Seeing Ali return as the elder statesman of sports, his body slowed by Parkinson’s but his spirit beloved by all, was a crowning moment that embodied the best of the Olympics regardless of nationality, religion, or race. 36 years earlier, at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, it was a young precocious Cassius Clay who threw fists and verbal jabs on his way to a gold medal in boxing’s light heavyweight division. Clay turned Ali certainly had a tumultuous history with the United States, as he was jailed for not fighting in the army and stripped of his heavyweight crown, and once tossed his original gold medal from Rome in the Ohio River after being refused service at a white-only restaurant. But in 1996 is was Ali’s turn to be the international father of hope and healing as he lit the torch and kicked off the games.
U.S. Basketball’s Dream Team brings home gold. Barcelona, 1992.
Never before – and most likely, never again – will a greater group of athletes assemble on the same team as the 1992 U.S. Olympic hoop team. The first year professionals were allowed to play, the roster was studded with stars; Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, David Robinson, and others. The initial concerns about subjugating egos was unfounded as the Dream Team plates together like a selfless well-oiled machine, smashing their way to a gold medal, and the record books with an average margin of victory of almost 44 points.
FloJo becomes the fastest woman alive. Seoul, 1988.
U.S. sprinter and track star Florence Griffith-Joyner took home three gold medals from the Olympics in S. Korea, the 100m, 200m, and 4x100m relay, earning her the moniker, “the fastest woman of all time.” Her legacy was questioned after allegations of steroid use emerged but FloJo passed every single drug test.
The ‘Miracle on Ice.’ Lake Placid, 1980.
Perhaps the greatest win for the United States in any sport at any time, a group of hockey misfits, castoffs, and amateurs that made up the U.S. team in 1980 went on to topple the mighty and unbeatable red war machine of the Soviet Union. The Russian team had taken gold medals in almost every tournament since 1954 but somehow the scrappy Americans played their hearts out and achieved a miracle – a 4-3 win over the Soviet team. Two day’s later the U.S. team beat Finland to capture the gold and inspire a generation of believers.
Women’s Soccer team wins Gold in overtime! Athens, 2004
Any time you see the ‘United States’ and ‘gold’ mentioned in the same sentence as ‘soccer,’ you have to do a double take, but the improbability of the win by our women in 2004 led to one of the finest Olympic moments. It all happened when Abby Wambach kicked in the winning goal against powerhouse Brazil in overtime to win the game- and the gold!
Jesse Owens takes on Hitler. Berlin, 1936.
The world was much different in 1936, as nationalist rumblings by a Nazi hatemonger named Adolf Hitler were building toward World War II. The Chancellor of Germany at the time, Hitler was intent on proving to the world that the Aryan race was superior in every way – including athletically. So when the Olympics took place in Munich, Germany in ’36 it was a perfect chance to highlight the dominance of his ‘master race’ theories. However our own Jesse Owens, African-American sprinter, hometown hero, and model citizen of the highest magnitude, made sure that the Furor was personally embarrassed. Owens had one of the most individually dazzling Olympics in history and came home with 4 gold medals in the 100m, 200m, 4.100m relay and long jump competitions, including the title of the world’s fastest man.
Michael Phelps swims his way to the record books. Beijing, 2008.
The boy-next-door turned Aquaman Phelps put on perhaps the greatest individual show in the Olympics by earning 8 gold medals in China. He stood atop the podium with gold around his neck more than any other athlete in history after winning the 100m butterfly, 200m butterfly, 200m freestyle, 200m individual medley, 400m individual medley, 4x100 freestyle relay, 4x200m freestyle relay, and 4x 100m medley relay. Phelps barely topped U.S. swimming great Mark Spitz’s record 7 gold medals at the Munich OIympics in 1972 and now is the all-time medal’s holder with an astounding 18 gold’s and 22 overall medals.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos fists in the air. Mexico City, 1968.
Smith and Carlos, U.S. track stars, had just won gold and bronze medals in the 200m race in ’68 when they took their places on the podium. Dressed uniformly in black with one black glove on, they each thrust one fist in the air while the Star Spangled Banner was played in protest. At the time, and through history, it’s been widely recognized as a salute for the Black Power movement but in fact Smith later revealed that it was a political statement to bring awareness to human rights, and both Smith, Carlos, and Austrian silver medalist winner, Peter Norman, were wearing matching human rights pins at the time.
Greg Louganis hits his head on the diving board…but still wins gold. Seoul, 1988.
Almost all of us have seen the now-famous photo of Louganis smashing the back of his head on the diving board while attempting a dive in that Olympics, but not everyone knows that he came back from that injury. Bloodied but not discouraged, Louganis needed four emergency sutures and was suffering from a concussion when get got back up on the board and won two gold medals in two later events.
Rulond Gardner wrestles a legend - and wins. Sydney, 2000.
With apologies to Carl Lewis, Marry Lou Retton, Eric Heiden, and Bruce Jenner, one of the top moments in U.S. Olympic history has almost all but been forgotten. But the name Rulon Gardner stands tall in importance for our country. Gardner, a lumpy farm boy with a big smile from Afton, Wyoming, went into the gold medal round of the Greco-Roman wrestling competition against an immovable force – Russian Aleksandr Karelin. Karelin was an absolute beast, defeating hundreds of opponents up until then in a mind-blowing 13 year undefeated run in international wrestling. Karelin hadn’t even given up a single POINT in over 6 years of matches! But somehow, Gardener persevered and beat him for a gold medal, the only loss n Karelin’s career against 887 wins!