Ah, the Olympics: Every two years, our greatest athletes gather together to compete for their countries and to prove, definitively, who’s the best in the world. This winter, in Sochi, Russia, we’ve already witnessed some triumphant—and unusual—moments: Canadian freestyle skier Alex Bilodeau’s moving celebration with his special needs brother after winning gold ; American figure skater Ashley Wagner’s made-for-memeing scowl after scoring poorly in the women’s figure skating short program; snowboarding phenom Shaun White’s shocking failure to medal in the event he’s long dominated, men’s half-pipe; and Canadian cross-country skiing coach Justin Wadsworth’s kind assistto struggling Russian skier Anton Gafarov in the men’s freestyle sprint.
With more than a week left of competition in Sochi, we’ve got lots more sports-watching to do. Today, though, as we wait out NBC’s tape delay, we’re counting down the 10 most powerful Olympic moments of all time.
Wilma Rudolph overcomes polio, becomes a champion
Wilma Rudolph overcame scarlet fever and polio-induced paralysis in childhood to become the most decorated American female Olympian of her time. In the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, she won three gold medals in track and field, becoming the first American woman to clinch three such medals in a single Games. Then the fastest woman in the world, Rudolph helped elevate track and field’s profile in the United States. She was also a hero in the African-American community—and an emblem of hope in the midst of America’s civil rights movement.
2. Off Balance
The Magnificent Seven’s team triumph
At the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics, the dramatic performances of Béla Károlyi’s “Magnificent Seven”—gymnasts Dominique Moceanu, Kerri Strug, Dominique Dawes, Amy Chow, Shannon Miller, Amanda Borden, and Jaycie Phelps—kept audiences rapt. After hurting herself on her vault in the team competition, Kerri Strug logged the Games’ most moving moment when she stuck the landing on her second pass, spurring the U.S. to its first women’s gymnastics team gold ever. Moceanu, one of the team’s leaders, tells their inspiring story in her autobiography, Off Balance.
Mary Lou Retton wins all-around gold
When some members of the Magnificent Seven were just twinkles in their fathers’ eyes, American gymnast Mary Lou Retton was laying the groundwork for U.S. dominance in the sport. Retton overcame a freak knee injury that required surgery in the weeks leading up to the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles, throwing her eligibility into question. But she fought back, recovering just in time and scoring perfect 10s on floor exercise and vault to become the first American woman ever to win all-around gold. In its anthology The Sports of the Times, the New York Times details Retton’s unlikely comeback and long-lasting contribution to women’s gymnastics in the U.S.
Nadia Comaneci’s first perfect 10
We know, we know—another gymnast. But, if it weren’t for Romanian phenom Nadia Comaneci, a generation of girls (Retton among them) wouldn’t have been inspired to follow in her footsteps. A wisp of a girl, Comaneci was only 14 when she became the first female gymnast to score a perfect 10 in an Olympic event. She scored a total of seven 10s at the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal, going on to win three gold medals; four years later, in Moscow, she won two more. Comaneci looks back at her history-making performance in Letters to a Young Gymnast.
Diver Greg Louganis slams head, wins gold
Known for almost as many twists and turns as gymnastics, diving is one of the world’s most acrobatic sports. Occasionally, it’s also dangerous. At the Seoul Summer Olympics in 1998, American diver Greg Louganis made history after whacking his head, concussing himself, and still going on to win two gold medals. Louganis—who was diagnosed with HIV in 1988 and came out publicly to Oprah in 1994—revisits the 1988 Games in his memoir, Breaking the Surface.
Muhammad Ali lights the Olympic torch
Muhammad Ali competed in the 1960 Olympics in Rome as Cassius Clay (his birth name) and won gold in light heavyweight boxing. Like Rudolph’s, Ali’s win struck pride and hope in the hearts of African-Americans back home. He returned to the Games to light the Olympic torch in Atlanta in 1996, an event widely recognized as one of the most moving Olympic moments of all time. By then struggling with Parkinson’s disease, Ali—a surprise guest—had difficulty steadying himself to light the flame, moving onlookers to tears. He recalls the event, and his fascinating life and career, in his autobiography, The Soul of a Butterfly.
7. Mark Spitz
Michael Phelps and Mark Spitz: the most decorated athletes of all time
In the 1970s, mustachioed super swimmer Mark Spitz was the man to beat in the pool. In the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, he won an incredible seven gold medals—then the most gold medals ever to be won by a single athlete, in a single Games. Well, time goes on, and athletes get bigger, faster, stronger and better. As fate would have it, in 2008, Michael Phelps smashed Spitz’s record, winning eight gold medals at the Beijing Summer Olympics. Seven golds, however, is nothing to sneeze at. Spitz helped author Richard Foster craft his self-titled authorized biography. For more on Phelps, pick up his first book, Beneath the Surface.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s “Black Power” salute
Sometimes politics take center stage at the Olympics. That’s what happened in 1968, at the Summer Games in Mexico City, during the medal ceremony for the men’s 200-meter track and field event. After taking the podium to receive their gold and bronze medals, respectively, American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos rose gloved fists in a “Black Power” salute. The demonstration stirred unrest back home: In 1968, with the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., and riots from Chicago to Washington, D.C., racial tensions in the U.S. had reached a fever pitch. In the end, Smith and Carlos were expelled from the Games. But their demonstration remains one of the most high-impact moments in sports history.
The U.S. defeats the Soviet Union in the “Miracle On Ice”
At the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, NY, the men’s hockey favorites were, as always, the Soviets. Since the mid-’60s, Soviet teams had dominated international competitions; that year, the U.S. squad, comprised of students and amateurs, didn’t appear to stand a chance. In what was one of the most captivating hockey matches in the sport’s existence, the underdogs prevailed, scoring the winning goal in the game’s last seconds to move onto the finals against Finland, then winning gold. Wayne Coffey tells the story in his book, The Boys of Winter.
Jesse Owens wins four gold medals in Nazi Germany
One of Adolf Hitler’s goals going into the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics was proving the superiority of his nation, and his race, to the world. A great many athletes, of course, foiled his plans, the most famous of which was African-American runner Jesse Owens, who stunned Hitler by clinching an unprecedented four gold medals in track and field in the Games. Owens’s record went unmatched until 1984, when Carl Lewis tied it by winning four track and field medals in the Los Angeles Summer Games. Still, it was Owens who defied Hitler and paved the way for later generations of African-American athletes. Jeremy Schaap recalls Owens’s incredible performance in Triumph.