The Olympics are not just about spectacular performances, but moments that endure.
The creators of the Modern Games extolled the virtues of pure competition, and didn't think politics and subplots had a place in the Olympics. But those factors are a reality and they provide a backdrop to some of the most unforgettable moments the Games have produced. Here they are, perhaps the greatest examples of joy and sorrow, inspiration and controversy that the Olympics have seen:
1. 1968: Silent protest heard 'round the world
The social upheaval of the 1960s spread to the Mexico City Games, where some black athletes stayed away as part of a boycott. Sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who trained out of San Jose State and were members of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, attended the Games and excelled. Smith won the 200 meters in a world record time of 19.83 seconds and Carlos took the bronze medal.
Afterward, the two climbed the medal podium in bare feet, wearing civil rights badges. Silver medalist Peter Norman, who was white, also wore the badge in support of his rivals. As the national anthem was played, Smith and Carlos both quietly bowed their heads and raised one black-gloved fist, symbolizing black strength and unity.
Outraged, the International Olympic committee demanded that the U.S. Olympic Committee remove Smith and Carlos from the Games, then threatened to ban the entire U.S.
team if the USOC didn't comply. The two were sent home to a generally hostile reception from Americans, although worldwide response was more favorable. Their non-violent gesture is now recognized by a statue on the SJSU campus.
2. 1936: Jesse Owens gets unexpected help
With war brewing in Europe, African American star Jesse Owens debunked the Nazi theory of Aryan superiority by winning four gold medals in front of Adolph Hitler at Berlin. He captured the 100 and 200 meters and the 400 relay, but needed help from German rival Luz Long after nearly failing to qualify for the long jump final.
Down to his final attempt in the prelinaries, Owens advanced after Long took off from well in front of the board to prevent another foul. Owens went on to set an Olympic record leap of 26 feet, 5 1/2 inches on his last attempt in the finals. Afterward, runnerup Long congratulated Owens in full view of Hitler.
"You can melt down all the medals and cups I have," Owens wrote later, "and they wouldn't be a plating on the 24-carat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment."
3. 1972: The Munich massacre
Germany was determined to stage a flawless and peaceful Olympics 36 years after the the Berlin Games were dominated by the specter of Adolph Hitler. At Munich, the star was American swimmer Mark Spitz, who won a record seven gold medals, each in a world-record time.
But on the early morning of Sept. 5, eight Palestinians broke into the Olympic Village and invaded the rooms of Israeli athletes. Two Israelis were killed immediately and nine more taken hostage as the terrorists demanded the release of 200 prisoners held in Israel and safe passage home.
The terrorists made their way to a miliary airstrip, where West German snipers ambushed them. In the gunfire, all the remaining hostages were killed, along with five Palestinians and a policeman. The Games were held up for 34 hours, then resumed amid great controversy.
4. 1996: Kerri Strug delivers
The gold medal aspirations of the "Magnificent 7" U.S. women's gymnastics team in Atlanta seemed to be teetering. After two falls in the vault by Dominique Moceanu, the Americans needed a big score from 18-year-old Kerri Strug. The vault was her speciality, but on her first of two tries she missed on a Yurchenko 1 1/2 twist, landing on her backside and injuring her left ankle.
Given just 90 seconds to decide if she could attempt her second vault, Strug told coach Bela Karolyi, "I can't do it. I can't feel my leg." The coach told her the team needed a score of 9.6 from her to win the gold medal. It actually wasn't true. The Americans likely would have won regardless. But Strug, at least, apparently didn't know that.
She raced down the runway, completed the vault, stuck the landing, then hopped on her right ankle a couple times before collapsing. Her score of 9.712 clinched the team crown. Minutes later, wearing a soft cast on her ankle, Strug was carried to the medal podium by Karolyi in a moment oozing with melodrama.
5. 1956: Blood in the Water
Barely a month after the Soviet Union sent 200,000 troops into Hungary to quell a revolt against Communist rule, the two countries met in the semifinals of the water polo competition at Melbourne. The Hungarians won 4-0, but the match quickly deteriorated into what became known as the "Blood in the Water" game.
With a minute left, the referee halted the game after Hungarian star Ervin Zador -- who had scored two goals -- was sucker-punched in the eye by a Soviet player. The image of Zador emerging from the pool, blood streaming down his face, was captured in an iconic photograph. The pro-Hungary crowd spilled toward the pool deck, threatening the Soviet players, who needed a police escort to safely exit the facility. Zador received eight stitches and his eye was so swollen he could not play in the gold medal game, where Hungary beat Yugoslavia 2-1.
Zador didn't return home after the Games, instead defecting to the U.S. He settled in the Central Valley community of Ripon where for years he coached swimming -- including a young Mark Spitz -- before his death at the age of 77 on April 28 of this year.
6. 1992: A father-son moment
Plagued by injury throughout his career, British 400-meter runner Derek Redmond had undergone five surgeries, causing him to miss the 1988 Seoul Games and making him wonder if he truly was Olympic caliber. But he reached the semifinals in Barcelona, where at about 150 meters he felt his right hamstring pop. Determined to finish the race, he ignored stretcher bearers and began to hop down the track -- far behind the rest of the field.
Watching the scene unfold from the grandstands, Jim Redmond ran onto the track, met his son and told him he didn't have to continue. "I've got to finish," Redmond said. So the athlete draped his left arm over his father's shoulder and the two made their way around the oval, Derek Redmond sobbing before it was over.
Just before the finish line, Jim Redmond let go and allowed his son to take the final steps on his own, the stadium crowd rewarding him with a standing ovation.
7. 1984: Decker's crash landing
One year after scoring a double victory in the 1,500 and 3,000 at the first IAAF world championships in Helsinki, Mary Decker was the favorite in the 3,000 at the Los Angeles Games. Providing a challenge was 18-year-old Zola Budd, South African-born but representing Great Britain. At 5 feet tall, just 82 pounds, and running barefoot, Budd had broken the 3,000-meter world record of her hero, Decker, earlier in the year, creating a surge of pre-Olympics hype.
In the Olympic final, just past the halfway mark, Decker clipped one of Budd's legs, throwing Budd off balance. Five strides later, they collided again. Budd fell awkwardly to the ground and Decker tripped over her right leg, sprawling to the infield. Decker writhed in pain, her left hip injured. Budd got up and tried to resume racing. But the L.A. Coliseum crowd of 85,000, initially stunned and quiet, began to boo and Budd gradually faded, eventually finishing seventh.
8. 1960: Bikila ushers a new era
African runners dominate the world distance running scene today, but at Rome in 1960 they still were outsiders in the sport. In particular, no one knew Abebe Bikila, the skinny Ethiopian who would tackle the 26.2-mile marathon in bare feet because his new running shoes were ill-fitting. "Well, there's one guy we don't have to worry about," American runner Gordon McKenzie said beforehand.
But as the race unfolded, the first Olympic marathon held at night, Bikila remained at the front. Along the route, he passed the Axum Obelisk, a massive statue that Mussolini had brought back to Italy after invading Ethiopia during World War II.
Racing through the darkness, the tiny member of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie's Imperial Guard was dramatically silhouetted by lights as he entered the Stadio Olimpico, a strucure built by their oppressor of just 15 years before. As the first black African to win an Olympic gold medal, Bikila not only signaled a new era in distance running, he conquered Rome.
9. 1984: "I'm one happy dude"
Two years before the Los Angeles Olympics, Greco Roman wrestler Jeff Blatnick was diagnosed with cancer. The American super heavyweight had surgery to remove his speen and apendix, then underwent radiation treatment to kill off the Hodgkin's disease.
Although discouraged by his doctors, Blatnick resumed his training and made the U.S. team. Further inspired by his brother David, who had died in a motorcycle accident in 1977, he defeated Swede Tomas Johansson 2-0 in the gold medal match. Afterward, he fell to his knee, joined his hands in prayer and looked upward. Then he cried -- for the first time since his brother had died.
Johansson was subsequently stripped of his silver medal after testing positive for steroids. A year later, Blatnick's cancer returned and he required 28 sessions of chemotherapy to recover. But during a TV interview after his gold medal victory, Blatnick tearfully told the world, "I'm one happy dude."
10. 2000: No smashing the Aussies
Australia, where swimming is king, unleashed 17-year-old Ian "The Thorpedo" Thorpe in the pool at the Sydney Games. But brash U.S. sprinter Gary Hall Jr. wasn't intimidated. Looking forward to the 400-meter freestyle relay, Hall boasted in an interview, "We will smash them like guitars."
The buildup was immense, and in the relay final Thorpe was pitted against Hall on the final leg. A superb race went back and forth, the Aussies giving Thorpe a slight lead entering the final 100 meters. Hall immediately caught him and surged ahead, but Thorpe was stronger at the finish and the Aussies won in a world-record time.
Afterward, Aussie leadoff leg Michael Klim celebrated by playing the air guitar on the pool deck. Hall was gracious in defeat. "I consider it the best relay race I've ever been part of," he said. "I doff my cap to the great Ian Thorpe."
1928: Australian single scull Bobby Pearce stopped rowing midway through the Amsterdam final to let a family of ducks cross his path. He resumed racing and won the gold medal by nearly 10 seconds.
1972: The U.S. men's basketball team, unbeaten in 62 Olympic games, lost 51-50 to the Soviet Union in a gold medal game climaxed by a controversial finish. The American players, refusing to accept they were beaten fairly, declined their silver medals.
1988: Ben Johnson blistered Carl Lewis in the 100-meter final at Seoul, then three days later became the first big-name athlete stripped of his medal after testing positive for steroids.
1988: American Greg Louganis suffered a concussion when he hit his head on a springboard during the diving prelims. But he recovered to win gold in the event, then won another in platform diving a week later.
1996: With Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" playing in the Olympic Stadium, Muhammad Ali, winner of the 1960 light heavyweight boxing gold but battling Parkinson's disease, lit the cauldron to open the Atlanta Games as the crowd cheered wildly.
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OCTOBER 31, 2014
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