There have been hundreds of incredible moments during the Olympic Games since 1896, but some of them stick in the memory longer than others. With the 2018 Winter Games coming up in South Korea, now’s a good time to take a look back. We’ve tried to list 25 of the most incredible moments over the years, but some of your favorites may surely be missing here.
We’ve tried to steer clear of controversies such as performance-enhancing drugs, corruption, world politics, boycotts, terrorism, and professionalism etc. This list concentrates on 25 of the most inspirational and emotional moments of the Olympics. Of course, we’ve also included some of the best athletic achievements the world has ever seen. These moments include men and women of various ages and nationalities and include both the Summer and Winter Games.
25. Muhammad Ali Lights Centenary Torch
One of the most emotional moments took place at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, Georgia when former light-heavyweight gold medal winner Muhammad Ali lit the Olympic flame. Ali won his medal in 1960 in Rome as Cassius Clay when he was just 18. Of course, he went on to become one of the world’s most beloved and famous people as well as the undisputed heavyweight champ of the world. By the time the Atlanta Games took place Ali was known to be in ill health and was suffering from Parkinson’s disease. This didn’t deter the then-54-year-old though as he made the trip to the Olympics’ 100th anniversary event and was also awarded with a new medal to replace the original one from 1960. Legend has it that Ali tossed his medal into the Ohio River after being refused service in a restaurant due to his color.
24. Jamaican Bobsled Team Qualifies for 1988 Games
The story of the Jamaican bobsled team is another inspirational one as it came against all the odds. The team of ultimate underdogs showed up at the 1988 Games in Calgary, Alberta as the very first Jamaicans to participate in the Winter Games. The tropical islanders weren’t expected to win a medal and they didn’t disappoint here because they didn’t after crashing in a qualifier. The bobsled team won over the hearts of the fans and world media. Their Olympic appearance inspired the 1993 movie Cool Runnings and the team has since qualified for five more Olympics in 1992, 1994, 1998, 2002 and 2014. But the original 1988 team consisting of Devon Harris, Dudley Stokes, Chris Stokes, Michael White and Freddy Powell will always be remembered as trailblazers. The Jamaicans will be sending a women’s bobsled team to the Olympics for the first time in South Korea in 2018.
23. Eddie the Eagle Soars in Calgary
While we’re mentioning 1988 underdogs, let’s not forget about Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards of Cheltenham, England. Edwards also won over fans and media alike at the Games in Calgary where he competed in the 70-meter and 90-meter ski jumping events. He switched from downhill skiing to jumping as a young man since he had no competition whatsoever as there were no other British ski jumpers. The near-sighted home handyman unsurprisingly finished dead last in both events, but of course set British records along the way. Edwards’s Olympic adventure was also immortalized on film with the 2016 movie Eddie the Eagle. After the Eagle’s 1988 jumps, the IOC soon introduced a new rule making it harder to qualify for the ski jumping event. Unfortunately, Edwards never qualified for another Olympics.
22. Runner’s Father Helps Him Reach the Finish Line
When British runner Derek Redmond qualified for the 1992 Games in Barcelona, Spain he was one of the favorites to take home a medal in the 400 meters. His dream was shattered though when he tore a hamstring halfway through the semifinals. He fell to the track in agony, but after refusing to be stretchered away, he soon rose to his feet, determined to finish what he had started. Redmond’s father Jim was heartbroken and quickly jumped past security and onto the track to help his injured and tearful son carry on. He let Derek go before the finish line so he could limp across it himself as the fans willed him on with their relentless cheering. Sad to say, but Redmond was disqualified as expected and his competitive running days were over two years later. However, this famous act of human spirit was turned into a video promoting the Olympics.
21. Torvill and Dean Earn Perfect Scores
British ice dancing duo Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean were recognized as two of the best figure skaters in the world in the 1980s. They cemented their legacy at the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo when they not only took home the gold medal, but also earned perfect scores. They became the highest-scoring skaters ever for a single program when they earned 12 perfect scores of 6.0 and six scores of 5.9. However, each judge awarded them 6.0 for artistic impression due to the breathtaking choreography as they danced around the ice to famous song Bolero, by Maurice Ravel. Torvill and Dean then became a huge hit worldwide for their professional ice skating shows before hanging up their competitive skates in 1998. Half of Britain tuned in to watch them win their 1984 medals and the feat is still regarded as one of the nation’s greatest moments in sports.
20. Canadian Sailor Abandons Race to Help Competitors
Canadian sailor Lawrence Lemieux placed the lives of others before his own Summer Olympic ambitions in South Korea in 1988. While racing in dangerous waters in the Finn class, Lemieux realized a competitor’s boat from Singapore had capsized. He turned his boat towards the helpless and injured sailors even though they were involved in a different race and proceeded to help them out of the water. Lemieux waited until a rescue crew arrived and then rejoined his event. Remarkably, the good Samaritan still finished his race in 22nd place out of 32, but was awarded with second place as this was his position when he went to help. The hero then received the Pierre de Coubertin Medal for sportsmanship from the IOC for his wonderful act of selflessness.
19. Mary Lou Retton’s Perfect Performance
Mary Lou Retton of West Virginia found herself out in Los Angeles for the 1984 Summer Olympics where she made history by becoming the first American of any gender to win a gold medal in gymnastics. Retton was only 16 years old and therefore didn’t have much international experience under her belt. However, she was simply spectacular and took home the gold medal for the individual all-around gymnastics competition along with a pair of silver and bronze medals to boot. Retton’s performance on the vault resulted in perfect scores of 10 as she needed at least 9.95 to secure the gold medal against her closest rival from Romania. Her historic performance saw Retton being named as the Sportswoman of the year for 1984 by Sports Illustrated.
18. Greg Louganis Battles Through Cuts and Concussion
It’s tough enough winning a pair of gold medals at the Olympics, but even harder after you’ve suffered a concussion and deep two-inch cut in the preliminary rounds. However, American diver American Louganis managed to pull off the feat at the 1988 Games in Seoul, South Korea. Louganis smashed his head on the diving board while participating in the preliminaries of the three-meter springboard event and it looked like his Olympics may be over. He recovered though and won gold in that event as well as in the 10-meter platform category. He wasn’t surprised however, since he also won gold in both of those events four years earlier in Los Angeles. Louganis showed what can be achieved in a perfect example of mind over body.
17. Skier Hermann Maier Overcomes Devastating Crash
Austrian skier Hermann Maier is another fine example of overcoming an injury to achieve his Olympic goals. Maier was competing at the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan when he suffered a devastating wipeout during a downhill run. This didn’t deter ‘The Hermannator’ though as he was back on the snowy sloes and strapped into his skis just a few days later. Maier’s confidence was sky high despite his horrendous crash and he won a gold medal in the giant slalom and super-G events. It wouldn’t be the only time Maier fought back from an injury as he nearly lost his life in a brutal motorcycle accident in 2001. He made a miraculous recovery though after extensive reconstructive surgery and won silver and bronze Olympic medals five years later in Turin, Italy.
16. Gymnast Kerri Strug Shrugs off Torn Ligaments
American gymnast Kerri Strug proved that female athletes are just as tough and determined as men with her performance at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta. Strug fought through an injury to help the Americans win their very first gold team medal in women’s gymnastics. The teenager had suffered a bad left-ankle injury on her first attempt at the vault and it didn’t look like she’d be able to carry on. But carry on she did as Strug and her ‘Magnificent Seven’ teammates edged out the Russians for top spot when she scored 9.712 on her final vault. It was later determined that the young lady had torn two ligaments in the ankle. She collapsed on the mat in pain after the event, but her coach lifted her up in his arms and promised to carry her to the podium to collect her medal.
15. Wrestler Rulon Gardner Produces Miracle on the Mat
You’ve probably heard of the Miracle on Ice, well this is the Story of the Miracle on the Mat which took place at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. Rulon Gardner of the U.S. was facing Alexander Karelin in the Greco-Roman wrestling final. Most experts had already given the gold to Karelin and figured Gardner might as well not even show up for the finale. The Russian was a huge favorite for good reason since he was the three-time defending champion, hadn’t lost a match in over a dozen years and hadn’t even conceded a point in the previous six years. This match went into overtime though and Gardner managed to pull off one of the biggest upsets in Olympic history as he took home the gold in the super heavyweight division.
14. Jim Thorpe Makes Case as World’s Best Athlete
Jim Thorpe could have very well been the best all-around athlete on the planet back in 1912 and he made a solid case for this at the Summer Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden. Thorpe excelled at several mainstream sports such as basketball, football and baseball and played pro in all of them. But it was in track and field where he shone in Sweden. Thorpe became the first native American to win a gold medal at the Olympics when he captured top spot in both the decathlon and pentathlon. In fact, Thorpe came in first place in eight of the combined 15 events of the pentathlon and decathlon. The IOC found out Thorpe had played semi-pro baseball before entering the Olympics and stripped the medals from him, only to restore them in 1983, which was 30 years after his death.
13. Shun Fujimoto Secures Gold with Broken Kneecap
Japan was looking for its fifth consecutive gold medal for men’s team gymnastics in Montreal in the summer of 1976. It didn’t look possible however since Shun Fujimoto suffered a broken kneecap during his floor exercise performance and there were still two events to go. Fujimoto didn’t tell anybody about his injury though and was determined to soldier on and hope for the best. It proved to be the right decision as he went on to score 9.5 on the pommel horse and then 9.7 on the rings and Japan secured the gold medal. It came at a cost to Fujimoto as he dislocated his broken kneecap and tore ligaments when dismounting from the rings at the end of his routine. The native of Hiroshima then celebrated the victory with his right leg in a cast for several weeks.
12. Bob Beamon’s Leap Shatters World Record
Breaking world records and setting new ones is common at the Olympics as it’s one of the goals of the competition. But when American Bob Beamon set a new mark in the long jump in the summer of 1968 in Mexico City, he didn’t just break the old record he completely shattered it. Beamon’s first jump was measured at 8.9 meters and it had to be measured the old fashioned way by tape measure since the new technology couldn’t record a jump that long. For those who don’t dig the metric system, Beamon’s jump was 29 feet, 2.5 inches, which meant he had smashed the old record by close to two whole feet. Not bad for a guy who struggled to qualify for the event. Beamon’s record stood for 23 years until Mike Powell leaped 8.95 meters, but it’s still an Olympic record and second-longest jump ever.
11. Michael Johnson sets Pair of Running Records
Let’s head back to Atlanta, Georgia and the Summer Games of 1996. This is when American runner Michael Johnson set a pair of new world records on the track. Johnson started out by winning gold and setting a new mark of 43.49 seconds in the 400-meter event. Just a few days later he was back in the starting blocks for the 200-meter sprint. It was deja vu all over again as Johnson won the gold medal and made history with a new world record of 19.32 seconds. At the time, Johnson had become the first man to ever win the 200 and 400-meter races during the same summer Olympics. He was also generally recognized as the world’s fastest man back then as well. The native of Dallas, Texas would end his sprinting career with four Olympic gold medals and eight World Championship golds, but his 200 and 400-meter records would eventually fall.
10. Carl Lewis Bags Four Golds in 1984
When American track star Carl Lewis headed west for the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles, he told the press he wanted to equal his idol Jesse Owens mark of four gold medals. Owens, a fellow American, had earned his medals in Berlin in 1936. When all was said and done out in California, Lewis had indeed achieved his lifelong goal. He managed to capture gold in the 100-meter and 200-meter sprints as well as the long jump and the 4 by 100-meter relay. This was a great way to kick off his Olympic medal haul which would end in 1996 with a total of nine golds. Lewis rubbed some people the wrong way though as he jumped just twice in the 1984 long jump event even though he was allowed six attempts. He was that confident of winning.
9. Emil Zatopek Takes a Trio of Golds Against Doctor’s Orders
One of the most memorable achievements of the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, Finland came courtesy of runner Emil Zatopek of Czechoslovakia. Zatopek had a rather odd style of running as he ran his races in a hunched over position. It didn’t matter what he looked like though as he was extremely successful. Zatopek shouldn’t have been competing anyway since he was suffering from an infected gland and his doctor told him he needed to rest. The ‘Czech Locomotive’ ignored the medical advice and went on to win gold in the 5,000 and 10,000-meter races. He then figured he’d try his very first cross-country marathon at the Olympics and proceeded to win his third gold medal of the Games in just over a week.
8. Usain ‘Lightning’ Bolt Earns His Nickname
Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt definitely earned his nickname ‘Lightning Bolt’ with his remarkable performances at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, China. He set new Olympic and world records in the 100 and 200-meter sprints as well as a record in the 4 by 100-meter relay with his teammates. It was the first time since 1984 that a male had won gold in three sprinting events at the Games when Carl Lewis did it. Bolt broke Michael Johnson’s 200-meter Olympic record by two hundredths of a second at 19.30 and then set a new world mark for the 100-meter dash when he ran it in 9.69 seconds. This beat his own record by 0.3 seconds. However, he may have run the race even faster if he hadn’t slowed down to celebrate with about 15 meters to go. Of course, Bolt went on to set several records and win numerous more medals in subsequent Olympic appearances.
7. Abebe Bikila Runs Barefoot for Gold
Back at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Italy it was common for all marathon runners to wear shoes while competing. Even if somebody wanted to run the 26.2 miles without a pair they probably wouldn’t be able to handle it. Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia wouldn’t have it any other way though. He ran the marathon in his bare feet, the way he usually trained, and ran all the way home with the gold medal. In doing so, he became the first black African to win a gold medal in Olympic history. Bikila was pretty tough anyway as he was an Imperial Bodyguard in his homeland for the Emperor. The 28-year-old might have worn shoes for the race, but didn’t find a pair he liked or fit. And to top it off, his time of 2 hours, 15 minutes, and 16 seconds set a new record.
6. The Miracle on Ice
One of the greatest upsets in Olympic history took place in Lake Placid, New York in the winter of 1980 when the host nation downed the mighty Soviet Union in ice hockey. This was before pro players were invited and when the American amateurs and college players weren’t very good at all. At this time the Soviet team was as professional as you could get and basically had a stranglehold on Olympic hockey gold over the years. In other words, they were seen as unbeatable. This didn’t bother American coach Herb Brooks though and his motley crew shocked the sporting world by beating the Russians 4-3 in the semifinals. That would have been enough to satisfy the players and fans, but they went one better just two days later when they won the gold medal by downing Finland 4-2. The story was told all over again when the 2004 movie Miracle on Ice was released.
5. Nadia Comaneci wins Five Medals at the age of 14
It seems amazing that a 14-year-old girl from Romania qualified for her country’s gymnastics team at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal. But it’s downright miraculous that she took home a total of five medals. Meet the remarkable Nadia Comaneci, the first athlete of any kind to ever rack up a perfect 10 score at the Olympics. Comaneci stood under 5-feet-tall and weighed less than 90 lbs, but was all heart. The teenager made history by earning perfect 10s on the uneven bars. Oddly enough, her performance showed up as 1.00 on the scoreboard since it was built to handle just three digits. Nobody thought a perfect 10.00 was possible. Comaneci got used to seeing 1.00 on the board though as she earned 10’s seven times in the Games. She took home gold for the uneven bars, the beam and the all-around program along with a team silver and a bronze for the floor event.
4. Jesse Owens Contradicts Hitler with Four Golds
Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich were making names for themselves for all the wrong reasons back in 1936, but that year’s Summer Olympics ended up in Berlin, Germany all the same. This didn’t really bode well for African/American track and field star Jesse Owens since he wasn’t supposed to win anything. At the time, Hitler had a theory that the Aryan race was the best in the world physically and the Olympics would prove it. Owens blew that way of thinking out of the water though when he captured four gold medals. These came in the 100 and 200-meter sprints, the 4 by 100-meter relay and the long jump. Hitler may have been fuming inside, but took several smiling photographs with Owens and the American athlete made new German friends at the time, running ran a lop of honor with Luz Long. Owens’ four gold medals in track and field would stand for 48 years.
3. Mark Spitz wins a Magnificent Seven Gold Medals
American swimmer Mark Spitz was the best in his sport in the late 1960s and the early 1970s. He had won two gold medals at the 1968 Games in Mexico City, but really hit the jackpot four years later in Munich, Germany. In fact, he was disappointed with his haul in Mexico as he felt he was good enough to win six golds. He arrived in Germany with the aim of making up for it and was once again shooting for half a dozen first-place finishes. Unfortunately, Spitz didn’t visit the podium six times to have a gold medal placed around his neck. He won seven golds instead and the icing on the cake was the fact he set new world records in all seven events. These were the 4 by 100 meter medley relay, the 4 by 200 freestyle relay, the 4 by 100 freestyle relay, the 100-meter butterfly, the 100-meter freestyle, the 200-meter butterfly and the 200-meter freestyle. Spitz became the first Olympic athlete to win seven golds at one Games and then hung up his trunks when he was only 22 years old.
2. Michael Phelps sets Record with Eight Golds in one Games
Like Mark Spitz, fellow American Michael Phelps ruled the swimming pool in his era and peaked at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, China. It seemed that anything Spitz could do Phelps could do slightly better and this explains his haul of eight gold medals in Beijing. These were for the 100-meter butterfly, 200-meter butterfly, 200-meter freestyle, 200-meter individual medley, 400-meter individual medley, 4 by 100-meter freestyle relay, 4 by 200-meter freestyle relay and the 4 by 100-meter medley relay. This represents just a portion of Phelps’ Olympic medal triumphs though since he had won a world record 28 of them by 2018 including a world record 23 golds. Needless to say, his eight first-place finishes in 2008 are also an Olympic record. Phelps has apparently retired, but we should never say never when it comes to athletes.
1. Female Athletes Invited in 1900
The roots of the Olympic Games can be traced back many centuries, but the modern games began in Greece in 1896. Absent from those first games though were women. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before female athletes were competing as they were invited to Paris in 1900. However, they were allowed to compete in only a few non physical-contact events such as tennis, sailing, golf, croquet, and equestrianism. But at least the door was opened for females in 1900. Now, some nations send more female athletes to the Games than men when competing. Women have more or less reached equal footing with the men now since women’s boxing debuted in London in 2012 and every nation sent a female contingent for the very first time that year. From now on, all new Olympic sports must be offered to both males and females and it’s hard to imagine how long female athletes would have had to wait if they weren’t first included back in 1900.