In the final part of our series on the 50 most stunning Olympic moments, Sportsmail looks back at the historic moment Jesse Owens defied Hitler, relives the track heroics of Daley Thompson – and celebrates the sprinter who restored our faith in athletics…
Daley Thompson had walked his talk when he won his first decathlon gold in 1980. What he said and what he did four years on went to another level altogether.
If rivalries are the cornerstone of great sport, then Thompson was helped by having the brilliant West German Jurgen Hingsen next to him at those LA Games of 1984. What they delivered across two days was remarkable and then, once the Brit had triumphed for his second Olympic gold, he set a new personal best in controversy.
He started with a dig at US TV coverage, whistled through the national anthem and then ramped it up with a T-shirt which questioned the sexuality of Carl Lewis. From there, he said he wanted to have a baby with Princess Anne. All this within approximately two hours of jogging the 1500m and turning his nose up at the world record.
‘Maybe they just weren’t ready for me,’ Thompson told Sportsmail recently. ‘Maybe they still aren’t.’
A unique talent, a rare personality and quite possibly Britain’s greatest ever Olympian.
After Bob Beamon redefined human flight with the most astonishing feat in the history of athletics, so shocked was he by his world-record 8.90m long jump at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico that he collapsed next to the sand pit with a bout of nausea.
To put that in context, the record had been broken 13 times since 1901 and never by more than 15cm. Beamon beat it by 55cm. For the first time in history, the 28ft mark had been passed; for that matter, so had 29ft.
The distance was so great that the measurement equipment in the stadium was insufficient for the task, so a new tape had to be called in.
The record came from a perfect storm of circumstances: the altitude was 2,240m, the tailwind was the maximum permitted of 2m per second and Beamon held the No 2 distance in history at that point with 8.33m. With his first jump Beamon obliterated the 8.35m mark held jointly by Igor Ter-Ovanesyan and Ralph Boston. It was 23 years before Mike Powell broke the world record.
If we stick to the criteria for a stunning moment, then it has to be the 4x100m relay in 1984 when Carl Lewis won his fourth gold of the Games and therefore matched Jesse Owens’ historic contribution to Berlin 1936. But a liberty needs to be taken with our stricture in this case so we can appreciate the wider merits of what Lewis achieved in Los Angeles.
While his reputation has been undermined by subsequent doping revelations, there can be no doubt that the winner of nine golds spanning four Games is one of the very best athletes in history. His peak was clearly 1984, when he won the 100m in 9.99sec before he took his first of four long jump gold medals and then claimed the 200m in an Olympic record 19.80sec.
He wrapped up the quadruple by anchoring the US team to a world record in the 4x100m.
His positive tests in 1988, which didn’t come to light until years later, have hurt his name as much as they hurt the sport.
Was the greatest haul of gold in the history of the Olympics built on a faulty touchpad? Or should we simply accept that what looked so clear was not what it seemed and that Michael Phelps really did win the 100m butterfly in Beijing?
The books record that it was his seventh gold, equalling what Mark Spitz achieved in 1972, and his subsequent victory in the 4x100m medley had him all alone on eight, the most prolific champion of a single Games. Over the course of his remarkable career, Phelps would amass a barely believable 23 gold medals but no Games was as bountiful as 2008 and no race as baffling as that 100m butterfly.
He had won gold and set world records in the 400m individual medley, the 4x100m freestyle, the 200m freestyle, the 200m butterfly, the 4x200m freestyle and the 200m individual medley.
He had also navigated a schedule that allowed only nine minutes between his medal ceremony for the 200m individual medley and the semi-final of the 100m butterfly and would later close the show with another gold and world record in the 4x100m medley.
But the major drama was reserved for that 100m butterfly final. Milorad Cavic had laid the groundwork and riled Phelps by saying it would ‘be nice if historians talk about Michael Phelps winning seven gold medals and losing the eighth to some guy’.
Maybe the Serbian was that guy. Most angles show he touched first, but Phelps was given gold by 0.01sec. Did Cavic fail to apply enough pressure to the touchpad? Or was it something more sinister – one theory pointed to Phelps’ sponsor connections to the official timekeeper Omega.
Or maybe a swimmer who defied all logic also defied the laws of sight. An Olympic mystery wrapped in history.
At a time of enormous racial discord in the US, two of their finest athletes stood on a podium and gave their salute. The unpalatable shame is that 52 years after Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised gloved fists in Mexico, the injustices they were highlighting still exist. It was Smith, the winner of the 200m ahead of bronze medallist Carlos, who so eloquently said in his press conference: ‘If I win I am an American, not a black American. But if I did something bad then they would say ‘a Negro’. We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight.’
The reaction of the IOC? On the directive of their long-reigning president Avery Brundage, a man alleged to have a diverse range of prejudices, Smith and Carlos were expelled from the Games.
The memories of London 2012 get rosier with each visit from a more depressing present. They were a wonderful Games and no day was greater than that which is recalled as Super Saturday.
We had the three golds that might unfairly serve as a quiz question and then the three that will always shine bright in the mind. In the case of the former, there were two victorious rowing boats — Andrew Triggs Hodge, Pete Reed, Tom James and Alex Gregory in one and Kat Copeland and Sophie Hosking in the other — in the morning. By early evening they had been joined on the top step by the cycling team pursuit trio of Dani King, Laura Trott and Joanna Rowsell in the velodrome.
Those medals set the tone for 44 minutes of utter mayhem on the athletics track. First, shortly after 9pm, was Jessica Ennis, that inscrutable and marvellous talent who annihilated the best heptathletes in the world. Then there was Greg Rutherford, winner of the long jump, and finally, Mo Farah, the 10,000m champion who emerged as a beacon of a more harmonious Britain.
Farah’s sporting legacy has become rather more complicated since then. But the glow of that day and night remains.
Even in an era of great sporting champions, no one is able to crush and destroy opposition with the same elegance or brutality as that routinely managed by a 4ft 8in gymnast from Columbus, Ohio. What tiny Simone Biles does in her area of expertise is without equal.
It has never been exhibited in a more startling manner than in the all-around event at the Rio Olympics of 2016. That’s the one they all want to win and yet it was the event in which rivals openly admitted on arrival in Brazil they were fighting for silver. How right they were.
While the sight of Biles contorting through the air is truly remarkable and one which all sports fans should seek out as a matter of bucket-list urgency, her numbers tell the best story. Namely, in that all-around final, her margin of victory over silver was 2.1pts. To put that in context, since the 1972 Olympics, the margin of victory in the women’s all-around had never been more than 0.7pts. More absurdly, if you add up all the winning margins since 1976, it still doesn’t hit 2.1pts.
Biles went on to win four golds and a bronze at Rio and has a further 23 world titles aged 23. She is a wonder of the sporting world.
Four gold medals and a figurative two fingers to Adolf Hitler. There cannot have been a more culturally significant episode in sporting history than what played out when a black athlete named Jesse Owens went to Berlin in 1936 and made a nonsense of Hitler’s hateful idea of Aryan supremacy.
In seven days at those Games, Owens won the 100m, 200m, long jump and 4x100m relay and achieved an athletic feat that would not be matched until Carl Lewis came along in 1984. That Hitler is said to have snubbed Owens in victory was dismissed as a myth by Owens himself. By unflattering contrast, US president Franklin D Roosevelt never invited him to the White House.
In a broader study that looks further beyond Olympic and sporting boundaries, Owens would be No 1 on any list.
With his eyes bulging and yellow, Ben Johnson set fire to the 100m world record at the 1988 Games and then torched his entire sport three days later. Has athletics ever truly recovered from the discovery of steroids in his urine? Has more harm ever been done to a sport that relies so heavily on people believing what they are seeing?
You’d never call Johnson a trailblazer in the realms of cheating at games and pursuits – historians have it that a chap called Eupolus from Thessaly was bribing his boxing opponents to lose as far back as 388 BC and thousands have cut corners since, many as cogs in state-sponsored machines.
But maybe, through name and stage and place and time, Johnson caused the single biggest explosion of the myth of fair play. Maybe, more than anyone else, he is the reason why when you watch an event as marvellous as the Olympic Games, it is that bit harder to feel a sense of wonder when something amazing happens.
And then there was Usain Bolt. Out of the suspicion and the apathy and the fading grandeur of the Olympics came that yellow and green blur and a personality that was twice as bright. What he started at the 2008 Games in Beijing, and continued through two more at London and Rio, not only restored the old church but put a bit of faith back into it.
Has there ever been a sharper marriage of talent and character and event? If Johnson was the poison, then Bolt was the cure, kicking off with that astonishing appearance in Beijing.
It was the 100m that got us, of course. He was the world-record holder by the time he got to China but it says everything about the speed of his emergence that the 21-year-old Jamaican had set that mark of 9.72sec in only his fifth senior race at the distance, two months before the Games.
When he arrived in Beijing, his profile outside athletics was limited and Michael Phelps was already seven golds deep by the Saturday of the 100m final.
What came next is the stuff of legends. On a belly full of chicken nuggets – he would later explain he was eating 100 a day – Bolt danced on the start line, then unfurled that lanky frame from the blocks and covered 100m in a barely believable 9.69sec. He took 41 strides to become the quickest man in history (mortals take around 45) and when he was done he struck a pose that folk the world over would now recognise.
He went on in those Games to break Michael Johnson’s world record in the 200m, then won the 4x100m gold (later stripped as a team-mate doped) and a further six Olympic golds across 2012 and 2016 before his retirement. He is the greatest sprinter ever and quite possibly the greatest Olympian; a man who had a golden touch for any company that hired him (Virgin reported a 2.4 per cent rise in revenue after taking him on, Puma 10 per cent) and sporting success like few others. He arrived at a time when the Olympics badly needed a hero. Now that he has gone, there is a vacancy that needs filling.