There are far too many Olympic stories, far too much history, to cram into one column, but here’s a humble appetizer as the London Games begin in earnest:
BEST OLYMPIAN: The Telegraph newspaper in England polled some 2,400 living British Olympians and asked them who was the greatest non-British Olympian ever.
Their answer: Jesse Owens.
Many will point to Michael Phelps, who needs just three total medals to eclipse Russian gymnast Larisa Latynina’s record of 18. Phelps could fall in the pool and win three medals. But what Owens did in winning four golds at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, in the very face of Adolf Hitler and his desire to use the games as a tool to showcase Aryan supremacy was without parallel. In 1984, a street in Berlin was named in his honor.
BIGGEST TRAVESTY: In the 1972 Munich Olympics, the U.S. men’s basketball team saw its stranglehold on the gold medal (63-0 from 1936-68) ripped away as the Soviet Union got three chances to throw a length of the court pass, finally succeeding to win 51-50. It would take not a column but a book to describe the chaos and controversy in the final moments of that game, but in the epitome of Cold War politics, the Soviets’ victory was upheld 3-2 along Cold War lines by a panel of three judges from Communist countries (Cuba, Poland, Hungary) and two non-Communist ones (Italy, Puerto Rico). The American team refused its silver medals, and to this day, have never accepted them, their agreement to do so an all-or-nothing prospect as decreed by the IOC. U.S. team captain Kenneth Davis went so far as to put it in his will that no member of his family may ever accept the silver medal on his behalf.
GREATEST MOMENT: For any American who lived through the Cold War, it’s hard to top the U.S. hockey team’s victory over the Soviets in the 1980 Lake Placid winter games, when basically a bunch of American college kids toppled the Red Army team. Just remember, the U.S. still had to beat Finland to clinch the gold.
MOST INSPIRATIONAL STORY: It’s impossible to look at the entire history of the Modern Olympics and pick one, but here is a personal favorite:
In the 1968 marathon, more than an hour after the winner crossed the finish line, a lone figure limped through the dark Mexico City streets. His right leg bloody and bandaged from an earlier fall, Tanzania’s John Stephen Akhwari refused to quit and finally staggered across the finish line in what was later called “A performance that gives true dignity to sport.” When asked later why he didn’t quit, Akhwari replied simply: “My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start the race. They sent me 5,000 miles to finish the race.”
MEDAL HAUL: Americans have won 2,302 medals overall including 929 gold, which alone is more than any other country except the late great USSR (1,122).
Sports Illustrated projects that the U.S. will edge China at this year’s games 99 to 97.