Saturday, August 11, 2012

60 Greatest Summer Olympian Heroes in History

A highly debatable (so let the debate begin! comment section open for business) list of the greatest Summer Olympians. This wasn't too hard to do because I'm an Olympics erudite and whenever the Olympics comes around, I always get into it and start reading books of past Olympics. These athletes are judged by how much of an impact they had on the sport and how much they inspired (i.e. a hometown favorite lifting up his country), the degree to which they succeeded, the sheer talent and athleticism they displayed, and the challenges they overcame.
  1. Jim Thorpe, T&F-Multievent, USA, 1912-An incredibly talented athlete in everything he did from baseball to football to every track event on the field. Spontaneously entered the high jump and placed 4th  while not fully rested from his other events.
  2. Jesse Owens, T&F, USA, 1936-Bested Hitler’s vision of the Aryan race, won the hearts of many including his German competitors. Long remained an ambassador to the sport.
  3. Michael Phelps, Swimming, USA, 2004-2012-Evidence is right there if you’ve been watching the past 4 years
  4. Carl Lewis, T&F, USA, 1984-1996-Dominant through four Olympics amassing impressive golds in 4 events.
  5. Mildred Babe Diedrikson, T&F, USA, 1932-Competed in events as diverse as javelin, hurdles and high jump, setting world records in all of them as well as the 100 meter dash. Also considered the country's best golfer.
  6. Mark Spitz, Swimming, USA, 1968-1972-Won every event he entered in Munich with a World Record after bombastically proclaiming he would beforehand. Might have won 8 if there was a 50-meter freestyle
  7. Dream Team, Basketball, USA, 1992-A legendary assemblage of the best stars in the world created the best team in history. Never had to take a  
  8. Nadia Comaneci, Gymnastics, Romania, 1976-Reached perfection with a perfect ten
  9. Pavo Nurmi, T&F-Distance, Finland, 1920-1928-Extremely dominant over three games with events ranging from 1500 to 10,000 meters
  10. Al Oerter, T&F-Discus, USA, 1956-1968-Only athletics star to win a medal in the same event four times in a row. Never was the favorite, and had overcome such extreme pain from an accident in one of his Olympics that he had to sit down between throws.
  11. Abebe Bikila, T&F-Marathon, ETH-1960-1964-First African distance star. Won the Marathon twice barefoot.
  12. Greg Louganis, Diving, USA, 1984-1992-Became a global icon. Unbeatable in his event. He had one of the most dramatic dives in 1988 when he hit his head on the board in a flubbed dive, mended it up in stitches, came back the next day and won gold.
  13. Fanny Blankers-Koen, T&F, HOL, 1948-A mother who wasn’t even at her peak (she was 33 years old) when she won 4 events in hurdling and sprinting. Also held world records in the long jump and high jump
  14. Usain Bolt, T&F-Sprinting, JAM, 2008-2012-You probably already know about his great performances in the Olympics, but there's also his effect outside of it. His presence on the track circut saved a number of struggling international track meets from extinction and boosted attendance considerably 
  15. Larysa Latinya, Gymnastics, USSR, 1956-1964-Held the record for most medals before Phelps
  16. Dawn Frasier, Swimming, AUS, 1956-1964-First female swimmer under a minute in 100 m events, first swimmer to win same event three times.   
  17. Emil Zatopek, T&F, Distance, USSR/CZE, 1952-1956-Won both on the track and in the marathon  
  18. Bob Matthias, T&F-Decathlon, USA 1948-1952-At 17, he was the youngest track and field champion to date, which doesn’t even count the degree of difficulty for someone to win a decathlon
  19. Bob Beamon, T&F-Long Jump, USA, 1968-His jump in Mexico City bettered the world record by an incredible margin to 29+ feet. His record remained for 23 years.
  20. Alberto Juantaronema, T&F-Middle Distance, CUB, 2000-Won the 400 AND 800 (entered the latter on somewhat of a whim) which is far more difficult than a 200-400 double.   
  21. Michael Johnson, T&F-Sprinting, USA, 1996-2000-Won the 200-400 double. His 19.32 matches Bob Beamon as the most drastic world record in track. A well-marketed machine.
  22. The Nichibo Girls, Volleyball, JPN, 1964-The pride of the Tokyo Olympics, they trained brutally trained 6 hours a day after work at a laundry factory where they had full-time jobs.
  23. Wilma Rudolph, T&F-Sprinting, USA, 1960-Glamorous star and single mom overcame polio and scarlett fever with help from her supportive mom and 21 siblings.
  24. Kerri Strug, Gymnastics, USA, 1996-Golden girl of Atlanta wins for home team despite a broken leg
  25. Muhammed Ali, Boxing, USA, 1960-Boxing legend achieved most of fame after Olympics but showed off his brilliance and quick reflexes . Worth noting (at least by me, because I never knew it before) that he also showed great integrity by dumping his medal in the river (longer story than I have room to recount here)
  26. Florence Griffith-Joyner, T&F-Sprinting, USA, 1988-Glamorous star of the Seoul games. Won a lot of events. She's idolized a lot today.
  27. Ray Ewry, T&F-Jumping, USA, 1900-1908-Won 10 medals in early Olympics
  28. Sebastian Coe & Steve Ovett, T&F-Middle Distance, GBR, 1980-1984-One of history’s most famous and productive rivalries led to the dropping of world records and one of the Games’ greatest comeback stories
  29. Cathy Freeman, AUS, T&F-400, 2000-Emotional win for Australian Aborigines resolved the dark history of her nation and was the Sydney highlight  
  30. Olga Korbut, Gymnastics, USSR, 1972-1976-Responsible for the transition of gymnastics from a sport of athleticism to a sport of beauty and grace
  31. Kornelia Ender, Swimming, E. Germany, 1996-Won three team silvers at the Munich Games in 1972 at just 13 years of age. Won 4 more gols and a silver four years later
  32. Haile Gabrielsalassie, T&F-Distance, ETH, 1996-2000-Had a couple of the most technically astonishing performances by a distance runner in an Olympic race
  33. Matt Biondi, Swimming, USA, 1984-1992-Won 11 medals and 8 golds. His times in the 100 meter and 50 meter freestyle would likely still be good enough to make the Olympic teams nearly 20 years later.
  34. Fu Mingxhia, Diving, CHN, 1992-2000-Won first Olympic competition at age 12, Won her first Gold at age 13, causing the Olympic committee to revise the rules  
  35. Hachim el Garrouj, T&F-Distance, MAR, 2004-After two failed attempts the best miler in history emotionally captured the 2004 1500 and topped it off with a Gold in the 5K
  36. Kristen Otto, Swimming, E. Germany, 1988-Went 6 for 6 in Seoul in her swimming events. 
  37. Mia Hamm, Soccer/Football, USA, 1996-2004-The team captain and driving force behind the wave of dominance in US Soccer in the Olympics and the popularization of it in her country
  38. Karoly Tasacks, Shooting, HUN, 1948-1952-Won repeat golds in his event despite having his hand maimed ten years earlier 1938. Persisted in Olympic dream for 12 years despite being declared ineligible in 1936
  39. Nikolay Andrianov, Gymnastics, USSR/Romania, 1972-1980-Won 15 medals with an all-around victory in 1976
  40. Johnny Weismuller, Swimming, USA, 1924-1928-Won 5 medals in 1924 and 1928, and also won a bronze for the 1924 water polo team. Later became Tarzan.
  41. Hannes Kolenheim, T&F-Distance, FIN, 1912-1920-A vegetarian bricklayer of extraordinary athletic prowess (he'd regularly cross-country ski 100 kilometers to reach town in his youth) won three golds in track in 1912 and followed it up by switching over to the marathon in 1920 and becoming one of only 2 people to win both. A national hero, partially because he paid it forward by training Alben Stenroos: The other Finn to  win a marathon.
  42. Nigerian Soccer Team, 1996-Half-fulfilled Pele’s prophecy of an African nation winning the World Cup before 2000
  43. Stefi Graf, Tennis, GER, 1988-Inaugural tennis star completed career grand slam at the games
  44. Mary Lou Retton, Gymnastics, USA, 1984-Scored a perfect 10 in front of the home crowd
  45. Rafer Johnson & CK Yang, T&F-Decathlon, USA/TAIWAN, 1960, Two rivals from different cultures became great friends on the UCLA team and consulted the same coach for advice before medaling
  46. Edwin Moses, T&F-Hurdles, USA, 1976-1984-Had a 9 year winning streak that stretched over two Olympics and could have stretched three, popularized the sport. Also a leader off the track as well.
  47. Ian Thorpe, Swimming, AUS, 2000-The Torpedo was the pride of Australia. Won the most talented racing field in swimming history in 2004 (Phelps, von Hoogenband). Struggled a little with placement on this one because he did lose two big races in Sydney but many websites I consulted declare him at the top of best swimmers lists
  48. Betty Robinson, T&F-Sprints, USA, 1928-Plucked from obscurity when someone saw her running towards a school bus, was the first female track star. Healthily won her events at a time when the Olympic Committee was considering banning women from running in the Olympics. They banned it anyway for 32 years but her accomplishments still hold up
  49. Derrick Richmond, T&F-400, GBR, 1992-One of the most emotional moments of the Olympics where a man's defeat became a cause for celebration of the human spirit (see "Eric the Eel" as well)
  50. Alexander Dityatin, USSR, Gymnastics, 1980-Gradually improved through three Olympics and came to Moscow with one of the most dominant performances even outshining counterpart Andrianov
  51. Rowdy Gaines, Swimming, USA 1984-Was the best swimmer in the world in 1980 but missed his chance with the  boycott. Came back in 1984 in weaker shape but still pulled it together to win 3 golds. 
  52. Armin Harry, T&F-Sprinting, W. GER, 1960-This guy was seriously unreal. Called the "blitz" and often accused of cheating, he had a reaction time of 4 hundredths of a second whereas his competitors had a reaction time of 12 hundredths of a second.
  53. Kip Keino, T&F-Distance, KEN, 1968-1972-First African to break 4 minutes in the mile, won one of the greatest classical mile races ever and paved the way for other Africans to dominate. Spontaneously decided to run the steeplechase with little experience and won it
  54. Jennifer Capriati, Tennis, USA, 1992-Child progidy had the tournament of her life before burning out and sinking out of the world ranks for 8 years. She defeated Aranxta-Sanchez Vicario on her home turf and upset Steffi Graf at the finals.
  55. Sprydon Louis, Marathon, GRE, 1896-Won the inaugural marathon in under 3 hours, which wasn't bad for an event that had just been invented. His win was the only Gold for the home country and they were really counting on him
  56. Don Schollander, Swimming, USA, 1964-Recorded the most Gold medals (4) in Tokyo Olympics and broke 3 world records at age 18. Because of this and because he was heading to Yale, was named athlete of the year by ABC's Wide World of Sports and the AP.
  57. Peter von Hogenbond & Ingje de Bruijn, HOL, Swimming, 2000-2004-Both came on the scene strong for Holland in Sydney. PvH upset Ian Thorpe twice and beat Phelps in his only two losses in Athens. IdB won 8 medals and set 11 world records in 2000 leading up to 3 in Sydney, two of which still stand today 
  58. Oscar Schwan, SWE, Shooting, 1912-1920-Oldest medalist in history. 72 when he won Silver in Antwerp. Also won in Stockholm. Look at pictures of him and you'll see a very fun-looking grizzled old man  
  59. Misty May and Kerri Walsh, Beach Volleyball, USA, 2004-2012-Three-peated. Popularized the sport. Had a lot of fun
  60. Sergei Bubka, USSR/UKR, T&F-Pole Vaulting, 1988-First pole vaulter to top 20 feet. This is kind of a big deal (a seeming physical impossibility) because the pole is 20 feet long. Despite being highly dominant in his sport and winning every world championship, he strangely failed to medal in 1992 and 1996 so he loses points there.
-I have a soft-spot for athletes who missed their chance in one Olympics and waited four long years to come back and complete their goal and I have an especially soft spot for athletes in 1948 who waited 12 years to compete in an Olympics.

-Also, people who did great things when they were young or especially old.
-The list is US-centric and focuses on the sports which get the most Olympic coverage. Part of the criteria is about impact and you can impact culture and inspire more if people are watching you on TV. In some cases, the volleyball team in Japan or the shooters each broke out of the bubbles of their sports to have a great impact. -There are a lot of swimmers in the 90's who all drift together in my memory and in their accomplishments: Janet Evans, Jenny Thompson, Summer Saunders, Amy van Dyken. It was really hard telling them apart. Perhaps, some of them are worthy

-I ran into a problem of how to rank certain people based on their performances in the Olympics verse outside of the Olympics. When in doubt (in sports like tennis, basketball or soccer), they always have to have done something especially notable in the Olympics. You also have problems of someone who might be notable in a sport that the Olympics were meant for like Sergei Bubka who didn't perform as perfectly in the Olympics as his record would expect

-Throw in some more suggestions. I might want to go to 100 and in the back of my mind have this idea to write a book on this.

-The book Complete History of the Summer Olympics and this website are both really big help:

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