Their feats have inspired people to go higher, faster and stronger. HT looks at some unforgettable moments from the Olympic pages.
Three days before the start of Berlin 1936, Jesse Owens obliged photographers by thundering up to the line and casually leaping to 25ft 6in. The distance would have been good enough to win bronze in the long jump final six days later. He ended up winning gold. Often, Owens’s sporting achievements are smothered by politics. Owens enjoyed seven days the like of which had never been seen before, winning four gold. No American athlete captured the imagination like Owens until Lewis emerged nearly 50 years later.
Michael Phelps may have arrived in the summer of 2004, but it was in Beijing’s National Aquatics Centre that he re-wrote the history books. In the space of eight short days, the American raced 17 times and claimed eight gold medals, to add to the six he won four years previously in Athens. In 2008, Phelps claimed gold and new world records in the 400m individual medley, 4x100m freestyle relay, 200m freestyle, 200m butterfly, 4x200m freestyle relay and 200m individual medley; he had to settle for the Olympic record in the 100m butterfly, in addition to the gold. The eighth gold followed in the 4x100m
By 1996, Carl Lewis was still going, but not very quickly. He made the US team in the long jump with an inch to spare. When his competition came he was a whisker away from missing the final entirely: needing a place in the top 12, after the first round of jumps he was 11th, and after the second he was 15th. That left him with one more chance; with the press box already penning his obituary he produced the best leap of the night and qualified in first place. Facing him in the final was Mike Powell, the man who had broken Lewis's 10-year, 65-event unbeaten record, and simultaneously laid the ghost of Bob Beamon, with a leap of 8.95m at the 1991 World Championships. But Lewis leapt 8.50m with his third jump to secure his ninth Olympic gold
Before the 1976 Games, Omega asked the IOC whether it would be better to replace the traditional gymnastics scoreboards, which had room for three digits with one that could display four? “I was told there was no need to,” recalls Daniel Baumat. On July 18, 14-year-old Nadia Comaneci’s routine on the uneven bars was flawless, and Baumat had to tell the judges “they could either put up 1.00 or .100 but that there was no possibility for a 10.00. Just as the federation had told me.” Comaneci got a perfect 1.00.
In 1968, Mark Spitz declared that he expected to win six gold medals. That was in the build-up to the Games; in Mexico, Spitz won two and called his first Olympics “the worst meet of my life”. Four years later he insisted he was “more mature”. He won the 200m butterfly, 200m freestyle and 100m butterfly and anchored two freestyle relay teams to victory. His fifth gold equalled the then-record held by Italian fencer Nedo Nadi (1920) and Paavo Nurmi (1924). Spitz added two more. All seven of his gold came in world record times.
Of the seven winners over nearly 30 years of Olympic men’s 100 metres finals only Donovan Bailey, successful in 1996, made it to retirement without his medal getting tarnished. Through all of this, the event remained the single most anticipated contest of the Olympics. But those years of scandal undoubtedly had a negative impact on the reputation of sprinting and sprinters. Athletics needed a popular, charismatic and scandal-free sprint champion. At Beijing 2008, it got Bolt. His 100m run was astonishingly emphatic, but some observers, Carl Lewis included, were cynical. Bolt countered: “All I have to do is stay clean, and the talk will stop.”
He almost screwed himself out of the long jump final at the 1968 Games in Mexico City, overstepping by a foot on his first two attempts in the qualifying competition. With only one chance left, Beamon re-measured his run-up and managed to jump fairly and long enough to make it through. The next day, he hit the board perfectly, soared and planted his feet six seconds after taking his first stride. More than 20 minutes later, 8.90m flashed up on the scoreboard. Forty-three years later, Beamon’s achievement is cherished in the memories of those who witnessed it as “the leap of the century”. Perhaps only Neil Armstrong could quibble with that.
Come what may, he will forever have Atlanta and those 10 days when he became the only male athlete ever to win both the 200 metres and 400 metres at the same Olympics. The 200m was the second instalment, a performance of generational greatness metered out in that unstoppable chugging stride. He broke his own world record by more than 3/10ths of a second, the largest ever trimming of the 200m world record. It was a fist through the ceiling, compared at the time to Bob Beamon’s Mexico long jump.
Nicknamed “The Pocket Hercules”, this Bulgarian of Turkish descent set his first world record at age 16. Soviet’s boycott of Los Angeles 1984 cost him a shot at Games glory, but Suleymanoglu made up for it over the next three editions. Representing Turkey, the weightlifter won gold in the 60kg category at Seoul and Barcelona 1992, and added a third at Atlanta 1996 in 64kg category.
Some Olympians are born to run fast, others simply force themselves. Paavo Nurmi was one of the latter, a man of such iron will and fierce discipline that nobody hoping to survive on talent alone could dream of coming near him. In 1958, when he looked back over his athletic career, he said that the one thing it had taught him was that there are “neither unbeatable records nor human limits”. And in his world, at least, it was true.
At London 1948, Fanny Blankers-Koen demolished prejudices about gender, age and motherhood and, as a pioneer and standard-bearer who inspired millions, established the legitimacy of women’s sport in an Olympic movement that had been the preserve of male competitors until 1928. The Dutchwoman lauded for her feats on Wembley’s damp and unresponsive cinder track as “the Flying Housewife” was 30 and mother of two.
China first took part in the Olympics in 1952, but did not make a second appearance till Los Angeles 1984. One man made the Dragon’s return from their self-imposed exile special by winning six medals including three gold. Gymnast Li Ning won top honours in floor exercise, pommel horse and rings; he won silver on the vault and was part of the team that won silver in men’s all-around event. A bronze in all-around capped off the Games.
In 1957, an automobile crash nearly killed Melbourne 1956 discus gold medallist Al Oerter, but he recovered to defend his title at Rome 1960 with an Olympic record. In Tokyo 1964, Oerter, bothered by a neck injury and a torn rib cartilage, again smashed the Olympic record to complete hat-trick. He went to Mexico City in 1968, no longer the favourite, but produced another record to become the first athlete to win four consecutive gold.
In front of 112,524 expectant fans, Cathy Freeman, Australia's only hope of an athletics gold medal at Sydney 2000, starts conservatively. At 200m she’s close to the lead, but the noise only returns as Freeman emerges third as they enter the home straight. By 60m out she's won it. As the lactic acid builds up in the legs of her adversaries, Freeman powers clear, the final strides run as if there's a wall to be crashed through on the finish line.
He had already won the 5,000m and 10,000m in Helsinki ’52. But the Czech had never run a marathon, and the pre-race favourite was Jim Peters, the world record holder. Halfway through the marathon, Zatopek appeared on leader Peters’s shoulder and asked, “Is this pace too fast?” Peters replied, “It isn't fast enough.” Zatopek took him at his word, and soon disappeared from view. When Zatopek crossed the line, he had secured a long-distance treble that no one has emulated.
After winning a boxing gold at Munich 1972, Teofilo Stevenson turned down at least three offers of or above a million dollars, saying: “What is a million dollars against eight million Cubans who love me?” He successfully defended his gold at Montreal 1976 and Moscow 1980. Each time, he returned to his £35-a-month stipend, something that left westerners bemused. He responded: “If people can’t understand how someone can turn down millions of dollars for principle, who seems brainwashed to you?”
Cassius Clay’s impact on Rome 1960 is talked up because of the worldwide fame he later gained as Muhammad Ali. But while Clay’s credentials as an amateur were well known, few could sense that a worldwide star was about to be unleashed. He became a crowd favourite as he moved ahead, thanks to an unorthodox style that had him in trouble against Zbigniew Pietrzykowski in the final. Trailing the Pole on points after two rounds, Clay found form in the third to win gold.
At Seoul 1988, Flo-Jo won gold in the 100m, the 200m and the 4x100m, and silver in the 4x400m. In the 100m she broke the Olympic record twice and produced a stunning performance to win the final in a wind-assisted 10.54. The Games, though, would be dominated by talk of performance-enhancing drugs. Griffith Joyner took, and passed, 11 tests for performance-enhancing drugs in 1988. “I know exactly what people are saying about me,” she said. “And it's simply not true.”
In the springboard heats at Seoul 1988, Greg Louganis left the board too straight and clattered his head. The cut having been dealt with, Louganis emerged for his penultimate dive. In the final, Louganis won by a margin of 25 points. In the platform final, Xiong Ni led by three points before the final round and then produced an excellent effort that earned 82.56. Nothing less than perfection would save Louganis now, and that is exactly what he produced. His dive earned 86.70 points, and victory by 1.14.