The Olympic Games are the most epic display of skill and sportsmanship that remains unmatched by any other event.
Alternating between the Summer and Winter Olympics, the Games are a global sports competition with more than 200 nations participating. That means that nearly every nation is now represented in the competitions.
The modern Olympics as we know them actually began with the first held in Athens in 1896. Fourteen nations and 241 athletes competed in 43 events that year. Since then, the world has seen amazing feats and triumphs from the best athletes across the globe as the Games continue to grow. Some 11,500 athletes from 206 nations are due to take part in the Tokyo Olympics this year!
In anticipation of the upcoming Summer Olympics in Tokyo, let’s take a look at some of the best and most inspiring Olympic moments from over the years.
Lawrence Lemieux at the 1988 South Korea Olympics
Like everyone else in the race, Lawrence Lemieux started off with the intent to win. But history will remember Lemieux as the Canadian Finn sailor who gave up the gold to save a life.
Amid winds gusting to 30 knots and 10 to 12-foot-high waves, a competitor’s boat capsized. The currents had swept the sailor far from his boat. Lemieux was in second place when he quickly decided to abandon the race to rescue his competitor in distress. After waiting on the rescue boat, Lemieux resumed the race, finishing in 21st place and still beating out 11 competitors.
Shaun White at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver
It’s hard to imagine these days, but it wasn’t that long ago that snowboarding wasn’t considered a “sport.” In fact, this alternative snow sport didn’t make it into the Olympic Games until 2006.
Only a few years later, during the 2010 Games in Vancouver, Shaun White proved just how far the sport had come, and just how brilliant he was at it. White shocked and awed audiences with the trick he pulled off: the world’s very first Double McTwist 1260. The trick, which White dubbed the Tomahawk, is the most difficult trick in snowboarding history.
Nadia Comăneci at the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games
It is already impressive enough that Romanian gymnast Nadia Comăneci competed in the 1976 Olympic Games when she was only 14. But even more impressive than that, the then-14-year-old Comăneci was the very first gymnast to be awarded a perfect score of 10.0 at the Olympics.
At the same games, she went on to receive six more perfect 10s, and won three gold medals. She came back to compete at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, where she picked up two more gold medals and earned two more perfect 10s.
Herman Maier at the 1998 Olympic Games in Nagano
Herman Maier, one of the best ski racers in the sport’s history, made the cover of Sports Illustrated after the Winter Olympics in 1998 — but the photo was not quite like other sports photography shots. This was a photo of the moment the Austrian skier flew off a mountainside overlooking a Japanese alpine village.
Maier flew through the sky, suffered a hard landing and tumbled through safety nets. Despite the devastating crash during the downhill competition, Maier was up and back on the slopes just days later to claim gold in two events.
North Korea and South Korea at the 2000 Sydney Olympics
After decades of unrest post-Korean war and being divided for more than half a century, North and South Korea found common ground. Athletes from both countries marched together behind one flag for the first time, during the opening ceremony for the Sydney Games in 2000. The unification flag featured a blue image of the Korean Peninsula on a white background.
Although they unified for the opening ceremony, North and South Korea still competed under separate flags during the Games. Even still, their joint marching symbolized an openness to cooperation and unity to the world. They would go on to march together in opening ceremonies moving forward.
Dan Jansen at the 1994 Olympic Winter Games in Lillehammer
Victory isn’t always swift; it is earned through hard work, perseverance, dedication, and determination. No one understands that more than Olympic speed skater Dan Jansen. This American skater earned the nickname “the heartbreak kid” after suffering disappointment after disappointment.
However, ten years after his Olympics debut, Jansen finally won the gold he had been fighting for. He earned the gold medal — and set a world record — in the 1,000-meter event during the ‘94 Games in Lillehammer.
Abebe Bikila at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome
During the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, Abebe Bikila became the first Black African to win an Olympic marathon gold medal. And he did it without shoes.
Abebe had trained in Ethiopia both with and without shoes. But when his shoes fell apart during the final days of preparation, he opted to run barefoot. Up against world record-holder who was the pre-event favorite, not much was expected from the barefoot Abebe. Everyone was clearly wrong when Abebe Bikila crossed the finish line first, bare feet and all. Not only did he take the gold, but he also broke the existing world record.
Wilma Rudolph at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome
During the same year of Abebe Bikila’s remarkable performance, Wilma Rudolph had her own inspiring time on the track. She won three track and field gold medals during the 1960 Olympics: 100-meter sprint, the 200-meter sprint, and as an anchor in the 4 x 100-meter relay.
With athletic ability like that, it’s hard to believe that Wilma Rudolph wore a leg brace until the age of nine. She had contracted polio as a child and her left leg was paralyzed. Although her doctor told her she would never walk again, her leg began to heal and she hit her stride as an athlete.
Jamaica’s Bobsled Team at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics
The first appearance of the Jamaican bobsled team remains one of the most iconic Olympic moments ever. In fact, this very real story even inspired the 1993 movie Cool Runnings (even though most of the movie is fiction).
Jamaica’s Bobsled team didn’t win. They ended up losing control and careening into the wall of the track during the third run, and did not compete in the fourth run of the event. They were listed as not finishing and were placed last overall. Although the country’s first-ever appearance at the Winter Olympics didn’t earn any medals, the team certainly won the hearts of audiences.
The U.S. Hockey Team at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid
The 1980 U.S. Men’s Olympic hockey team was made entirely of amateur and collegiate players, so it’s safe to say that no one expected them to win much of anything — especially not against the heavily-favored and four-time gold medal-winning Soviet Union team. Only four players on the U.S. team had minimal minor-league experience.
Referred to as the “Miracle on Ice,” the U.S. hockey team managed a 4-3 upset victory. They went on to win the gold medal by beating Finland two days later. “Miracle on Ice” was named the top sports moment of the 20th century by Sports Illustrated.
Oh, and just like Jamaica’s bobsled team, the United States’ 1980 Olympic hockey team also inspired a movie, Miracle.
Usain Bolt at the 2008 Beijing Olympics
What’s better than an Olympic gold medal? Eight Olympic gold medals, if you ask Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt. But it was Bolt’s performance at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing that gained him worldwide fame.
Bolt broke Olympic and world records in both the 100-meter and 200-meter events, and also set a 4 x 100-meter relay record with the Jamaican team. He was the first man to win three sprinting events during the Olympics since 1984. He would later go on to win the 100-meter and 200-meter events in 2012 and 2016, making him the only sprinter to win those titles at three consecutive Olympics.
Mary Lou Retton at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles
We’ve seen plenty of great American athletes compete at the Olympics, but it wasn’t until 1984 that the first American — male or female — won the all-around gold medal in gymnastics. She also snagged two silver medals, and two bronze medals.
Hailing from West Virginia, Retton was only 16 at the time, and had limited experience competing internationally. She also suffered a knee injury and underwent an operation only five weeks prior to the 1984 Olympics. Despite that, she still received perfect 10s for her performance on the vault.
Jesse Owens at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin
During his lifetime, Jesse Owens was the greatest and most famous athlete in track and field, and was ranked by ESPN as the sixth greatest North American athlete of the 20th century. To this day, the Jesse Owens Award is given out to the season’s top American track and field athlete.
But it was during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin that he gained international fame. Owens earned four gold medals: 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump, and 4 x 100-meter relay. He was the most successful athlete that year — but the fact that he crushed the competition in Hitler’s Germany, where he was seen as a lesser athlete because of the color of his skin, was the icing on the cake.