the situation was anything but disastrous. In fact, it was one of the best Olympiads in recent history. The tone for the success of the Games began, in this writer’s humble opinion, in the most spectacular and memorable opening ceremony in the history of the Olympics. Generally speaking, Olympic ceremonies are only worth watching for the parade of nations at the end. The rest is usually a too-long tribute to Olympic glory that is done in such a way as to highlight the culture, traditions and history of the host country.
Well, China did the same thing – they just did it in such a compelling manner that most people actually sat through and watched the program from beginning to end. The sheer scope, synchronization, and creativity that went into the program were nothing short of spectacular. The pageantry was taken to a level that just hadn’t been seen with an opening ceremony, and elegantly showcased the richness of Chinese culture (which is altogether different from current Chinese politics).
To this date, folks are still talking about those ceremonies, and whether London (or anyone else) will do as well. For certain, the Chinese set the bar very high for future host nations and proved that even those who many don’t expect to succeed can still come out on top.
7. Japanese Softball Wins Gold Against Powerhouse US Team
Women athletes have had to struggle to earn their rightful place in the Olympics. In the first modern Olympics in 1896, women were not allowed to participate at all. There has been a steady progression since 1900 (the first Olympics to include female participation) of the addition of events for women. It was, therefore, a sad moment for the Games when the Olympic competition committee decided to eliminate women’s softball after 2008. Softball is fast becoming a popular sport, and its exclusion from the Olympics was surprising.
This upsetting backdrop set up a dramatic gold medal contest in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China. The game was between Japan and the United States. The United States, for its part, has dominated women’s softball; winning gold in the three previous Olympics. The Japanese were not intimidated in the least. In fact, they had their own ace up their collective sleeves, in star pitcher Yukiko Ueno. Ueno just happens to throw the fastest underhand pitch in softball (clocked at over 75 mph) and is the only pitcher to pitch a perfect game in the Olympics. The end result was a 3-1 upset victory, and the gold medal, for the Japanese.
But the real story is what happened after the game. The Japanese, US, and Australian (who took home the bronze medal) teams came together and, using softballs, spelled out “2016” on the field. This was a shout-out to the Olympic committee to restore softball, and another example of the solidarity that is exemplified in the Olympic spirit.
6. Mary Peters Winning Gold For Ireland
The name of Mary Peters may not ring any bells with many, but her story fits well with the idea we are trying to convey with this list – namely, that the Olympics is simply a bridge to greater pastures that illuminate mankind’s potential. Mary Peters represented Northern Ireland at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany. Her gold medal-winning performance in the pentathlon would cement her status as one of the best female athletes in the world that year.
But her victory was so much more than that – for her and the people she represented. Her time on the world stage coincided with ominous happenings in her homeland. The Troubles had being ongoing for 3 years by this time and Belfast, her home town, needed something – someone – to cheer for, to feel good about. Peter stated herself that she HAD to win gold, and that “something good has got to happen to our city.”
It’s interesting to note that Peters was accused of being a Protestant, and received a death threat to this fact amidst the Catholic v. Protestant fervor that was a part the unrest at home. I say that it’s interesting (ironic is probably a better word) because, in fact, Peters was neither – she was an atheist. It didn’t matter. Peters took her gold medal home and toured her city of Belfast to let everyone see THEIR medal. Once again, the Olympic spirit trumps divisive and violent ideology, providing joy and inspiration instead.
5. Abebe Bikila Wins Marathon While Barefoot
If you are familiar to any degree with distance running competitions, then you are aware that African’s (notably Ethiopians and Kenyans) are among the best long-distance runners in the world. The athletes from the African continent have dominated the distance running scene – at all levels and events it seems – for quite some time.
This, however, was not always the case. Racial stereotypes and exclusion negated any significant impact by athletes of color (from any nation, with a few exceptions) for some time. Abebe Bikila was one of these athletes who would begin to alter the perceptions of the narrow-minded. Participating in the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Bikila represented Ethiopia. There were two prominent factors that allowed the other competitors of the marathon to dismiss Bikila as a serious threat – one was that he was a black African (none had won a distance event previously), and also, he wasn’t wearing any shoes. I imagine that not having any shoes probably stood out more so than his color – but who knows.
Still, the idea of successfully running (not mentioning winning) a marathon without wearing shoes is fairly inconceivable. For the record, Bikila could have worn shoes. However, he reportedly could not find a pair that he felt was comfortable. After trying several different pairs, he decided he would run in the same manner that he trained – barefoot. Naturally, he was the recipient of a few questioned looks, and probably a few jibes as well. It didn’t matter. Once the starter pistol sounded off, the only thing Bikila’s competition could see were…well, the bottom of his feet.
The rest, as they say, is history. The Olympic spirit, embodied in so many of its competitors, transcends the limiting images that we often confine others with.
4. Injured Sprinter Derek Redmond Helped by his Father
Participating in the Olympics is often the crowning achievement of an athlete’s career. A lifetime of training and competing, for so many of these competitors, culminates with the opportunity to compete with the best in the world on the Olympic stage. It is therefore tragic, and heart-wrenching, to see an athlete injured in the midst of his or her dream.
Such was the case with British sprinter Derek Redmond at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain. Redmond was a world-class sprinter, having won gold as a member of Britain’s 4 x 400 meter relay team at the World Championship the year before. In Barcelona, Redmond had made it to the 400 meter semi-finals. This was an achievement beyond the obvious, as Redmond had vowed to reach this point after tearing his Achilles tendon, just prior to his race at the previous 1988 Games.
Redmond had worked long and hard to recover from his injuries and race again. Here he was, perched to realize his dream and, part way through the race, his hamstring pops. The disappointment, for certain, had to be greater than the pain. Still, Redmond – the physical and emotional pain that he was experiencing evident on his grimaced face – struggled to remain on his feet and at least finish the race. Redmond’s father, who was in the stands, had seen about all he could stand, and dashed onto the track to help his son. The world watched as a tearful son was consoled and helped by a concerned father. Redmond’s dad wrapped his arm around his son and helped him across the finish line.
Redmond was later disqualified (the rules stipulate that another person cannot help you in a race), but that didn’t really matter. What did was the love of a father for his son, the display of the Olympic spirit of determination, and the will to see oneself through to the finish. Redmond didn’t win gold, but he left Barcelona with the love of the people for his efforts.
3. George Eyser Wins Six Medals With A Wooden Leg
If you’ve never heard of George Eyser, don’t feel too bad – I hadn’t either until I happened to come across his amazing story while researching another athlete who, unfortunately, lost his spot to Mr. Eyser on this list. Today, we are all aware that the Paralympics have been established to allow handicapped athletes the opportunity to compete at the international level. Mr. Eyser, however, accomplished his feat amongst a field of standard competition at…wait for it…the 1904 Olympic Games in St. Louis, Missouri. Without the benefit of modern prosthesis, Mr. Eysner competed with a wooden artificial left leg. As a gymnast , no less!
Eysner had the misfortune of losing his leg after being run over by a train as a child. This obstacle, however, did not deter his Olympic dream. He managed to take gold in the rope climb (that was new to me too), the parallel bars, and vault competitions. But that’s not all; he also took home silver in something called the “combined,” the pommel horse, and a bronze medal in the horizontal bars.
In fact, his medal count (6 overall) makes Eyser one of the most accomplished Olympians in history – artificial leg or otherwise. Determination to compete against all odds – the indomitable Olympic spirit is an inspiration to us all.
2. Nadia Comaneci’s Perfect 10
Nadia Comaneci, to this day, is an international darling who captured the hearts of the world during one spectacular night during the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, Canada. This waifish young lady (she was only stood 4’11 and weighed all of 86 pounds) accomplished the unbelievable – all at the age of 14. Up until Ms. Comaneci stepped to perform her routine on the uneven bars, no gymnast before her had ever achieved a perfect 10. In fact, it was so inconceivable for anyone to do so, the scoreboards at the time weren’t even constructed to be able to display this score.
Nadia was a boon to the gymnastic scoreboard industry – not only did she score the first 10 on the uneven bars, she decided to score 6 more perfect 10’s before she was done. The precocious Romanian walked away with a bevy of Olympic medals – 3 gold medals, and a bronze and silver medal each to round out her ensemble – and, of course, the hearts of an entire world.
Nadia would go on to become a popular ambassador for her sport, and remains a benchmark of Olympic greatness. Her feat is still talked about in gymnastic circles and conversations detailing sporting achievement. The Olympic spirit can inspire the smallest of us to achieve the impossible.
1. Jesse Owens’ Four Gold Medals
I would be remiss if this list did not include the amazing feat of Jesse Owens. At the Berlin Games of 1936, Jesse Owens completed a feat that would not be replicated until the 1984 Games by Carl Lewis. Namely, Owens walked away with four gold medals – one each in the 100 meter, 200 meter, 400 x 100 meter relay, and the long jump.
This feat alone is a remarkable athletic performance. But it is the circumstances that surrounded Owens’ achievement that is so compelling. Owens faced almost insurmountable hurdles by simply being on the US team as an African American. The shameful nature of racial segregation in the United States during this period was a shackle of restraint that was difficult to overcome, despite one’s ability to achieve. In addition, Adolf Hitler was determined to set the stage to showcase Aryan superiority of his Nazi regime at these games.
There was no way that America, or Hitler, was prepared for the performance that Owens exhibited. In the stroke of a handful of races, Owens showed the world that the racial stereotypes that so exemplified the standard consciousness of so many was pure fallacy. On the world stage, an American black man was the best in the world. And you know what – Owens was able to capture the hearts of even the German people, who actually CHEERED him to victory. Hitler may not have liked it very much, but the Olympic spirit is about the best we have to offer one another.