Blood, sweat, and tears doesn’t even come close. At the Olympic Games, everything’s on the line — making each and every triumph that much bigger, bolder, and at times, breathtaking. As the events come to a close Sochi, we’re looking back at the 25 most incredible, awe-inspiring Olympic moments of all time.
25. Hermann Maier
Photo: Shaun Botterill/ Allsport
One of the greatest skiers of his generation, Austrian Hermann “Hermann-ator” Maier suffered a devastating crash in the downhill competition at the 1998 Nagano Games. Despite the horrific wipeout, Maier was back on the slopes days later to claim gold in two events: the super-G and giant slalom. Maier later overcame a life-threatening motorcycle crash (and extensive reconstructive surgery) before making his way to bronze and silver medals at the 2006 Turin Games.
24. Joannie Rochette
In perhaps one of the most emotional moments to hit the Olympic stage, Canadian figure skater Joannie Rochette competed in front of millions in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics just four days after losing her mother to a sudden heart attack. And not only did she perform — she won the bronze, dedicating the medal to her late mother.
23. Eric Moussambani
Photo: Mike Powell/Getty Images
Eric Moussambani made a splash in the 2000 Summer Games, the first time he’d ever seen an Olympic-sized pool and only months after he’d taken up swimming. The Equitorial Guinea native gained entry into the Olympics through a wildcard for athletes from developing countries who might not have elaborate training facilities. Moussambani competed in the 100-meter freestyle qualifying race and lost miserably, but his perseverance wowed fans all over the world.
22. Lawrence Lemieux
When Canadian sailor Lawrence Lemieux began racing at the 1988 South Korea Olympics, he fully intended on playing to win. But when — amid dangerous winds — he noticed a competitor’s capsized boat, he disqualified himself, abandoning the race to help save the two injured sailors. After handing the competitors off to a rescue crew, he resumed the race and still beat out 11 of the other competitors (coming in 21st out of 32). While he didn’t win silver (which his original pace could have easily earned him), Lemieux was awarded an honorary medal for his heroic act.
21. Jonny Moseley
Photo: Flickr/Jonny Moseley
Twenty-three-year-old Jonny Moseley swept the slopes in the 1998 Men’s Moguls, thanks to flawlessly clearing the 360-mute-grab on the bumpy terrain. But Moseley didn’t just win an Olympic gold. The move that brought him to the podium was named after him too.
20. Torvill and Dean
Ice Dancing may not be considered the most exhilarating of the Winter Olympic sports, but at the 1984 Games in Sarajevo, one British pair managed to change all that. In their performance of Ravel’s “Bolero,” Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean’s daring choreography and technical prowess earned them perfect scores from every judge, as well as the gold medal.
19. Rulon Gardner
Photo: Billy Stickland/Getty Images
The Olympics is always a time for surprises and triumphs, but when it came to American Rulon Gardner’s match against Russian Alexander Karelin, the result seemed almost set in stone. The three-time defending Olympic Champion Karelin hadn’t lost a Greco-Roman wrestling match in 13 years (and hadn’t given up a single point in the previous six). After an overtime thriller that saw Gardner withstand Karelin’s legendary strength, the crowd — and competitors — could barely believe what had just happened: One of the greatest upsets in Olympic history.
18. Shaun White
Shaun White is nothing if not daring, so it wasn’t a complete shock when he elected to take another run during the 2010 Vancouver Snowboarding Halfpipe finals after securing the gold medal. What did shock was the trick he pulled off: the world’s first Double McTwist 1260, which White dubbed the Tomahawk. The most difficult trick in snowboarding history, White’s Tomahawk highlighted how far the sport had come since its introduction at the 2006 Turin Games, which White also won.
17. Dan Jansen
Sometimes, the best victories are worth waiting for. Ten years after his Olympics debut, speed skater Dan Jansen finally won the gold he had fought so hard for. After falling short in Sarajevo, Calgary (racing the afternoon after his sister’s death), and Albertville, Jansen finally struck gold in the 1,000 meter event in Lillehammer. He dedicated the win to his late sister, Jane.
16. Vasily Alexeev
Already a past World and Olympic Champion, Soviet weightlifter Vasily Alexeev didn’t have much to top at the 1976 Montreal Games — except for his own world records. The hulking Alexeev bested East Germany’s Gerd Bonk with ease, but with one lift left, the consummate showman wasn’t one to let the crowd down. He hoisted 562 pounds overhead with his final clean and jerk, smashing his previous record and establishing himself as one of the most revered Olympians of the 20th century.
15. Korean Unification Flag
Photo: Associated Press
Following decades of unrest post-Korean war, North and South Korea found common ground for the 2000 Sydney Olympics, marching together in the Opening Ceremonies under a unified flag (and uniforms). While the two countries did compete separately, their joint marching symbolized an openness to peace and cooperation.
14. Michael Johnson
The Ancient Greeks would’ve appreciated this feat. In the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Michael Johnson took home two gold medals while crushing two world records along the way. First was the 400-meter race, where he whipped around the track in 43.49 seconds. With only a few days rest in between, Johnson came back to the track to take gold in the 200-meter sprint, becoming the first man to win both races in the same Olympic Games.
13. Mary Lou Retton
Photo: Steve Powell/Allsport
Olympics fans flipped out in 1984 when Mary Lou Retton became the first American — male or female — to win a gold medal in gymnastics. Just 16 at the time, Retton had only minimal experience competing internationally, but she received perfect 10s for her stunning performance on the vault.
12. Michael Phelps
Call him “The Phenomenon” or “The Fish,” Michael Phelps gave new meaning to blowing the competition out of the water at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. The American swimmer took home (count ’em!) eight gold medals, breaking Mark Spitz’s record of seven gold medals in one Olympics. And if our math is correct, counting his six golds from Athens and four more from London, he’s at 18 golds and 22 total medals over four career trips to the Olympics.
11. Iason Abramashvili
Photo: Al Bello/Getty Images
The world watched in horror during the 2010 Vancouver games when Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili died tragically during a practice run. For the country’s team of just 10 competitors, this news shook everyone to the core. While grieving the loss of their friend and teammate, the Georgian athletes in every sport (but the luge) stayed strong and competed in their respective events. In this photo, alpine skier Iason Abramashvili races after the loss of his friend.
10. Kerri Strug
The most talked-about member of the historic “Magnificent Seven,” Kerri Strug’s heroic performance at the 1996 Olympic Games ensured the United States’ first-ever Team gold medal in Women’s Gymnastics. Despite injuring her ankle on her first vault attempt, Strug stuck the landing on her second go, helping the U.S. Women beat out Russia for the first time in Olympic history.
9. Usain Bolt
Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images
What’s better than three Olympic golds? Ask Usain Bolt. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Jamaican sprinter broke the world and Olympic records in both the100-meter and 200-meter events. He also set a 4×100-meter relay record with the Jamaican team, making him the first man to win three sprinting events at a single Olympics since Carl Lewis in 1984.
8. Matthias Steiner
Sometimes the right inspiration is exactly what it takes to win gold. A year after his wife died in a car accident, German weightlifter Matthias Steiner won the superheavyweight category at the 2008 Beijing Games by clean and jerking a weight nearly 30 pounds over his previous best. Steiner’s bittersweet celebration was one of the 2008 Game’s most humanizing moments, reminding spectators of the personal as well as physical triumphs an athlete had overcome.
7. Black Power Salute
Photo: Associated Press
A defining moment of the 1968 games, American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their gloved hands in the Black Power salute during the 200-meter medal ceremony; they also accepted their medals shoeless to show support for impoverished African-Americans. Australian sprinter and silver medalist Peter Norman wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge in solidarity with his fellow runners.
6. Jesse Owens
Photo: Associated Press
Jesse Owens wasn’t “supposed” to win. He was black and he was competing in track and field in 1936 Berlin. Hitler’s Germany saw Owens as a lesser athlete because of the color of his skin. Owens would go on to win four gold medals (in the 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump, and 4×100 relay). He won with conviction and with grace.
5. Nadia Comaneci
How’s this for perfection? Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci won three gold medals at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, and became the first female gymnast ever to be awarded a perfect 10 in an Olympic gymnastic event.
4. Jamaican Bobsled Team
Photo: Dean Bicknell/CNS
This story’s so inspirational it was made into a Disney movie! In the country’s first ever appearance at the winter Olympics, Jamaica’s Bobsled Team may have come out medal-less, but certainly won the hearts of Olympic viewers (and the media) at the 1988 Calgary games.
3. Derek Redmond
Photo: Jerry Lodriguss / The Philadelphia Inquirer
Derek Redmond, a British runner specializing in the 400 meters, tore his hamstring halfway through a semi-final race in the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics. A favorite for the medals podium, Redmond refused to give up and rose to finish the race despite his intense pain. But the most memorable moment came next, when the runner’s father leapt over the railing from the stands and helped his son complete the race. Steps from the finish line and with the crowd cheering them on, he let go of Derek, so his son could cross the finish line by himself.
2. Abebe Bikila
Photo: Central Press/Getty Images
While most people probably couldn’t do it at all, Ethiopian runner Abebe Bikila did the seemingly-impossible: He ran a marathon barefoot — and won. We’re not talking 2012, when barefoot running was the cool thing to do. This was Rome. In 1960.
1. Miracle on Ice
No one expected the 1980 U.S. Men’s Olympic Hockey team to win much of anything. They did believe the team, made entirely of amateur and collegiate players, would go out there and play their hearts out. That grit and commitment led the U.S. team to beat the Soviet powerhouse in a stunning 4 to 3 semi-final win. The team would go on to beat Finland and win gold.
Originally posted May 30, 2012. Updated February 25, 2014.
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