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Top 10 Olympic moments of all time

With the Rio Olympics now half way through, we look back at the 10 most memorable and symbolic moments of all time.

Every four years we become engrossed in the highs and lows of at least one of the innumerable Olympic sports. The wonderful thing about the Olympics is that it doesn’t just create breathtaking sporting highlights, but also unifying symbolic moments. This is the heart of the Olympic games, with the symbol of five coloured rings, symbolizing the uniting athletes from all continents around the world, particularly in difficult times. RealSport looks back at the Top 10 sporting and symbolic moments of the Olympic games.


10: “The Flying Scotsman” – 1924

Eric Liddell’s gold medal in the 400 metres during the 1924 Paris games, which was the inspiration behind the well renowned film ‘Chariots of Fire’, is our pick for number ten. It emphasises the humongous difference between athletes back then, and those who will be partaking in the Rio 2016 games. Liddell was famous for his ungainly running style, described by some as the “ugliest running style ever to win an Olympic medal”. 

The ‘flying Scotsman’ won his gold medal only a year after his first ever race outside of Scotland, and only three years after his first ever race for Edinburgh Athletics club in 1921. This was despite an intention to only be an athlete for a few years, before becoming a missionary. He later became a religious speaker and attained seven caps for Scotland in Rugby Union. He also refused to partake in the 100 metres event in the same Olympics as the preliminary heats were held on a Sunday. Clearly Liddell was not a conventional athlete by modern-day standards, and this moment illustrates better than any other how the successful athletes of today have advanced both within and outside of their sport.  


9: Eric Moussambani creates a splash – 2000

During the 2000 Sydney Olympics, a 22-year-old Equatorial Guinean swimmer, who had never stood in an Olympic pool before let alone competing in one, took part in the 100 metres freestyle heats. Whilst we can only dream of what a story it would have been had Eric reached the final, never mind achieved a medal, his participation is enough to make it onto our memories list.

Before this event Eric had swum in rivers, the sea and a private hotel pool which was only 13 metres long. He recalls how unprofessional his training was, with even fisherman coaching him how to use his legs and swim. He remembers watching the US team train and studying their techniques, whilst a South African coach helped him not only hone his technique but also provided him a pair of trunks and goggles.

Despite being “scared” of the 50 metre pool on first viewing, Moussambani became his country’s first swimmer to compete internationally on the 19 September 2000 in an opening heat. Unfortunately the dream would end here, and not particularly impressively, as he recorded a time of 1:52. However, more important than the results were the fact he represented the all-inclusive nature of the Olympic games referred to earlier, in that it is the taking part that counts. He certainly created a splash in more ways than one, and ultimately became one of the heroes of the games. We hope to see him on our screens again at Rio 2016, as he is now his country’s sole swimming coach and has been preparing a team to take to this summer’s Olympics.


8: Usain ‘the lightening’ Bolt – 2008

The infamous Jamaican superstar really grabbed the attention of the globe during the 2008 Beijing games on the track; not only winning three gold medals in the 100, 200 and 4×100 metre relay, but also setting three world records in each final. Although the relay medal might unfortunately be rescinded in the future, after team mate Nesta Carter recently failed a re-done drug test from these games.

The dominant 6’5” sprinter is always most comfortable in the limelight, stormed to all three titles emphasizing his world domination, which was re-confirmed when he successfully defended all three titles at the London 2012 games. Not only was Bolt’s performance beyond impressive, but he was also exactly the type of personality, with buckets of charisma and huge popularity, to drag sprinting back to the forefront of the games, removing it from the mire of doping violations of the previous champions in previous years – the most recent of which was Justin Gatlin in 2006 after he had won gold in Athens at the 2004 Olympics. The two of them will face up to each other this summer in Rio, where for the good of the sport, we hope the larger than life Jamaican can create more records by becoming the first man to win both titles three times in a row. 

7: The struggle to finish -1982

The Barcelona games of 1982 were meant to be a chance of redemption for one British athlete Derek Redmond, after tearing his Achilles tendon minutes before being set to run in the 400 metres. Redmond had promised to bring home a medal after five surgeries to repair the damaged limb. Unfortunately the games were again to end in heartbreak for the British athlete, with injury reeking havoc.

After making a promising start to his semi-final, a popped hamstring lead to despair for the middle distance runner. What happened next is one of the most symbolic events in Olympic history. Derek Redmond’s father, who was watching from the stands, proceeded to avoid security bursting on the track, wrapping his inconsolable son’s arm around his shoulder as they limped towards the finishing line, completing the race together. An Olympic memory of a different kind was created. The dream of an athlete was once again ruined, but the enduring symbolic event of love, determination and care – everything the Olympics fights to convey – is etched permanently into our top ten.


6: First signs of the Paralympic games – 1948

Whilst the London games were being hosted, a few miles down what we know as the M25, the first attempts at a Paralympic games were being hosted in the Buckinghamshire town of Stoke Mandeville, probably best known for its hospital. The ‘Stoke Mandeville games’, as it was called, was the brainchild of a German neurologist Dr. Ludwig Guttmann. The concept was born to help the rehabilitation of war veterans from WWII.

After becoming a yearly event, Rome 1960 saw the games no longer solely reserved for water veterans, where they competed after the summer games. 1984 saw the official birth of the ‘parallel games’, later to become what we now know as the ‘Paralympic games’. London 2012 hosted the biggest Paralympic games yet, with around 4,200 athletes from 165 nations competing. The Stoke Mandeville games is another example of the all-inclusive nature of the Olympic games and is a crucial moment in the development of the Olympic and Paralympic games.


5: Success and symbolism in one – 1936

Jessie Owens provided arguably the greatest example of letting success do the talking at the Berlin 1936 Olympics. Disproving the host Nazi nation’s theory of Aryan supremacy. In terms of his success, Owens won gold individually in the 100 metres, 200 metres and the long jump, at the same time as winning gold in the 4×100 metre relay. A truly astonishing sporting achievement by the 22-year old from Alabama, the likes of which had not been seen before and would not be matched on a personal level until 1984 by Carl Lewis.

Arguably the symbolic and political importance of this achievement is the greatest attachment to Jessie Owens. Owens was mobbed in the streets and the German crowds full heartedly cheered the African American, making him somewhat of a cult hero. This shattered Hitler’s aim of using the 1936 games as an example of the “Aryan man”. Whilst the lap of honour with the German Athlete and rival for the long jump gold medal will always be a symbol of triumph of sportsmanship over potentially dangerous ideologies.

It is therefore plausible to state that one individual has influenced no Olympic games so heavily, both symbolically and in terms of sporting triumph. Hence Owens is firmly within our top 10 moments.


4: Redgrave’s Record – 2000

After the 1996 Olympics, in which Sir Steve Redgrave won his fourth straight gold medal in as many games, he was quoted as saying “anybody who sees me in a boat has permission to shoot me”. Luckily nobody took him up on his offer, as four years later, at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the British coxless four beat the rival Italian boat by 3-4 feet, giving Redgrave his fifth straight gold medal. This lead him to be heralded as arguably Britain’s greatest ever Olympian. This feat is made all the more remarkable by the fact that Redgrave was at 38 years of age and battling the affects of colitis and diabetes. Sir Steve’s legacy goes far beyond the medals, helping inspire many others to help rowing be one of the most successful British sports of the modern Olympic era.


3: Gender equality -1900

The Paris Games of 1990 represented the first time women were allowed to appear in the games. Events such as lawn tennis and golf laid the path for females to participate in future games. It did however take until London 2012 for female competitors from every country to be present, with Saudi- Arabia finally following suit. These games also saw women allowed to compete in Boxing for the first time.

Another notable moment was when Fanny Blankers-Koen won four gold medals at the 1948 games, further establishing the legitimacy of women’s sport and disbanding prejudices over gender and motherhood. This was after her husband, who was also her coach, had refused her permission to walk in the opening parade, deeming it “too tiring”. Paris 1990, will therefore stand out as a top moment because it helped to break down barriers for women competitors for the first time. Allowing the first steps towards gender equality, which has enabled a platform for women’s sport in the games to grow, and where some of our most proclaimed athletes such as Jessica Ennis, Kelly Holmes, Rebecca Adlington and Catharine Grainger can shine.


2: Phenomenal Phelps – 2008

During the Beijing games in 2008 the American swimming sensation Michael Phelps continued his world domination, winning eight gold medals, five of which were in individual events with three world records. This broke the record of seven by Mark Spitz, also in the pool, set at the 1972 games, at the mere age of 22. After London 2012 Phelps was to accumulate a total of 18 gold medals, two silvers and two bronze, cementing his title as the greatest ever Olympian. This moment in particular at the Beijing games, winning eight gold’s in eight days, features so highly because it remains the single greatest sporting achievement by an individual in the Olympic games and should be recognised as such.


1: Black Power – 1968

If Jessie Owens symbolically defied an ideology, the ‘Black Power’ salute on the podium by two American track athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, is the most enduring and perhaps overt symbol of political defiance the games has ever seen.

It was the 16 October 1968 Mexico City summer Olympics. Tommie Smith and John Carlos had just won the Olympic gold and bronze medals respectively in the 200 metres. Tensions in the United States of America were high, the civil rights movement was gathering pace and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. had happened earlier in the year, leading to violence and protests.

Protests were expected by some, if not assumed, but this does not prevent what happened next from being a moment which exemplifies everything the modern day Olympics would wish to stand for; inclusivity. Standing on the podium, with medals around their necks, as the national anthem played and American flag rose, Smith and Carlos bowed their heads and rose a ‘black- gloved fist’ each and kept them raised until the end.

The pair also both wore black socks and no shoes, all of which is believed to have represented a demonstration against the continued racial discrimination in the United States of America. Both athletes, particularly Smith, have emphasised that this was a human right’s salute, not specifically a ‘black power’ one. The silver medalist Peter Norman who was from Australia, also wore a human rights badge.

So important has this symbol become that the fact that Smith set a world record that stood for 11-years in the process of winning the gold medal is pushed to the back of everybody’s mind.

This symbolic protest by two athletes at the top of their craft is a gesture of boldness, resilience and defiance. In being such, everything the Olympics is there to represent and encourage. Therefore it is justly our number one top moment of the Olympic games.

Top 10 Olympic moments of all time

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