It’s time for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad. So brush up on your foreign national-anthem lyrics and grab a comfy spot on the couch to watch the quadrennial summer gathering of the world’s top athletes. Since 1896, the modern Olympic Games have tested the mettle of the host city (this year, the honors go to Beijing, China) and competitors of all sizes, backgrounds, and specialties. To celebrate the occasion, we’ve selected the top five Summer Olympics moments that not only highlight a handful of incredible individual achievements but also demonstrate the games’ evolution and endurance. By Ed Bark
City: Athens, Greece
Smallish Greek shepherd Spyridon Louis sent his countrymen into ecstasy by winning the climactic and first-ever modern-Olympics marathon. Because of the marathon’s historical significance, the Greek hosts wanted towin it more than any other event. (The race was created to honor Pheidippides, the ancient Greek hero who, in 490 BC, allegedly ran 26 miles, from Marathon to Athens, to report news of the Greek victory over Persia at the Battle of Marathon.) One could hardly blame Greece’s Prince Constantine and Prince George for trotting joyously alongside Louis to the finish line. Afterward, an Athenian barber offered Louis free shaves for life. Ah, the spoils of victory.
Races and Race
City: Berlin, Germany
As Adolf Hitler watched from the stands, U.S. sprinter Jesse Owens shattered the dictator’s visions of Aryan supremacy by winning the 100-meter and 200-meter races before running the first leg of the 400-meter relay for his country’s team, which was also victorious. The African-American son of an Alabama sharecropper, he snagged another gold medal by winning the long jump. Hitler never acknowledged the victories, a fact that didn’t bother Owens. “I didn’t go over to shake hands with Hitler, anyway,” he said.
City: Rome, Italy
On his way to becoming “the greatest of all time,” a young Muhammad Ali, né Cassius Marcellus Clay, put boxing in the spotlight when he claimeda gold medal at the 17th Olympic Games. The brash 18-year-old took the light-heavyweight title after winning his match against Zbigniew “Ziggy” Pietrzykowski of Poland. Ali wore his gold medal for the next 48 hours and, naturally, had something to say about it. “First time Iever slept on my back,” he said. “Had to, or that medal would have cut my chest.”
City: Munich, Germany
After flopping in the 1968 Summer Games, U.S. swimmer Mark Spitz became the first, and is still the only, competitor to win seven gold medals in a single Olympics. In addition to that, he set or helped to set new world records in each event. The photo of Spitz bare chested with all seven medals around his neck remains one of the sport’s most iconic images. Sadly, the subsequent Palestinian-terrorist hostage crisis, in which 11 Jewish Olympians were murdered, cast a pall on his accomplishments. Spitz, who is Jewish, immediately returned to the States.
City: Los Angeles, California
The U.S. men’s gymnastics team may have won the gold, but none of its tumblers compared to bright, bouncy Mary Lou Retton of Fairmont, West Virginia. In a competition boycotted by the Soviet Union, she won Olympic gold as the game’s all-around best gymnast. (Her team took the silver medal in a close competition against Romania.) Retton’s performance and high-beam smile made her America’s uncontested sweetheart for the rest of that year. Even Wheaties came calling, making her the first woman ever to serve as the cereal’s official spokesperson.