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Ten unforgettable, emotional moments in Olympic Games history

Cathy Freeman’s 400-metre gold was an unforgettable moment. (Photo by Tony Marshall/EMPICS via Getty Images)
Expert
18th July, 2021
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From Cathy Freeman’s triumph to Derek Redmond’s ‘Did Not Finish’, the Olympics is full of indelible, heartbreaking moments that live long in the memory.

With the Tokyo Games starting in less than a week, we look at 10 of the biggest Olympic heart-tuggers.

Muhammad Ali lights the cauldron in Atlanta

The Olympic Games may represent a test of physical strength and mental fortitude like no other, but no image sums up its ability to evoke the spirit of humanity quite like watching Muhammad Ali light the Olympic flame in Atlanta in 1996.

An Olympic gold medallist in 1960 when he fought under the name Cassius Clay, Ali is often regarded as the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time. But with his body visibly ravaged by the effects of Parkinson’s Disease, lighting the torch on a blustery Georgia night proved no easy task. With flames licking dangerously close to his forearms as Ali fought to control his movements, it took some time for the small rocket to ignite. Once it did, it raced away in seconds along a connecting line before setting the towering Olympic cauldron ablaze.

Cathy Freeman surges home to win in Sydney

Has there ever been a women’s 400-metre final as highly anticipated as the 2000 showdown in Sydney? As if Cathy Freeman – who lit the Olympic cauldron ten days earlier – wasn’t under enough pressure. The 1996 Atlanta silver medallist was already carrying the weight of national expectation on her slender shoulders before her great rival, Frenchwoman Marie-José Pérec, fled the Games in circumstances that are still unclear to this day.

That left Freeman as the red-hot favourite to win gold in her homeland. The only problem was a record Olympics attendance of 112,524 fans inside the stadium in Homebush would go home disappointed if she failed, to say nothing of the millions of Aussies watching on TV.

History shows that Freeman surged past her rivals in the final stretch to record a euphoric victory. Her post-race celebrations, when she draped herself in both the Australian and Australian Aboriginal Flag, remain one of the defining images of the Sydney Olympics.

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Jesse Owens stuns the Nazis in Berlin

Of all the heroic individual displays at Summer Olympics, perhaps none has resonated with as much meaning as Jesse Owen’s four gold medals at the 1936 Games in Berlin. Contested against the backdrop of the Nazis ruinous rise to power, Owens stunned the watching Adolf Hitler by claiming gold in the 100-metres, 200-metres 4 x 100-metre relay and long jump.

Captured on film, at least in part, by Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl, the aftermath of his triumph has been a matter of conjecture for decades. Contemporary reports suggest an incensed Hitler refused to acknowledge the American, however some eyewitnesses claim the German dictator actually saluted Owens from the stands.

One newspaper even suggested Hitler sent the sprinter a congratulatory telegram. Whatever the truth, Hitler was
actually so annoyed that his German athletes were overshadowed by Owens he went on to suggest that African-American athletes should be banned from future Olympic Games.

Jane Saville disqualified out with finish line in sight

While 20-kilometre racewalking race isn’t exactly the first event that springs to mind when you’re thinking of the Olympics, no one who witnessed the 2000 Games in Sydney will ever forget Jane Saville’s entry in the heartbreaking moments hall of fame. Coasting home with less than 200 metres left to race, the Sydney-born walker was only moments away from entering the tunnel into her hometown Olympic Stadium.

But just as she was about to stroll to victory in front of a rapturous crowd, up stepped the Chief Judge to flash the red paddle of doom in front a stunned Saville. Having been warned twice about an illegal gait – where an athlete’s foot loses contact with the ground – Saville was disqualified on her third and final warning.

The footage of a race official pointing her out to Lamberto Vacchi, who barely had time to raise his paddle as Saville flashed by him, is surely one of the most enduring memories of Sydney’s unforgettable Games.

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Jane Saville

Jane Saville during the 20km walk at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games (photo: AAP)

Peter Norman proves that to participate is to protest
While gold medallist Tommie Smith and bronze medal winner John Carlos no doubt knew their Black Power salute on the podium at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City would generate fierce criticism, Australian silver medallist Peter Norman probably didn’t expect to be drawn into a maelstrom of heated political debate.

After Smith powered away to win gold in the 200-metre race, Norman – who only just edged Carlos into third – found himself at the centre of one of the Olympics’ most memorable protests. Smith and Carlos were booed by the crowd as they raised a single gloved fist during the medal ceremony, while the Australian stood as a model of quiet
dignity beside them.

After Carlos had forgotten to bring his gloves to the podium, it was Norman who suggested he wear Smith’s other glove on his left hand. When Norman died from a heart attack in 2006, Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at his funeral in Melbourne.

Usain Bolt blitzes the Beijing field
Before he became the world’s worst footballer, Usain Bolt was clearly the world’s best sprinter. With a haul of eight gold medals, the Jamaican won the 100-metre and 200-metre sprint double at three consecutive Olympic Games.

But it was his unprecedented performance in Beijing that put the world on notice, as Bolt finally turned his undeniable talent into record-breaking results.

Already the 100-metre world record holder, Bolt simply blitzed the Beijing field. He was so far in front he started celebrating before hitting the finish line, leading several critics to label the Jamaican disrespectful as he coasted home in a new world record time of 9.69 seconds.

He followed that up by winning the 200-metre race for good measure, sprinting until the end to set a new world record time of 19.30 seconds – despite unfavourable conditions. In doing so, he became the first sprinter to break both world records at the same Games.

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Argentina pulls off the biggest basketball upset ever
No one remembers the beaten semi-finalists, do they? That is unless those semi-finalists are Team USA and they’re the unbackable favourites to win gold at a fourth straight Olympics since the Dream Team era first began. And with a roster stacked with NBA talents like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony, there was no reason to think the 2004 team in Athens would come home with anything but the gold.

But no one told an indomitable Argentina side. Inspired by San Antonio Spurs’ shooting guard Manu Ginóbli and with big man Fabricio Oberto defending like a man possessed, the Argentines shocked the sporting world by downing Team USA 89-81 in the biggest boilover in men’s basketball history. The went one better to the win the gold too, avenging a group stage defeat to Italy by downing the Italians 84-69 in the gold medal game in Athens.

Aussie relay team ends American dominance
There’s no denying the fact that many of the most memorable Olympic moments have come in the pool, with Australia punching above its weight against bigger nations like the United States and China. Both Eamon Sullivan and Emily Seebohm hold individual Olympics records that still stand today, while Australia’s women’s 4×100-metre freestyle relay team won gold in world record time at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.

But with the eyes of an entire nation on the pool on Day 2 of the Sydney Olympics in 2000, the men’s relay team of Michael Klim, Chris Fydler, Ashley Callus and Ian Thorpe didn’t disappoint. Despite American star Gary Hall Jr predicting the United States would smash the Aussies “like a guitar,” it was Thorpe who surged home to overtake Hall Jr on the final lap.

When the Aussie superstar touched home just ahead of his rival, he sealed the Americans’ first defeat in the race in 36 years and set the tone for a euphoric fortnight in Sydney. The ‘air guitar’ celebration of the Aussies, led by Michael Klim, was an iconic image of the home games.

Men's 4x100m relay Sydney 2000

Michael Klim (second from left) swam a blistering opening leg to set up Australia’s famous victory. (Image: YouTube/Australian Swimming)

Refugee Yusra Mardini wins her heat in Rio

Often the most memorable moments in the Olympics don’t involve the overall winners at all. When the International Olympic Committee announced a team of refugees to compete at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, few could have expected the impact Syrian swimmer Yusra Mardini might have.
Mardini and her sister sought refuge in Germany after a harrowing escape from the Syrian Civil War, at one stage having to tread water for hours after their overcrowded dinghy started taking on water in the Aegean Sea.

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She was one of ten athletes selected to compete for the Refugee Olympic Team in Rio, and she outdid her teammates by winning her heat in the women’s 100-metre butterfly. Although her time wasn’t quick enough to see her
advance to the semi-finals, Mardini showed that sometimes all anyone needs is an opportunity to prove themselves.

Derek Redmond’s defiant ‘Did Not Finish’

Derek Redmond may not be a household name but he was involved in one of the most iconic moments at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. A British record holder in the 400-metres, Redmond was widely expected to challenge for honours when he lined up in the semi-finals at a packed Olympic Stadium in the city’s picturesque Montjuïc district.
Redmond started well and was leading the race, but disaster struck halfway through when he pulled up lame. It turned out he’d torn his hamstring so badly he would never race again.

But after collapsing in pain, the 26-year-old slowly staggered to his feet. At the same time, his father Jim was racing down the steep steps of the Estadi Olímpic’s stands. In a moment of serendipity, he managed to hurtle onto the track to meet his son with around 100 metres to go.

The pair embraced and staggered together towards the finish line in front of 65,000 cheering spectators, before Jim stepped away to allow his son to cross the line unassisted. Derek was ultimately awarded a ‘Did Not Finish’, but his determination to cross the line at all will forever be remembered as one of sport’s most unforgettable moments.

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