Every Olympics has its stars and memorable takeaways and the Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, will be no exception. The world will watch Michael Phelps attempt to swim to further glory, rightly claiming the title of Best Swimmer Ever. The Fastest Human Ever, Usain Bolt of Jamaica, will be the joining Phelps at theses Games. After an injury scare earlier this summer, Bolt announced that he would be competing, and sports enthusiasts around the globe sighed in relief.
That said, there are Olympic moments that transcend time and continue to resonate. Here are our top five:
1) Rome, 1960
A brash, young boxer by the name of Cassius Clay from Louisville, Kentucky, all of 18 years old, quite literally pounded the international competition to claim the gold in the light-heavyweight division. Thirty-six years later, in Atlanta, Mohammad Ali — then a 10-time heavyweight champion as well as an eloquent spokesman for civil and religious rights, now battling Parkinson’s Disease — took to the Olympic stage one more time to face perhaps his most daunting challenge. The applause thundered and eyes welled worldwide as, despite all odds, Mohammad Ali’s failing body and shaking hands lit the Olympic Torch.
In Rome, Ali also surpassed all athletes in the time-honored tradition of trading national pins. He loved nothing more than walking through the Olympic Village to meet people from around the world, proving that he was an ambassador before he knew he was one. Ali went home after the 1960 Games to encounter Jim Crow laws in his home state. Even after bringing honor to the U.S. with this Olympic gold, he couldn’t dine in the same restaurants with whites. That experience forged his tireless advocacy for his race, and next, his newly discovered Muslim religion, and also his vehement objection to the war in Vietnam. In the end, his support for all races and cultures was universal. He was a humanitarian.
We cannot close this sport chapter without acknowledging Ali’s oratory talents. His comments were genius, for example: “Hating people because of their color is wrong. And it doesn’t matter which color does the hating. It’s just plain wrong.”
Mohammad Ali passed away in June.
2) Montreal, 1976
Way back in 1976, one was hard-pressed not to see Bruce Jenner’s face peering off a magazine cover, not to mention a Wheatie’s cereal box, after his record-setting win in the Olympic decathlon. The victory came at the height of the Cold War. Russian Nikolay Avilov was the 1972 gold medalist, an event long dominated by the U.S. and such iconic athletes as Rafer Johnson, Bob Mathias and Jim Thorpe. Jenner won back the title for the U.S. and in doing so, ascended into the firmament of Olympic greatness.
Jenner didn’t just win the decathlon, he broke the previous Olympic mark. No, he didn’t just break the previous mark, he pretty much annihilated it, by 164 points. Jenner then jogged gloriously around Stade Olympique as his competitors, prone in utter exhaustion, littered the track after the event’s 10th competition, the 1,500-meter race. The winner of the Olympic decathlon is typically bestowed the title of “World’s Greatest Athlete.” On that day, Jenner claimed it as his own.
Forty years later, after a turn in reality TV, Jenner publically transformed into Caitlyn Jenner, becoming the most famous transgender woman in the world and another champion — one for the rights of the LGBT community.
3) Los Angeles, 1984
These games were a supernova of Olympic star accomplishments – Mary Lou Retton’s All-Around Gymnastic Gold among the most notable – but no achievement shines brighter than Joan Benoit’s win in the first ever women’s Olympic marathon.
Women were finally given the opportunity to compete in the grueling 26.2-mile race, having been allowed to compete at the iconic New York Marathon since 1970. It was due time. Joan Benoit, small in stature but with the heart of a warrior, lined up with the rest of the field in gray uniform that looked a little too big and donning a quirky white cap. She had spent the time leading up to the trials recovering from knee surgery and relentlessly pedaling a stationary bike to keep in shape. It was almost unthinkable that she was in the field at all.
Benoit had begun to distance herself from the field by the first water station. The distance opened and soon television cameras couldn’t capture the leader and the field in the same frame. And still the distance opened, with Benoit, whose own mother described her as a little gray mouse, leaving the long-legged thoroughbreds in her wake. She won by more than four minutes. Four minutes? Enough time to enjoy a coffee and scan the newspaper. Second place went to Sweden’s Grete Waitz, widely considered among the best distance runners of her generation. Benoit’s field of competitors was world-class and she bested them all with grit and perseverance, thereby vaulting women’s running into the mainstream.
4) Barcelona, 1992
The U.S. Dream Team burst onto the scene in Spain, mounting a full court press of awe and athletic star power that continues to amaze. This was the first team of NBA players to compete in an Olympics following a rule change previously banning professionals on the Olympic basketball court. The motivation for the rule change was to up the level of Olympic play, and boy, these gods of hoops certainly dazzled.
The Dream Team still stands as the greatest sport team ever assembled in any sport. Superstars Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, who had just tested positive for HIV, formed the nucleus showcasing their competitiveness and wizardry at every turn. Add to that the thunder dunks of Charles Barkley and Karl Malone and the precision passing of John Stockton and opponents didn’t have a prayer – and few seemed to care.
Charles Barkley was a mainstay at the Olympic Village, much like Ali some 30 years prior. Like a gigantic Pied Piper, throngs of camera-toting fans followed him about and he achieved U.S. ambassador status by happily posing or providing autographs. There is a famous story, posted on the NBA website, of an opposing player in an early round guarding Magic and waving desperately at his teammates on the bench to get an action shot of the two of them. The Dream Team scored an average of 44 points over their opponents; rather than hanging their heads in defeat, the losing team only wanted autographs from the victors. At the medal ceremony, these seasoned pros with multiple NBA championship rings between them, jumped and laughed like giddy school kids, underscoring the power of the Olympic spirit and just how perfectly the game of basketball can be played when the world’s finest are assembled on one team.
5) London, 2012
It is hard to compete with an Olympiad that opened with the Queen Mother parachuting out of a chopper with Daniel Craig as the James Bond theme played, saw the Spice Girls reunited and then closed with Sir Paul McCartney singing “Hey, Jude.”
Athletes still commanded the spotlight. For the first time ever, at the London Games, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Brunei entered female athletes. Women’s boxing was included for the first time, distinguishing these Games as the first where females competed in all events. These were also the first Olympics where every participating country included female athletes. Quite a statement.
In London, Michael Phelps became the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time, earning his 22nd medal. The fastest human ever, Usain Bolt of Jamaica, gifted with a surname that captures his speed, amazed once again by claiming the gold at the 100, 200 and 4×100 meter relay. He became the first man in modern Olympics to win six gold medals in sprinting and win the 10 and 200-meter titles at consecutive Games. Both Phelps and Bolt are scheduled to compete in Rio so stay tuned.