The majority of Americans refer to the “Miracle on Ice” in Lake Placid in 1980 as the greatest U.S. Olympic moment of all time. Others would like to argue that the 1992 U.S. Men’s Basketball Team (the original “Dream Team”) put on the most dominant athletic display in relation to its competition at the Summer Olympics in Barcelona. But teams aren’t the only ones who have grabbed the Olympic spotlight and carved out a place in the history books. Here are the greatest individual efforts in Summer Olympics history.
10. Lawrence Lemieux, Canada, Sailing – 1988 (Seoul)
Winning isn’t everything… even at the Olympics. Lemieux’s sportsmanship and heroism during the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, are a testament to the fact that some things are bigger than sports.
There are several Olympic events that take place out at sea, and during Lemieux’s qualifying round for a sailing event there was another race taking place on a nearby course. Lemieux was in second place, a position that guaranteed him a spot in the medal race, when the wind began to pick up. Lemieux noticed a boat had capsized and there were men in danger so he veered off course and went to rescue them. The two men on the Singapore team were thrust from their vessel and had suffered injuries as a result. Lemieux scooped them both up and awaited help from a patrol boat. He ended up finishing in 22nd in the qualifying round. Fortunately, his heroism was rewarded, and his second-place position prior to the detour was held for him after the Olympic Committee reviewed the ordeal. In the end he didn’t medal (he was presented Pierre de Coubertin medal for sportsmanship), but the Canadian sailor proved during the 1988 Summer Games that the best moments aren’t always celebrated at the finish line or on the podium.
9. Dick Fosbury, United States, High Jump – 1968 (Mexico City)
It goes without saying that it is an extremely impressive feat to win the gold medal at the Olympics. It is even more impressive when you revolutionize your sport in the process. Anyone born after the 1960s may not realize that the high jump wasn’t always performed with your back facing the bar. Prior to the American’s now infamous “Fosbury Flop” during the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics, competitors used to dive over the bar face down. Fosbury wasn’t an elite high jumper with the original technique, so tried something new and different and ended up changing the event forever.
8. Rulon Gardner, United States, Wrestling – 2000 (Sydney)
Gardner’s Olympic achievement wouldn’t be all that special if it wasn’t for his competition. Greco-Roman wrestling legend Alexander Karelin from Russia is considered by many to be the greatest wrestler of all time, and he may deserve a spot on this list more than Gardner. However, in the 2000 Sydney Games Gardner pulled off what many deemed impossible and defeated Karelin for the gold medal. Prior to this match, Karelin had not lost a Greco-Roman wrestling match in 13 years, he hadn’t even allowed an opponent to score a point against him in six years! The three-time defending Olympic gold medalist was a lock against Gardner, who had only competed in one other international tournament in his career. The American-born Gardner’s upset of the Russian powerhouse rivals the “Miracle on Ice” from 1980. In fact, it may be more remarkable.
7. Bob Beamon, United States, Long Jump – 1968 (Mexico City)
As the old adage goes, “records are made to be broken.” During the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City this idea really resonated with Beamon. In his case the saying went more to the tune of, “records are made to be obliterated.” In what has since been dubbed the “Leap of the Century,” Beamon broke the long jump world record by almost 22 inches. The measuring equipment set up for the long jump wasn’t extended enough for Beamon, as the Olympic Committee was unprepared for a new world record by close to two feet. Equally impressive to his record was its tenure at the top. After 23 years it was finally broken in 1991, making it the longest standing Olympic record at the time. Beamon’s record became a record itself, how extraordinary is that?
6. Michael Phelps, United States, Swimming – 2008 (Beijing)
Michael Phelps is without question the greatest Olympian of all-time. His 18 gold medals are double the next highest mark. Phelps also is swimming very well coming into the upcoming Summer Olympics in Rio De Janeiro, following three individual race victories at the 2015 U.S. National Championships. Regardless of how he fares in his fourth and final Olympics, there is no way he will top his record eight gold medals from the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. In just one Olympics, Phelps fell one short of the previous all-time Gold medal record.
5. Usain Bolt, Jamaica, Track & Field – 2008 (Beijing)
Usain Bolt is so much faster than every other sprinter in the world that he almost seems bored with it at times. Heading into the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing the talk of the town was Michael Phelps, rightfully so, but Bolt had his own agenda. In the 100- and 200-meter sprint events Bolt not only won by a wide margin, but he also set back-to-back world records in both. In the 100 he began to celebrate a few feet before the finish line and he still set a world record, which he has since broken.
4. Jesse Owens, United States, Track & Field – 1936 (Berlin)
When you bring more than 150 sovereign nations together all at one location there is bound to be some controversy. Even today, countries at war with each other send athletes to represent them in the Olympics to compete. No instance of political tension led to a more historic performance than what Owens accomplished at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. Owens took home four gold medals in the 100-meter dash, 200-meter dash, long jump and 4x100-meter relay amidst the host country’s insistence that black athletes were inferior to white athletes. Owens certainly proved that theory wrong during his incredible Olympic performance.
3. Abebe Bikila, Ethiopia, Marathon – 1960 (Rome)
Running in an Olympic marathon is really hard. Winning an Olympic marathon is really, really hard. Winning a marathon at an Olympic pace WITHOUT SHOES doesn’t even sound possible. That is just what Bikila did at the Summer Games in Rome in 1960. Bikila grew up in his native Ethiopia running barefoot, but fully intended to wear shoes in the Olympics. The Olympic shoe sponsor in 1960 was Adidas, and upon arrival Bikila discovered that his pair did not fit, so he decided to run without them. Intentionally handicapping yourself and still winning definitely lands you on this list, Bikila must have some really tough feet.
2. Greg Louganis, United States, Diving – 1984 (Los Angeles)
Known by many as “The Greatest Diver Ever,” Louganis took the world by storm in the 1980s. In 1984 Greg Louganis became the only male diver to win both the springboard and platform gold medals. He didn’t just win though, he dominated the competition. Louganis recorded a score of 754.41 in the springboard event, the silver medalist’s score was almost 100 points lower. Louganis recorded a score of 710.91 in the platform event, the silver medalist’s score was almost 70 points lower. He followed up his legendary 1984 Olympic performance in Los Angeles with an equally impressive showing in the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul. Louganis suffered a concussion in practice and still won gold in both events, cementing his place in diving history.
1. Nadia Comaneci, Romania, Gymnastics – 1976 (Montreal)
As I mentioned before, Bob Beamon’s outstanding long jump was so shocking that the measuring equipment did not even reach his landing spot. Comaneci’s gymnastic performance in 1976 was even more stunning, so much so that the electronic scoreboard couldn’t register her perfect 10 score. Prior to the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics no gymnast had ever been awarded a perfect 10 for their routine, Comaneci did it six times. The Romanian phenom was an overnight sensation and remains one of the greatest gymnasts of all-time.
(Top photo courtesy of official Olympics YouTube channel)