Top 25 Iconic Olympic Moments
July 23, 2012 -- The opening ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London is just over a week away. Athletes, organizers, officials and audiences are already converging on London, waiting for the start of a new chapter in Olympics history. Over 100 years of Olympics has produced memorable moments that have seared themselves into the global consciousness. Some include moments of triumph against incredible odds. Others are demonstrations of the Olympic spirit, showing how athletes can reach beyond sport and grasp onto something more. There are also darker episodes that haunt the Olympic memory. In this slideshow, explore the visual history of the top 25 most iconic moments of the Summer Olympic Games.
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Although China can rightly claim the title of having the most spectacular opening ceremony in Olympic history, the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona featured what might be one of the most memorable moments of any games. With the spotlight on him and an international audience of hundreds of millions holding their collective breath, Paralympic archer Antonio Rebollo fired a flaming arrow through the night sky, and over the Olympic cauldron, lighting it to mark the start of the games. Rebollo intentionally over-shot the cauldron, however, to prevent an accident. Olympic organizers used clever camera work to make it seem like Rebello lit the giant torch, but in fact it had been rigged to ignite remotely.
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Prior to the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, Boris Onischenko was a respected athlete in his chosen event, the pentathlon. But in front of officials, an international audience and his competitors, Onischenko proved himself to be nothing more than a cheat. The pentathlon consists of five separate athletic events, one of which is fencing. During his match against Briton Jim Fox, Fox complained repeatedly to officials that Onischenko had been scoring without making contact. An investigation into Onischenko's equipment showed that he had rigged it with wiring and a special grip to allow him to score on demand. The Russian ended up being disqualified and left the Olympics in disgrace.
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Even before the International Olympic Committee (IOC) allowed professional basketball players to compete in the Olympics for the 1992 Summer Games, the United States dominated the sport, taking home gold every year since 1936 when basketball was first introduced to the games. In 1972, however, the U.S. men's basketball team suffered a narrow defeat that still has players licking their wounds. The final few seconds of the game had a series of bad calls by officials giving the Russian team three attempts at overcoming their one-point deficit in the game. The Russian team claimed gold but the U.S. team, feeling cheated by referee incompetence, never even bothered to collect their silver medals.
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It's not the shoes that make the runner, as Ethiopian athlete Abibe Bakila proved at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. Unable to find a suitable pair of shoes prior to the marathon, Bakila ran barefoot, leading his competitors to write him off. But barefoot running is how Bakila trained so he was right at home running on Rome's ancient roads. Bakila took home gold, not only becoming the first black African to win the event but also setting a world record.
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At the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, American athlete Carl Lewis, who had won four gold medals in the previous games, seemed to have met his match in the 100-meter race. Canadian runner Ben Johnson seemed to have the edge. In the final heat, Johnson blew the competition away, setting a new world record at 9.79 seconds and taking home the gold.
The day after Johnson was presented with his medal, his urine tested positive for steroid stanozolol, a banned performance-enhancing drug. And he wasn't the only one: Six other runners in that final also tested positive for banned substances. The race seemed to mark a turning point in the history of the Olympic games, ushering in the era of steroids.
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At the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, 11 Israeli athletes and coaches were killed after Palestinian gunmen affiliated with the terrorist organization Black September raided the Olympic Village and took hostages. The murders marked the darkest day in Olympic history and sparked an international outcry. After police subdued the gunmen, killing five of the eight and capturing the other three, the games were called to a halt so a memorial service could be held.
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Bob Beamon might have been the favorite to win gold in the long jump at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. But no one expected him to set a whole new standard for the sport. An especially surprising feat given that he barely qualified for the U.S. team.
When Beamon showed up to the games, he put on a show that no one expected. (And based on Beamon's look in this photo, maybe he didn't see it coming either.) His first jump in the finals set a new world record with an 8.9-meter jump, breaking the previous record by 55 centimeters, or almost 2 feet. Officials even had to measure the jump manually because the equipment they had on hand wasn't calibrated to measure distances as far as Beamon jumped. The American's performance led to a new term used in the Olympics, "Beamonesque," to describe an athlete who's performance is so superior to the rest of the competition that it overwhelms the field.
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Olympic athletes are intense competitors by nature. But sometimes, they can take that spirit a little too far. At the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, American runner Mary Decker, the favorite to win the 3,000-meter, collided with British Zola Budd on the final lap of the race. Decker twisted her hip, fell and had to be taken away from the race in a stretcher. As Budd pulled further ahead, a wave of boos rose from the crowd. Budd slowed down in the last few hundred meters, finally finishing in seventh. The incident led to finger-pointing, with both Decker and Budd claiming they didn't do anything wrong.
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The 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, saw one of the biggest upsets in the history of the games. In his journey to win a gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling, American athlete Rulon Gardner was pitted against Russian Aleksandr Karelin, one of the most dominant athletes of any sport in history and possibly the greatest wrestler of all time. Karelin hadn't suffered a defeat in his 13 previous years of international competition and already had three Olympic gold medal under his belt. In fact, he had not given up a point in a match in some six years. The outcome of the contest was practically a foregone conclusion -- to everyone except Gardner anyway. Gardner's strategy was to wear Karelin down and stay away from his lifts, which Karelin is known for employing even in his heavier weight class. Although Karelin was aggressive in the first three minutes of the match, having wrestled already twice that day, he grew tired, and Gardner seized the advantage to claim the win.
As Sports Illustrated's Adam Levine notes, when the two men were on the platform to receive their medals, the event marked the first time in international competition that Karelin heard another country's national anthem played instead of his.
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Although the two Koreas have been divided since the end of World War II, the two countries used the Olympics as rare showing of unity. At the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, North and South Korean athletes marched together under the Korean Unification Flag, which featured a blue Korea undivided against a white background. Both nations competed separately in the games. But the countries repeated the gesture for the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens and the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin.
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For nearly 50 years, no athlete could match Jesse Owens' remarkable performance at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin of winning four track-and-field gold medals in a single game. When Carl Lewis arrived at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, he aimed to match Owens' feat. Lewis competed in the same events as Owens, the 100-meter, the 200-meter, the 4x100-meter relay and the long jump. Unlike Owens, however, Lewis sailed to victory over his competitors, leading to a showboating streak that would turn off potential sponsors.
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American Greg Louganis entered the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul as the diver to beat. The games, however, didn't go off to a great start for the defending gold medalist.
During the preliminary rounds of the games, Louganis attempted a reverse two-and-a-half pike off and hit his head against the springboard, suffering a concussion. After receiving medical attention and temporary stitches, Louganis completed his routine and took home gold. Years after Louganis claimed Olympic victory and retired from the sport, he admitted that six months before Seoul, he tested positive for HIV. This led to some criticism due to the perception that Louganis had put other divers at risk and the physician who attended him following his bloody injury.
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In a sport typically dominated by eastern Europeans, Mary Lou Retton ushered in a whole new era of American competitiveness in gymnastics in international competition. Then only 16 years old, Retton entered the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles with limited experience in international competition. Nonetheless, Retton shined in the finals of the individual events. Retton achieved perfect 10s on the floor exercise and the vault, edging out her competition to win the gold medal in the all-around by a mere 0.05 points. Retton's performance made her a national celebrity. She was Sport Illustrated's "Sportswoman of the Year," and was even the first female athlete to appear on a Wheaties box.
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When the IOC decided to allow professional athletes to compete in men's basketball at the 1992 Olympic Games, the U.S. responded by putting together what is widely acknowledged as the most dominant team of any contest in any sport in history. The team included Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, Clyde Drexler, John Stockton, Scottie Pippen, David Robinson, Chris Mullin and Christian Laettner. Winning every game by an average of 43 points, the U.S. team easily took home gold. Despite their dominance, their opponents didn't seem to mind the mismatch, with players and coaches from other national teams frequently seeking photos and autographs with the American players.
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Some athletes are just born to greatness. But not Wilma Rudolph. She had to work for it.
Born prematurely, Rudolph weighed a mere four and a half pounds. At age four, Rudolph contracted polio, forcing her to wear leg braces for five years and orthopedic shoes for two years after that. Five years after she started running at all, Rudolph made her first performance at the Olympics. Then in 1960, Rudolph showed the world what she could do. At the Summer Olympics in Rome, Rudolph claimed three gold medals in the 100-meter, the 200-meter and the 4x100-meter relay race. She also managed to set two world records.
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Considered one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century, Jim Thorpe's performance in the 1912 Olympics marked one of the most remarkable achievements in sports history. Thorpe arrived in Stockholm set to compete in four events: the decathlon, the pentathlon, the long jump and the high jump. The decathlon and the pentathlon had just been introduced to the Olympics, and Thorpe made his mark on the event by winning them both, transforming him into an international celebrity. The following year, however, Thorpe was stripped of his medals for violating the strict Olympic rules only allowing amateur athletes to compete. Thorpe had played two summers of semi-professional baseball prior to the games, and therefore violated the rules. It would take 70 years before those medals were returned to Thorpe. The IOC bestowed three replica medal on Thorpe's family, since Thorpe had died in 1953.
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At the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Michael Johnson proved that he was among the greatest sprinters in sports history, earning the gold sneakers that had become his trademark. Johnson was the first male athlete in Olympics history to take home gold in the 200-meter and 400-meter events, setting world records in both events that would last for a generation. His time in the 200-meter wouldn't be beaten until 2008 when Usain Bolt competed in the Olympics in Beijing.
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Nadia Comăneci is an athlete whose name has almost become synonymous with gymnastics. And it was her performance in the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal that brought her to the spotlight. Comăneci's performance on the uneven bars was flawless, and the judges at the games knew it. They awarded the Romanian athlete the first-ever perfect 10 in gymnastics in Olympic history. For her outstanding performance, Comăneci would win gold in the uneven bars as well as two additional gold medals in the balance beam and invidious, all-around.
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Although there are a select number athletes who have more medal than British rower Steve Redgrave, who holds five gold medals won in as many Olympics, few have had a career as enduring. Four years before his final Olympics in Sydney in 2000, Redgrave announced that he was retiring from the sport with the announcement, "Anybody who sees me in a boat has my permission to shoot me." Despite his age, 38 years old, and struggle with health problems including colitis, diabetes, back pains and more, Redgrave still helped power his team to victory. His final performance in Sydney and career achievements made him one of the most celebrated Britons in Olympic history.
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Given how difficult it is for any athlete to even qualify for the Olympic Games, winning a gold medal by itself is a remarkable achievement. But by winning eight gold medals in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Michael Phelps achieved the impossible. Phelps had the endurance and stamina to win multiple heats in every event, often by a slim margin. Including the six gold medals he won in Athens in 2004, Phelps has more medals than any athlete in Olympic history. That number will likely grow with the seven events he's competing in at this year's games in London.
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Part of the legendary U.S. women's gymnastics team frequently referred to as the "Magnificent Seven," Kerri Strug might not have had the chance to compete for gold in the individual gymnastics events in the 1996 Olympic Games. But she guaranteed the U.S. team would take the gold as a team. Both the U.S. and Russian gymnastics teams were neck and neck with each group one rotation of completing their Olympic turn. The Russians were on the floor exercise and the U.S. team had to face the vault.
Prior to Strug's turn, teammate Dominique Moceanu couldn't stick her landing twice, leading to a poor score from the judges. Strug fell on her first attempt at the vault, badly damaging her ankle. Although the U.S. was ahead, Strug needed to get a better score to ensure U.S. received gold. On her second attempt, Strug stuck her landing, collapsing to the ground after bowing to the judges and the audience while hopping on one foot. At the presentation of the gold medal, U.S. gymnastics coach Béla Károlyi carried Strug so she could be on the podium with her teammates.
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At the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, Cassius Clay, later known as Muhammad Ali, won the gold medal in boxing in the light heavyweight division. The 18-year old Clay overcame a much more experienced opponent from Poland, Zbigniew 'Ziggy' Pietrzykowski.
The fight would later help launch Clay's professional fighting career. Despite the surprising success of the young Clay, who won over a hostile crowd in the process of his victory, this Olympic performance isn't the one he's most remembered for. In the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, Ali surprised an international audience by appearing at the end of the torch relay to light the Olympic cauldron. Although his arms were shaking as a result of Parkinson's disease, Ali remained focused as the world watched one of the greatest athletes in history shine one more time.
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The 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin were designed to deliver a propaganda coup for the Nazi Party and Adolf Hitler. The games would highlight the alleged superiority of the Aryan race in physical competition. Apparently, the Nazis didn't count an African-American athlete spoiling their ambitions. Jesse Owens took home an astounding four gold medals in track and field events including the long jump, the 100-meter, the 200-meter and the 4x100-meter relay race. Although Hitler apparently bristled at the idea of a black man, Owens himself was more put off by the lack of acknowledgment for his victories in the United States. Hitler had sent Owens a commemorative photo of his victories, but Owens didn't receive so much as a telegram from the White House under President Franklin D. Roosevelt congratulating him on his victories.
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Not every gold medal athlete is remembered. But rarely is a D.N.F. -- a "did not finish" -- elevated to the status of Olympic icon. British athlete Derek Redmond already had a history of injuries that plagued his career prior to his entry in the 1992 Olympics held in Barcelona, undergoing some eight operations prior to the games. Redmond had tasted gold in international competition, but never at the Olympics. His previous two attempts at the Olympics were both marred by injury. Redmond excelled in his first two heats and had a shot at winning it all in the 400-meter. In the semi-final, however, Redmond's hamstring gave with 175 meters left in the heat, initially slowing Redmond down before he collapsed entirely. Despite the pain, Redmond attempted to finish the race, waving off stretchers hurrying to attend to him. As Redmond was hobbling around the track, his father, who ran down from the stands and managed to get past security and onto the field, joined his son and helped him across the finish line.
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The Olympics might be about athletic competition first and foremost, but it's also no stranger to politics. After the conclusion of the finals for the 200-meter race at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, American gold medalist Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos took the podium to receive their awards. When the U.S. national anthem began to play, both men raised a fist in a manner similar to the salute employed by the Black Panthers. Smith and Carlos stated they were taking a stand for black civil rights in the United States. Both men appeared on the podium without shoes to symbolize black poverty. Australian silver medalist Peter Norman even wore a badge in support of their gesture. The move was immediately and broadly criticized. The crowd in attendance booed, and the entire U.S. track team was threatened with a ban after refusing to expel the two athletes. Even Norman faced consequences by Australian officials for his part. Today, the gesture is remembered as a powerful symbol of protest in the annals of civil rights and Olympic history.
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