spiked’s Top 10 Olympic moments

The Games have thrown up scores of incredible performances, political spats and glorious characters. Here's our pick of the best.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

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The Olympic Games embody just the kind of bold attitude towards life and history that we’ve always been keen on here at spiked. So, after a lively discussion over an Olympian amount of alcohol and bar snacks, we’ve come up with a list of our 10 favourite Olympic moments.

There were plenty of contenders that didn’t make the list – though we hope to return to some of these over the course of the next two weeks as the Beijing Games unfolds. And while we’ve put these in order, we can assure you that if you ask us tomorrow, the pecking order would be different. How do you compare a barefoot marathon runner to a boxing legend, or a record-breaking sprint that created a scandal with a century-old parade ground insult? After you’ve read our top-10 countdown, let us know what you think.

10. When the Americans insulted royalty

Twelve years after Baron Pierre de Coubertin realised his vision of a modern Olympiad, the games arrived in London in 1908. These were the first full games to include a parade of teams behind their national flags. But in what was considered a major insult, the US flag was not dipped to the royal box by the team. The US team captain, Martin Sheridan, explained that ‘This flag dips to no earthly king’.

While one explanation is that the move was a protest at the failure to fly the Stars and Stripes over the stadium, American academic Mark Dyreson argues that ‘history reveals the original patriots who refused to dip to the British monarch were animated as much by Irish as American sentiment. Many of the US athletes, including the flag-bearer, were Irish immigrants or descendants and were incensed that their former countrymen were forced to compete under the Union Jack rather than an Irish flag. They intended to insult the British – and the furore that ensued indicates they succeeded.’

Uppity colonials…

The US team at White City, London, 1908

9. Sebastian Coe retains his 1500 metres title

Lord Coe isn’t exactly spiked’s cup of tea. While we’re delighted that London will be hosting the 2012 Games, the successful London bid – led by Coe – pressed all the kind of sustainability and sport-as-social-engineering buttons that we deplore. But in 1984, in Los Angeles, Coe proved he was a supreme athlete and a gutsy competitor.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Coe and fellow Brit Steve Ovett were engaged in a personal struggle for middle-distance domination, swapping world records over 800 metres, 1500 metres and the mile. In the Moscow Games, in 1980, Ovett beat Coe over 800 metres (where Coe was favourite), only for Coe to bounce back days later to take the 1500 metres crown. In 1984, Peter Elliott was victorious at the UK championships, but the selectors controversially picked Coe ahead of him. Coe again came second in the 800 metres. Under intense pressure to justify his selection, Coe defended his 1500 metres title in style, beating the world champion (Steve Cram) and the world record holder (Ovett) in the process. His reaction, while understated by some standards, is one of pure vindication.

For those who fret about the risks involved with Beijing’s air quality, the 1984 race is also a reminder that Los Angeles had pretty dreadful air, too. Coe’s great rival Ovett – who had suffered bronchitis before the Games – was stretchered away from the stadium after dropping out of the race, badly affected by the LA smog.

Sebastian Coe wins 1500 metres gold in Los Angeles

8. Barefoot Ethiopian runs to marathon glory in Rome

Abebe Bikila wasn’t even in the original Ethiopian team picked for the 1960 Olympics in Rome. Competing as a late replacement, and in only his third marathon, he ran a stunning race and broke the world record. What makes the performance even more remarkable was that the shoes supplied to him were making his feet sore – so he ran the full 26 miles 385 yards barefoot.

Bikila was the first East African to win an Olympic gold medal and proved the feat was no fluke by retaining his title in Tokyo four years later, breaking the world record again in the process. That he won that first title in Italy, the country which had occupied Ethiopia when it was Abyssinia back in 1936, must have made his victory all the sweeter.

Abebe Bikila wins marathon gold in 1960

7. Beamon takes off in Mexico City

New Yorker Bob Beamon was favourite for gold in the 1968 long jump competition. But nobody could have predicted what he would do. Beamon produced what was described as ‘the perfect jump’, leaping 8.90 metres, or 29 feet 2½ inches. Nobody had previously come close to jumping 28 feet, never mind 29. Most world records are broken in tiny increments – a fraction of one per cent. Beamon broke the previous record by an astounding six per cent. His leap was so unprecedented that the measuring equipment didn’t go that far and the jump had to be measured manually.

Beamon’s mark was finally beaten by Mike Powell – nearly 23 years later. While the altitude in Mexico City, and a following wind, helped Beamon, the performance is still jaw-dropping.

Bob Beamon shatters the world long jump record

6. Cassius Clay: a star is born

The ‘Louisville Lip’ was just 18 years old when he travelled to Rome in 1960 to compete as America’s representative in the light-heavyweight division. Despite his youth, his exceptional hand speed, footwork and power enabled him to tear though the opposition. Even his legendary shuffle was in place. In the final, he beat a far more experienced fighter, three-time European champion Zigzy Pietrzykowski of Poland.

When he returned home, Clay threw his gold medal into the Ohio river after being refused service at a whites-only restaurant – despite being an Olympic champion. Four years after winning Olympic gold, Clay beat Sonny Liston to win the world heavyweight championship. Shortly after, he announced that he had become a Muslim and changed his name to Muhammad Ali.

How times change. Now Ali is feted as the most famous figure in sport. In 1996, he lit the Olympic Flame to start the Atlanta games and was later presented with a replacement gold medal.

Cassius Clay fights for the light-heavyweight title
at the 1960 Rome Olympics

5. ‘Blood in the water’

In 1956, the Games were held in Melbourne in November. The Hungarian water polo team, regarded as the pre-Games favourites, were in training camp when an uprising began against Soviet rule on 23 October. They were quickly moved to Czechoslovakia to complete their training, but it was only when they arrived in Australia that they learned that the uprising had been brutally crushed by Soviet troops. Many of the players knew they would never be able to return home.

Hungarian water polo player
Ervin Zador

The Hungarian players were soon given the opportunity to do something about it when they met the Soviet Union in the semi-final. As Sports Illustrated described it: ‘In scoring the first goal, Dezsö Gyarmati of Hungary, who would eventually win medals in five Olympics, nearly KO’d his Soviet opponent. Minutes later, the USSR’s Vyacheslav Kurennoi was sent to the penalty box for slugging. Then the Soviet Union’s Boris Markarov and Hungary’s Antal Bolvari went at it. It was open warfare thereafter, with players from both teams trading blows and headlocks.’ The game had to be abandoned with a minute still left to play; Hungarian ex-patriates threatened to storm the pool after one of the Soviet players thumped Hungary’s Ervin Zador, leaving him requiring 13 stitches. Hungary, who were leading 4-0, were declared the winners and went on to take gold.

4. How an Italian lost the marathon – but still won

Once all the controversy over the dipping of flags was over, the most famous event of the 1908 London Games was the marathon. The original distance was 25 miles, but it was extended to 26 miles to allow the race to go from Windsor Castle to the White City stadium in West London. It was further extended by a short lap at the castle, giving the race its bizarre modern distance: 26 miles 385 yards. The pre-race favourite, a Canadian called Tom Longboat, collapsed after nearly 20 miles in the warm July sun. Some say he was undone by champagne drunk en route. So, it was left to an Italian pastry chef, Dorando Pietri, to lead the race. But as he entered the stadium, he was exhausted by the effort (not helped by the odd brandy and a little strychnine on the road), tried to go the wrong way round the track, and then collapsed five times in the last 200 yards.

Pietri was helped over the line by officials to win gold, with the American Johnny Hayes in second. The US team quickly lodged a protest – something it did on a daily basis during the Games. Pietri was disqualified for receiving illegal assistance, with Hayes declared winner. There was uproar, and the following day, Pietri was presented with a silver cup by Princess Alexandra in honour of his achievement. Pietri, Hayes, Longboat and others went on to compete against each other in professional races in the USA, and Irving Berlin’s first hit song, Dorando, was inspired by the Italian runner. Berlin’s song is a cautionary tale about gambling on marathons – and the 1908 race suggests alcohol and marathons don’t mix, either.

Dorando Pietri is helped across the winning line in the 1908 marathon

3. An affront to the idea of Aryan supremacy

The Berlin Games in 1936 were an opportunity for Hitler and the Nazis to show off to the world. But the star of the games – James ‘Jesse’ Owens – was a one-man contradiction of the ideology of racial supremacy. Owens was a star of college track and field, winning eight national titles while at Ohio State University. In just 45 minutes in May 1935, Owens broke three world records and equalled another, and the long jump record he set in the process lasted for 25 years. Yet, like other African Americans, he had to live off-campus.

In Berlin, Owens won gold in four events: 100 metres, 200 metres, long jump and 4×100 metres relay. Hitler’s pained expression at Owens’ victory is captured in Leni Reifenstahl’s film of the Games, Olympia. Hitler’s aim had been for the German team to top the medals table, which it did. But Owens’ stellar performance undermined that success.

Like Muhammad Ali, Owens was America’s representative, but life didn’t get any better for him after his victories. Owens’ story is as much a condemnation of American racism as it is of Nazi ideology. Commenting on the idea that Hitler had snubbed him by not shaking his hand, Owens said: ‘Hitler didn’t snub me – it was FDR who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.’

Jesse Owens wins gold in the 100 metres in Berlin

2. Black power – what a real Olympics protest looks like

If Beamon produced the standout athletic performance of the 1968 Games in Mexico City, the major talking point will always remain what happened after the men’s 200 metres final. The event was won by black American Tommie Smith in a world record 19.83 seconds, with his compatriot John Carlos taking bronze. During the medal ceremony, Smith and Carlos bowed their heads while the US national anthem was played and raised gloved fists in what became known as the ‘Black Power salute’. The pair were immediately suspended from the US team and told to leave the Olympic village.

At a time of feverish political tension over the issue of black rights in America, Smith and Carlos took some considerable risk when they stood on the rostrum and raised their fists. Their gesture was a far cry from the kind of protests that have marked the Beijing Games. Now, athletes seem to be queuing up to make some kind of grand statement, or sitting at home figuring out just what ribbon or wristband they can wear for maximum effect – and in the sure knowledge that when they get home, they’re far more likely to get a pat on the back than face death threats, as Smith and Carlos did.

Excerpt from a BBC documentary on the 1968 protest

1. Ben Johnson runs like the wind – and into scandal

In 1984, Carl Lewis had matched Jesse Owens’ achievement of winning four gold medals in the sprint events and long jump. The main barrier to him repeating that feat in 1988 was Ben Johnson of Canada. The previous year, Johnson had beaten Lewis at the world championships in Rome, knocking a full tenth of a second off the world record in the process – a gigantic leap by 100 metres standards. Lewis, unaccustomed to defeat, implied that Johnson must have cheated. ‘There are gold medallists at this meet who are on drugs’, he told the BBC.

At the Seoul Games in 1988, Johnson trounced Lewis once more, and lowered his world record to 9.79 seconds. He would have run even faster had he not stuck his arm up in triumph before crossing the line. However, an anabolic steriod, Stanozolol, was found in Johnson’s urine and he was disqualified. While Johnson now admits he took steroids, he claims never to have taken Stanozolol. In his defence, he argues that he took drugs because it was widely known that all the leading sprinters were doing it. Johnson was banned for three years, and was a shadow of his former self when he returned to competition.

But regardless of whether he was the target of a conspiracy by the athletics establishment, what was most impressive about Johnson was that he just ran really, really fast. No one has since run as fast at the Games. There have been performances at least as striking as Johnson’s in subsequent Olympics, like that of his namesake Michael Johnson in the 200 metres in 1996. But the 100 metres is the event for the fastest men on Earth. And no one has out-run all the other fast men quite as decisively as Ben Johnson did when he blew away the opposition in South Korea.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

What do you think? What performances would you have included in your list? Let us know.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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