Every four years, the summer Olympics brings excitement, national pride and the thrill of victory to living rooms. In rare moments, a team or athlete will put together a performance so inspirational it remains etched in viewers’ minds long after the torch is extinguished. From political statements to gutsy finishes, these Olympic moments remind us there’s more to life than gold, silver and bronze.
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Jesse Owens, 1936
Competing in a Hitler-controlled Berlin at the 1936 Olympics, Jesse Owens dealt a deciding blow to the myth of a “master race.” Owens, a grandson of slaves, earned four gold medals (100-meters, 200-meters, long jump and 4 x 100 relay), the most of any athlete at the games.
Abebe Bikila, 1960
Just thinking about running one mile, let alone 26.2, is enough to make some a little queasy. Now do it barefoot. Ethiopian runner Abebe Bikila did it during the 1960 games in Rome. And get this: he won.
The Salute, 1968
Tommie Smith won the 200-meter race in a world record time of 19.83 seconds at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City and teammate John Carlos placed third in 20.10 seconds. But the event will always be remembered for the medal ceremony that followed. The two men received their medals wearing only black socks to represent black poverty and an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge. During “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the two raised a black-gloved fist. It’s gone down as the “Black Power Salute,” but Smith wrote in his autobiography “Silent Gesture” that it was actually a human rights salute. An oft-overlooked aspect of the iconic photo: Australian sprinter and silver medalist Peter Norman wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge as a show of support for his fellow runners.
Derek Redmond, 1992
British runner Derek Redmond landed in Barcelona a favorite to medal in the 400-meters. When he tore his hamstring mid-way through the semi-final race, he let his heart and grit carry him towards the finish line. And then, as he approached, he received a tear-jerking boost from his father who sprung over the railing to help his son. Dad let go steps from the finish, allowing Redmond to complete the race himself.
Kerri Strug, 1996
Kerri Strug vaulted into Olympic history and American sports lore when, on an injured ankle, she stuck the landing on her second vault attempt to secure the United States’ gold-medal victory. The sight of famed coach Béla Károlyi carrying her to the podium, where she stood with the rest of her Magnificent Seven teammates, is the reason highlight reels were made.
Korean Unification Flag, 2000
After decades of turmoil following the post-Korean War, North and South Korea marched together at the 2000 Olympics. The two countries, which competed separately during the games, wore matching uniforms and carried the Korean Unification Flag during the Parade of Athletes in a show of solidarity that symbolized openness to peace.
Rulon Gardner, 2000
Do you believe in miracles? Twenty years after the US men’s ice hockey team completed the Miracle on Ice—a 4-3 semifinal win over the favorited Soviets—Greco-Roman wrestler Rulon Gardner put together a miracle on the mat. The Wyoming native took down Russian Aleksandr Karelin, who was undefeated in 13 years of international competition, for the top spot on the podium. Paging Al Michaels.
Matthias Steiner, 2008
Matthias Steiner entered the 2008 Beijing games carrying a weight much heavier than the ones he’d lifted his entire career as a weightlifter. His wife died in a car accident the year before. With her still in his mind and heart, Steiner cleaned and jerked a weight 30 pounds more than his previous PR to claim Olympic gold. He kept her close during the ceremony, holding her photo as the German national anthem played.