More from EW
1 of 20
1964: ''Baby Hiroshima''
The 1964 Games, the first-ever televised Olympics, took place in a moment when many sectors of history intersected. Between Japan's complicated past with the Games (they were relocated from Tokyo in 1940 — and ultimately cancelled — because of World War II) to the history-making first time the Games occurred in Asia, this particular Olympics was a defining moment. In a poignant gesture, organizers tapped Yoshinori Sakai, a runner born in Hiroshima the day the atom bomb dessicated the city, to light the cauldron. As he ascended the steps with the flame, he symbolized the country's movement toward peace and recovery, and the Games' underlying spirit of unity.
2 of 20
1968: Leap of Faith
Bob Beamon nearly didn't make it to the finals of the Mexico City games. He clinched his position in a make-or-break third attempt at his sport, the long jump. But, in the clutch, Beamon performed. He leapt 8.90 meters (29.2 feet), shattering the existing record by nearly 2 feet. Because the results of his jump were delivered in metric measurements, Beamon didn't realize the impact he'd had. When his coach delivered the news, he collapsed from the shock. Beamon's record still stands at the Olympics, though it was eventually beaten at a world competition — 23 years later.
3 of 20
1968: The O-limp-ic Spirit
Mexico City was especially challenging for runners due to its 7,350-foot altitude. Tanzanian marathoner John Stephen Akhwari was already cramping when a collision less than halfway through the race sent him crashing to the ground. Despite dislocating his knee and injuring his shoulder, Akhwari would not be defeated. He limped nearly 14.5 miles to complete the race well after the sun had set — and dead last of the 57 competitors who completed the race (75 were at the starting line). As he crossed the finish line, the remaining spectators cheered his indomitable spirit. He told reporters, ''My country did not send me 10,000 miles just to start the race; they sent me to finish the race.''
4 of 20
1972: The Magnificent Seven
Michael Phelps is the swimmer that makes waves these days, but 40 years ago at the Munich Games, Mark Spitz had fans and waters churning with his extraordinary talent. Then 22 years old, Spitz snagged seven gold medals, adding to two he won in Mexico City. (Spitz's record stood until a certain butterfly virtuoso from Baltimore bested it by one in Beijing.) For an Olympics that was largely overshadowed by the horrific kidnapping and massacre of nine Israeli athletes — and though organizers asked Spitz, who is Jewish, to leave the Games before the closing ceremony for his safety — the swimming phenom's triumph was a much-needed bit of counterprogramming.
5 of 20
1976: Perfect 10
When the scoreboard illuminated for 14-year-old Romanian gymnast Nadia Com?neci's breathtaking uneven bars routine, it was the stuff of nightmares. Had she really scored a dismal 1.0? No. In fact, Com?neci had scored the first perfect 10 in Olympic history, and her unprecedented success could not be displayed on the three-digit display. After a moment of nearly crushed hopes, Com?neci learned of her accomplishment — one she would repeat six more times in Montreal, earning three gold medals along the way. Eight years later, American Mary Lou Retton would earn her own perfect 10s in Los Angeles (and become the first gymnast not from Eastern Europe to win the gymnastics all-around competition), but there's nothing quite as thrilling as the first time.
6 of 20
1976: Taking One for the Team
Another gymnast in Montreal triumphed, not over an antiquated scoreboard, but over his own physical limitations. Japanese gymnast Shun Fujimoto should have exited the competition after breaking his knee on his first rotation, the floor exercise. Not wanting to reveal his injury or let his team down, he carried on, scoring a spectacular 9.5 on the pommel horse and 9.7 on the rings. His final dismount was a moment of unparalleled triumph when he stuck an eight-foot dismount. Crippling agony followed as he collapsed, dislocating his already broken kneecap and tearing ligaments in his right leg. Though he has since stated he would not make the same choice if he could relive that moment, Fujimoto's never-say-die attitude was the tipping point for a team gold.
7 of 20
1984: What Would Jesse Do?
Carl Lewis stepped onto the Olympics stage for the first time at the L.A. Games, and boy did he make an entrance. The 23-year-old track and fielder made no secret of his quest to equal the historic wins made by Jesse Owens in the 1936 Berlin Games. His efforts in the 100m, 200m, 4x100m relay, and long jump proved controversial — particularly his decision to make only two attempts on the long jump to preserve his body for two more events — but Lewis easily overtook his competitors and shot to the top of the podium in all four events. When asked about boos for his long jump performance, Lewis told reporters, ''I was shocked at first. But after I thought about it, I realized that they were booing because they wanted to see more of Carl Lewis. I guess that's flattering.'' And the world would see more of Carl Lewis. He went on to compete in three more Olympic Games, winning an astounding 10 lifetime Olympic medals (nine of which were gold).
8 of 20
1988: An Epic Comeback
Greg Louganis was already a two-time gold medalist, and a clear favorite, when he strode to the end of the 3m springboard in the qualifying round at Seoul. The gold medal was his to lose. Then, in a gasp-inducing split-second, Louganis slammed his head on the diving board and suffered a concussion. Despite the freak accident, Louganis rallied. Not only did he complete the preliminaries, he earned the highest single score of the qualifying rounds for his very next dive. By the time Louganis finished the finals, the gasps were for his tremendous, 25-point lead over the other divers in the springboard competition. The gold was his to lose, but he did not.
9 of 20
1992: The Dream Team
They may have been bitter rivals back home, but 11 NBA superstars came together in Barcelona to the chants of ''U-S-A! U-S-A!'' Clyde Drexler, Patrick Ewing, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan (shown above from left to right) joined Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen, Karl Malone, John Stockton, David Robinson, and Chris Mullin to form the squad whose meteoric rise in the Pavelló Olímpic de Badalona took Olympic basketball to the next level. During eight games, they crushed the competition (by an average of 46 points in the preliminary round alone). In the final, they bested Croatia 117-85 to clinch the gold. Testifying to the team's lasting impact, they were inducted as a unit into the Basketball Hall of Fame 18 years later in 2010.
10 of 20
1992: A Father's Love
Despite eight surgeries leading up to the Barcelona Games, British record-holder Derek Redmond looked like he was in good standing to make it to the finals of the 400m sprint. Then, 150 meters in, his hamstring snapped, and he dropped to the ground. Pushing through torturous pain, he got back up, shrugged off stretchers, and continued the race. Most touching of all, Redmond's dad Jim busted through security barriers to help his son cross the finish line. When he did, 65,000 people delivered a standing ovation.
11 of 20
1992: A Race to Erase Old Wounds
Political tensions were palpable as South Africa sent competitors to the Barcelona Games. The nation had been barred from Olympic competition since 1964 due to the country's refusal to condemn apartheid, but discussions to end the racist policy in 1990 marked their chance to return to the Games. One race in particular took on special significance as two runners — white South African runner Elana Meyer and black Ethiopian runner Derartu Tulu — separated themselves from the pack. The two distance runners were going stride-for-stride for much of their 10,000-meter race, which Tulu eventually won. Marking a turn in the tides, Meyer embraced Tulu as congratulations, and, as Tulu began her victory lap, she grabbed Meyer's hand. They remained hand-in-hand for the rest of the victorious run.
12 of 20
1992: Photo Finish
Ladies track and field offered up another one for the books during the women's 100m dash. Team USA hopefuls Gail Devers and Gwen Torrance were both vying to bring the gold home, but it was Devers who finished in front. Just barely. In one of the closest races in history, five women finished within 0.06 seconds of each other, including gold medalist Devers at 10.82 seconds and Torrance (fourth), Jamaicans Juliet Cuthbert (silver) and Merlene Ottey (fifth place at 10.88 seconds), and Russia's Irina Privalova (bronze).
13 of 20
1996: ''The Greatest''
Muhammad Ali conquered the 1960 Rome Olympics, but the 36 years between those Games and Atlanta had been tumultuous for the heavyweight champ, whose title was stripped after he refused to serve in the Vietnam War. After an illustrious career in the ring, Ali revealed in 1984 that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease. So, when he took the Olympic flame from swimmer Janet ''Miss Perpetual Motion'' Evans and lit the cauldron, it showed the resilience that Olympic athletes the world across hope to embody.
14 of 20
1996: ''You can do it, you better do it.''
Vaulting was one of Kerri Strug's strongest events, but no one was prepared for the strength she would show when she hurt her foot on her first pass in the women's team competition in Atlanta. Legendary coach Bela Karolyi, who had come out of retirement for these Games, primed the pint-sized dynamo with a battle cry: ''Kerri, we need you to go one more time. We need you one more time for the gold. You can do it, you better do it.'' Limping to the starting line, Strug steeled herself mentally to hurtle through the air toward inevitable injury. After launching into a stunning vault, she landed for a fraction of a second on both feet but immediately raised her injured leg. Even still, she stuck the landing foot and raised her arms to complete the pass. Seconds later, she crumpled. Karolyi swept her up in his arms and eventually carried her to the podium to claim the gold medal she had won for her team — and America.
15 of 20
1996: Broken, Not Beaten
Broken necks generally mean 'Game over' for Olympic athletes, but freestyle wrestler Kurt Angle refused to let his dream die. Despite fracturing two of his cervical vertebrae, herniating two discs, and pulling four muscles in Olympic trials, the heavyweight hunkered down and pinned down his opponent for the gold, earning the nickname ''American Hero.'' The next year, King Kurt went pro, becoming the only Olympic gold medalist in the history of professional wrestling.
16 of 20
1996: ''The Man With the Golden Shoes''
When Usain Bolt was a mere boy, an American named Michael Johnson blazed the trail for sporty showmanship and natty footwear. Johnson hoped to make history in the Peach State by sweeping the 200m and 400m sprints, a feat no man had ever accomplished in Olympic history. In customized Nike kicks, Johnson set an Olympic record and blew away his fiercest competitor with a full second between them in the 400m. His streak continued in the 200m, when he destroyed the world record by more than three-tenths of a second. In that moment, Johnson seemed unstoppable.
17 of 20
2000: Victory at Home
Aboriginal sprinter Cathy Freeman had already served a prominent role in the millennial Games when she served as the final torchbearer in the Opening Ceremony. She was riding on a wave of patriotism and support when she entered Sydney Olympic Stadium. She was expected to win the 400m run, and she easily delivered. In an inspiring display of cultural and country pride, she took her victory lap with both Australian and Aboriginal flags. While she was the second Aboriginal champion, she was the first ever Olympian to light the cauldron and go on to win gold.
18 of 20
2000: Streak Striker
The challenge before Rulon Gardner seemed impossible. Whereas Gardner had barely a title to his name, his Russian opponent Alexander Karelin had gone undefeated for 13 years (including gold medals in the previous three Games) and hadn't given up a single point for six of those years. But if there's anywhere where a dogged spirit can overtake an odds-on favorite, it's the Olympics. And that's exactly what Gardner did, stepping up to the mat and taking down his heavyweight foe for the greatest darkhorse victory in Olympics history.
19 of 20
2004: An Unexpected Sprint
Rarely does a distance race come down to two men in lock-step, but that's what happened in Athens. Moroccan middle distance runner Hicham El-Guerrouj had done poorly going into the finals, but when he approached the final lap, he and Kenyan Bernard Lagat were neck-and-neck, their arms slapping into each other as they round the final bend. With only meters to spare, El-Guerrouj pulled ahead to take the lead as they crossed the finish line. Later that Games, he would win gold in the 5000m race, accomplishing this twofer for the first time in 80 years.
20 of 20
2008: Anchor Away
Between Michael Phelps's eight golds and Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt's flair-filled threepeat, the Beijing Games offered unmatched spectacle. But neither man would have taken home his clutch of golds without the help of teammates, and Jason Lezak's performance in the men's 4x100m freestyle relay made for one of Phelps' most dramatic wins. In his second event of the Games, Phelps swam first. By the time Lezak, the oldest swimmer on Team USA, tapped in, he was nearly a full body length behind French anchor Alain Bernard. Lezak had narrowed the gap to half a body length with 25 meters to go, but it seemed like Phelps' ambition to better Mark Spitz's 1972 wins would be thwarted. Somehow, Lezak overtook Bernard, breaking the existing world record and clearing Phelps' path to glory. Days later, Phelps would score his seventh gold via an eye-popping 0.01-second lead over Serbian Milorad ?avi? in the 100m butterfly, but it was Lezak's awe-inspiring burst that got fans — and Phelps — roaring and established the momentum for a monumental Olympic accomplishment.