With the clock ticking down to the end of the Olympic Games, let’s recall some of the most inspirational moments in Olympic history, moments of great joy, controversy, tragedy or turbulent world history that are forever etched in our collective memory.
At the incredibly challenging Olympic Games, everything’s on the line, and exactly this is what makes every victory (or defeat) so interesting, memorable.
Of course, like all top 10 lists, there is always room for discussion, so we are expecting to hear from you all about the Olympic moments that have taken your breath away.
10. Kelly Holmes doubles up at the age of 34 – Athens, 2004
Before the glory of the Olympics came physical and mental torment.
A number of injuries, including a stress fracture of her left leg and a recurring Achilles problem, disrupted her career. During the 1996 Olympics, Holmes suffered a stress fracture and finished fourth. One year later, she ruptured the Achilles tendon at the 1997 World Championships. Holmes damaged her back so severely in 1999 that it ended up affecting the femoral nerve. Despite being laid low by a virus, she won a bronze medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Kelly was hit by a calf injury in 2003, but still finished with a silver medal at the Paris World Championships.
While training for the Athens Olympics, Holmes suffered (again) serious leg injuries and fell into a depressive episode. “I made one cut for every day I’d been injured. With each one I felt I was punishing myself but at the same time I felt a sense of release that drove me to do it again and again. This dream was such a big passion that everything kind of clouded me and [I thought] ‘I’m never going to do it. I never experienced that low before. When you are in it, you don’t see a way out,” declared Holmes for Independent.co.uk. As the leg began to respond to treatment, the long-distance runner found the inner strength and courage to overcome her debilitating illness. Ever since the age of 14, she has dreamed of being an Olympic champion, but this dream came true 20 years later, at the 2004 Summer Olympics. This time, no injury or misfortune overshadowed her performance. Kelly, the oldest athlete in the field in 2004, won the 800m and 1500m gold medals at the Olympic Games.
Her accomplishments continue to inspire people to push their boundaries. She is the only sportsperson ever to reach the 800m and 1500m Olympic finals three times, and the third woman in history to achieve the 800 m and 1500 m double. “I believe you should never, ever give up. At least if you have given something 100% you can say you have tried and have no regrets. I believe that anything is achievable as long as the goal is realistic. If someone sets their heart and mind on something, it is achievable,” said Holmes in an interview for The Independent.
9. Jesse Owens vs. Adolf Hitler – Berlin Olympics, 1936
Held on the sacred soil of the Fatherland, the 1936 Olympics were intended by Hitler to prove his theories of Aryan racial superiority.
He considered the Aryan race a master race, superior to all races…and then came James Cleveland Owens, an incredible African-American athlete who broke three world records and tied another, all in a span of about 70 minutes. His performance humiliated the master race and opened the eyes of many people during a period of great discrimination. Roosevelt refused to honor him. Official recognition from his country did not come until 1976. “When I came back to my native country, I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus. I had to go to the back door. I couldn’t live where I wanted. I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the President, either,” said Owens. (Espn.go.com)
8. Greg Louganis wins gold after performing a difficult routine called the Dive of Death – Seoul 1988
Grey Louganis, also known as the Diving Prince, won five Olympic medals (4xGold, 1xSilver), five world championships, three NCAA titles, six Pan American Games gold medals and 47 national tiles during his career.
There’s a sad story behind this champion. Louganis succumbed to self-loathing and self-doubt during his childhood and adolescence.
Starting with the age of 12, this self-hatred turned into obsessive thoughts (and attempts) of suicide. Greg Louganis had several abusive relationships, including the one with business manager Jim Babbitt, “who stole from him, beat him and, on at least one occasion, raped him at knifepoint. Babbitt died of Aids-related illness in 1990,” wrote The Guardian.
Six months before the 1988 Olympics, Louganis was himself tested for HIV and the result came out positive. The doctor started him on AZT every four hours and persuaded Greg not to tell anyone outside his close circle. “We knew that the risk of his spreading the virus through an open cut was infinitesimal, and besides, how many times does a diver – much less Greg Louganis – get wounded?” declared coach Ron O’Brien for The Guardian. Then, the unimaginable happened: the diver hit his head on the board during the preliminary rounds of the Seoul Olympics. Dr. Puffer treated his head injury without gloves.
Greg came back 35 minutes later to finish the qualifying dives. Greg wanted to warn Puffer, but he was paralyzed. “I was in a total panic that I might harm someone. Everything was all so mixed up at that point: the HIV, the shock and embarrassment of hitting my head and an awful feeling that it was all over,” confessed Louganis in his autobiography.
Louganis had dropped from first to fifth in the standings, but he hit all 11 dives the next day and won easily. The diver conquered all his fears and won the dramatic battle with Xiong Ni, China’s diving sensation. The dive that sealed Louganis’ Olympic success was a three-and-a-half reverse somersault with tuck. Officially known as 307C, the Dive of Death killed two divers in the 1980’s and permanently paralyzed another one.
7. “Miracle on Ice” – Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, 1980
What the American hockey team achieved at Lake Placid against a seemingly unbeatable Soviet team, was truly a shaking event. February 22nd was the day all American hearts beat just a little faster; it was the day of the most anticipated hockey game in U.S. history.
People from all over the world wanted to see if a group of collegiate players could beat the mighty Soviets, who had won nearly every world championship and Winter Olympic Ice Hockey game since 1956. This game became known as the “Miracle on Ice”.
“It’s the most transcending moment in the history of our sport in this country,” said former USA Hockey executive director Dave Ogrean. “For people who were born between 1945 and 1955, they know where they were when John Kennedy was shot, when man walked on the moon, and when the USA beat the Soviet Union in Lake Placid.” (Espn.go.com) The team coached by Herb Brooks boosted the spirits of an entire nation. The people were disillusioned with the course of American life in that period of anxiety and confusion. 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days by the radical Khomeini regime; the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and America faced economic uncertainty, high unemployment rates and inflation. America didn’t seem to be as powerful on the international scene as it once was – until its great hockey team hit the ice!
6. Black Power protest – Mexico City Olympics, 1968
John Carlos and Tommie Smith have made history at the Mexico City Olympics by staging a controversial protest against racial discrimination. As the American National Anthem played and the flag was raised, gold medal list Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos delivered the Black Power salute with heads bowed and a black-gloved hand raised.
The two African-American athletes took the winner’s podium shoeless, wearing black socks (to represent the poverty of Afro-Americans in racist America), black scarves (to symbolize the barbaric history of lynching) and black gloves (as a mark of black power and unity). In addition, the box Smith carried contained an olive branch as a symbol of peace.
Silver medalist Peter George Norman, an Australian track athlete, sported the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) patch as a sign of solidarity.
The International Olympic Committee condemned Smith’s and Carlos’ actions and, as expected, their careers were badly damaged by the silent protest. Neither, however, have any regrets. “So many people find inspiration in that portrait. What I did was necessary, based on the vision that God gave me. It was something that I was born into this world to do,” said Carlos in an interview for Telegraph.co.uk.
5. Jim McKay’s live coverage of the Munich massacre – Munich Olympics, 1972
James Kenneth McManus, better known to the public as Jim McKay, was one of the most accomplished and respected sportscasters in the history of television. The American sports commentator who covered 12 Olympics made history broadcasting the incredibly tragic massacre from the Munich Olympics. According to UsaToday.com, McKay was on air for 14 hours without a break, during a 16 hour broadcast.
The terrorist attack from September 5, 1972 claimed the precious lives of 11 Israeli athletes, officials and coaches, nine of whom were initially taken hostage, and the life of a German police officer. A group of eight militants from the Black September Organization, a Palestinian paramilitary group, demanded the release and safe passage of 234 Palestinians held in Israeli jails. Negotiations were rejected by the Israeli authorities, but German officials began fake ones to buy time. The episode ended tragically. Shortly after 3:24 am, McKay looked straight into the camera and told American viewers: “We’ve just gotten the final word. When I was a kid, my father used to say our greatest hopes and worst fears are seldom realized. Our worst fears have been realized tonight. They have now said that there were 11 hostages. Two were killed in their rooms this morning, yesterday morning. Nine were killed at the airport tonight. They’re all gone.
They’re all gone…this simple but haunting phrase remained etched indelibly in the memories of millions of people.
The veteran ABC sports correspondent won an Emmy and the prestigious George Polk Award for his coverage of the 1972 Olympic Games. During his remarkable career, McKay won 12 Emmys.
4. Lawrence Lemieux saves two competitors in trouble – Seoul Olympics, 1988
Lawrence Lemieux was born in Edmonton, Alberta and grew up sailing on Canada’s West Coast. He was only five years old when he took for the first time a sailboat out on his own. Larry won many competitions throughout his teens and twenties.
Twenty four years ago, Lawrence Lemieux was the first-ranked Finn-class sailor in Canada and represented his country at the 1988 Olympic Games held in Seoul.
The sailing competition started on September 24, Pusan (280 miles southeast of Seoul). The waters were calm; the wind was gusting at 17 knots, but then, suddenly, the weather changed. With gusts reaching up to 35 knots, two Singapore sailors from the 470 class were thrown into the water.
Lawrence Lemieux was sailing alone when he saw Joseph Chan foundering in the water and Shaw Her Siew clinging to the hull. Despite lying second in the Finn Class, Larry turned his boat and sailed to rescue Joseph Chan. According to Canada.com, “the current was going in the opposite direction of the wind, which was causing the four-meter waves to break. For another thing, Lemieux had to go downwind to go to the man’s assistance, which meant his own boat started taking in a lot of water.” Chan was too severely hurt to climb aboard, so the Canadian sailor dragged him into his boat, then rescued Siew and waited until help arrived.
Lawrence Lemieux finished 21st.
The board of the International Yacht Racing Union undisputedly decided that Lemieux should be awarded an honorary second-place for his heroic rescue efforts.
“The first rule of sailing is, you see someone in trouble, you help him,” declared Lawrence Lemieux for the Edmonton Journal.
3. Muhammad Ali lighting the cauldron – Atlanta Olympics,1996
“If you had told somebody in 1968 that in 1996 Muhammad Ali would be the most beloved individual on earth, and the mere sight of him holding an Olympic torch would bring people to tears, you’d have won a lot of bets,” said Gumbel Bryant on ESPN Classic’s SportsCentury series (Espn.go.com), and he was right.
At the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Muhammad Ali inspired millions of people with his courage and spirit. The three-time world heavyweight boxing & Olympic champion was chosen to light the flame at the Olympics.
This beautiful moment is one of those rare moments that leave an audience moved to tears. Ali was officially diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease 28 years ago, but none of the terrible symptoms stopped him from lighting the cauldron. Ali steadied his trembling hands and faced the challenge with dignity and willpower.
“Tears were shed by many, as the man whose beliefs had once divided a nation was now a unifying — and beloved – force,” concluded Larry Schwartz in “He is simply … The Greatest!”
2. Nadia Comaneci scores the very first perfect 10 – Montreal Olympics, 1976
Since 1932, luxury watch manufacturer Omega has been the official timekeeper of Olympic events. Shortly before the 1976 Montreal Olympics, the company contacted the International Olympic Committee and asked if it would be better to replace the three-digit boards with boards that could display four digits. “I was told, ‘a 10.00 is not possible,’” remembers Daniel Baumat, director of Swiss Timing. “So we only did three digits.” (LATimes.com) On Sunday 18 July 1976, 14-year old Nadia Comaneci made her Olympics debut and scored seven perfect 10s. The Romanian gymnast will forever be remembered as the first gymnast to achieve the perfect score of 10.
With an incredible total of seven 10 scores in a single Olympic competition, Nadia set a world record hard to beat.
In a sweet bit of irony, the scoreboard showed 1.00, because 9.99 was the board’s limit at that time.
Nadia is aware that, like Russian Olga Korbut before her, she inspired and continues to inspire many generations of gymnasts, but she strongly believes they shouldn’t replicate what she achieved, “everybody has to be unique and do their own thing,” declared Nadia for CNN.com
1. Derek Redmond’s inspirational race – Barcelona Olympics,1992
Unlike Carl Lewis, who won ten Olympic medals or Michael Johnson, who still holds the world and Olympic records in the 400m and 4 x 400m relay, Derek Redmond doesn’t have a room full of gold metals, but “it is Redmond who defines the essence of the human spirit,” believes award-winning journalist Rick Weinberg.
Just like in Kelly Holmes’ case, injuries consistently disrupted Redmond’s career. An Achilles tendon injury forced him to withdraw from the 1988 Seoul Olympics just 10 minutes before the big race, so Redmond felt he had everything to prove at the 1992 Olympic Games.
Derek told The Guardian what happened at the Barcelona Olympics: “On the day, everything went smoothly. I got a really good start, which was unusual for me. I think I was the first to react to the pistol. My normal tactics were to get round the first bend and then put the burners on for 30m, accelerate hard. But by the time I’d got upright I was almost round the bend, much further than usual, and I decided not to bother, to save my energy in case I had to fight for the line. About three strides later I felt a pop.”
Derek injured his hamstring and went off the ground. His Olympic dream over, but what followed is the most inspirational and memorable moment in sports history. The athlete pushed himself back to his feet and tried to finish the race. While Derek was hobbling along the track, his father pushed aside a security guard and reached him at the final curve. He tried to convince his son to stop, but Derek refused. “Well then, we’re going to finish this together,” said Jim Redmond.
Derek Redmond’s father was selected to carry the Olympic torch in the run-up to London 2012.
By Timeea Vinerean