Olympic moments that made history
“Memorable” is a subjective term in sport.
At the Olympics, there are scores of stories of wins and losses every day. Some will stick with you longer than others, but for the vast majority, the results are secondary to the event itself. It is for this reason, the majority of Memorable Moments selected here are not results-focused.
Instead, the memories that are created at the Games tend to be a mixture of politics and pathos. So if you want to read about Snell and Halberg, Bond and Murray, this is the wrong place for you. If you want to read about extraordinary happenings, controversies and tragedy, stick around.
5 Lightning Bolt strikes (2008)
Before Usain Bolt, there was not a lot to celebrate in the world of sprinting.
After Bolt, there was an acknowledgment we’d lived through the era of the most charismatic track and field athlete in history.
His performance in the 100m final at the 2008 Beijing Games announced him to the world. In one of the more extraordinary sights in Olympic history, Bolt so obliterated the field, he slowed down and showboated with close to 20m still to run.
His world record time of 9.69s was impressive enough — Richard Thompson was second in 9.89s — but analysis of Bolt’s run by the Institute of Theoretical Astrophysics at the University of Oslo suggested the Jamaican could have finished in 9.55s had he pushed to the end.
Bolt copped a bit of flak for his celebrations, including from buttoned-down IOC president Jacques Rogge, but it was unlikely to keep him awake at night as he added eight more golds to his Olympic tally, remaining unbeaten at 100m, 200m and the 4x100m across Beijing, London and Rio.
He would have to return one, when a blood sample from teammate Nesta Carter came back positive, eight years after Jamaica’s 4x100m win in Beijing.
Almost as important to the sport as his infectious personality and flat-out speed has been the fact that Bolt has never returned a negative drugs test.
4 Black power (1968)
In the age of Black Lives Matter, rainbow ticks and various social justice initiatives, it is hard to comprehend just how controversial Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ actions were in Mexico City.
Smith, the 200m gold medallist and Carlos, the bronze medallist,
stood on the dais with their fists gloved and raised in tribute to the Black Power movement.
The two men fell out for years over whose idea it was to protest, but in more recent years, have settled on the idea that they both planned it over a number of days. They wore gloves to represent black America, and removed their shoes and wore black socks to symbolise the poverty of their communities.
Smith wore a scarf and Carlos a bead necklace, recalling lynching, and the raised fist “stood for the power in black America”, Smith said.
Enter Avery Brundage, a thoroughly reprehensible human — a dyed-in-the-wool white supremacist — who held the IOC presidency during
Brundage, an American, threatened the entire United States team with expulsion unless they acted against the pair and they were given
48 hours to pack and leave. “Once we got back, we were ostracised, even by our own,” Smith said. “Folks were scared, man. No jobs. We couldn’t find work. People even told us, ‘We can’t get close to you guys because we have our own jobs to protect.’ These were my friends. At
least, they were my friends before I left for Mexico City.”
Smith and Carlos found redemption. They have won awards and have statues in their likeness. As the godfathers of the activist athlete era, they have overcome.
How the other half runs (1948) The Olympics had been a maleonly enterprise until 1928, but it
wasn’t until 1948 and the emergence of a prejudice-busting Dutchwoman that perceptions as to the credibility of women’s sport started to shift.
Fanny Blankers-Koen is arguably the most important female athlete in history. In winning four golds in London, matching Jesse Owens’ 1936 record in Berlin before the world exploded, the “Flying Dutchmam” shattered preconceived notions of
motherhood effectively signalling the end of athletic aspiration.
Blankers-Koen was 30 and the mother of two when she dominated the cinders at Wembley Stadium.
In 1936, she went to Berlin and finished sixth in the high jump and fifth as part of the 4x100m relay. Her most treasured possession, however, was the autograph of Owens.
Blankers-Koen spent the war years
in occupied Netherlands and fit a number of national and world records around the birth of her two children.
She was criticised for being a selfish mother and that only escalated when she announced her intention to travel to London for the 1948 Olympics.
“I got very many bad letters, people writing that I must stay home with my children and that I should not be allowed to run on a track with — how do you say it? — short trousers,” she told the New York Times in 1982. “But I was a good mother. I had no time for much besides my house chores and training, and when I went shopping, it was only to buy food for the family and never dresses.
“One newspaperman wrote that I was too old to run, that I should stay at home and take care of my children. When I got to London, I pointed my finger at him and I said: ‘I show you’.”
She did, winning the 100m, 80m hurdles, 200m and came from 5m behind in the anchor leg of the 4x100m relay to lead her Dutch team to gold. It was a stunning haul, but even then, she was short-changed, being allowed to enter only three individual events when she was the world record-holder in the long and high jumps as well.
Blankers-Koen returned home to much fanfare and a bicycle gifted to her by the citizens of Amsterdam. Her trailblazing legacy was more profound than even she could have imagined. In 1972, she bumped into Owens at the Munich Games and started to excitedly introduce herself to tell him about the autograph she still had. “You don’t have to tell me who you are, I know everything about you,” Owens said.
2 Jesse Owens beats the Aryans (1936)
Anybody who thinks the modern Olympics came fully formed out of the mind of Pierre de Coubertin in 1896 probably hasn’t read a lot about the early events. They were largely homespun affairs, were often attached to other exhibitions and were a bit of a shambles.
That changed in Berlin in 1936, when Germany’s ruling National Socialist Party used the event to showcase the militaristic discipline that it would so grotesquely demonstrate in a few years.
They also planned to use it to confirm the widely-held belief that the Aryans were the master race (they were not the first to do this; in 1904, the “Savage Olympics” were staged in St Louis alongside the actual Olympics and the World Fair to prove anthropologically “in quantitative measure the inferiority of primitive peoples”).
What a shock it was to see, then, a black American, the son of a sharecropper and grandson of a slave, win four golds under the watchful eye of Adolf Hitler.
Owens was a global superstar, but it didn’t do him much good at home, as he returned to a life of struggle, for many years taking races against animals and automobiles to make money.
The Munich tragedy (1972)
There had never been an Olympic story like it and hopefully never will be again.
The simple facts are these: Palestinian Black September militants broke into the Israeli lodgings at Munich’s Olympic village, killed two people and took nine hostages. Having apparently negotiated safe passage to Cairo, five of the eight terrorists, all the hostages and a West German policeman were killed during a calamitous rescue attempt at a Nato airbase.
There was nothing simple about this story, however, and its tentacles were far-reaching. It turned out that West German authorities were armed with startlingly accurate information about a planned attack but didn’t act on it; that security was inconceivably lax at the Village; and that the planning for the ambush at the airbase was fractured and chaotic.
Like many tragedies, it has contributed to the pop culture canon, with Academy award-winning documentary One Day in September, Sword of Gideon and Steven Spielberg’s Munich among the titles.