As seen in one of the most famous photos of all time, athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists on the podium after winning gold and bronze, respectively, in the 200-meter run, just as the national anthem was about to start. At the height of the Black Power movement, they wanted to highlight the social issues affecting the United States at the time. They were met with boos from the crowd, suspension from Team USA and serious backlash at home. The silver medalist, Australian runner Peter Norman, stood in solidarity with them and was barred from future competition by the Australian team for doing so.
Jesse Owens won four gold medals during the 1936 Olympic Games, which took place under Nazi rule, and through which Hitler hoped to prove the superiority of the Aryan race. Hitler famously refused to congratulate Owens, but the Olympian wasn’t acknowledged by President Franklin Roosevelt once he arrived home either. Owens would go on to say, “After all those stories about Hitler and his snub, I came back to my native country, and I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus. … Now what’s the difference?”
In 2008, Michael Phelps’ eight gold medals broke the record for most in a single Olympics. Phelps’ goal, however, was nearly missed during his second race: the 4×100 freestyle relay. He swam the first leg of the race and set a U.S. record with his 47.51-second split, but his team fell behind the French over the next two legs. When Jason Lezak dove in as the anchor leg, he was nearly a body length behind the lead swimmer. By nothing short of a miracle, Lezak managed to catch the French at the flags and win the race, keeping Phelps’ dream alive but breaking his freshly minted record with a borderline unfathomable 46.06-second split.
Until the “Magnificent Seven,” Russia’s squad had dominated the team event in Olympic gymnastics — the Soviet Union won eight consecutive gold medals between 1952 and 1980. After a semi-erroneous routine from another U.S. gymnast, the fate of the nation’s first gold medal in the event rested fully on Kerri Strug’s shoulders and vault performance. She needed a score of 9.493 to win it for her team, already a high bar for the 18-year-old, and on her first attempt, she landed improperly and severely injured her ankle. Strug went ahead with her second and last attempt at victory, this time sticking the landing even with her wounded ankle and winning it all for Team USA with her 9.712 performance. She had to be carried off the floor and onto the podium for the medal ceremony.
Usain Bolt is arguably the greatest sprinter ever. His 9.69-second world record in the 100-meter race at the Beijing Olympics backs this up. After breaking a world record, he went on to win the 200-meter and the 4×100-meter relay in Beijing, and would win those very same events at the 2012 Olympics. Although Bolt has been stripped of his 2008 relay medal because of a teammate’s doping violation, he remains the fastest man alive to this day.
Yusra Mardini fled Syria with her sister in August 2015. When their dinghy broke down, they jumped into the water to help guide the boat to safety. Mardini later went on to become a member of the first refugee team in Olympic history and won her heat in the 100-meter fly, receiving loud cheers from the crowd. Though she didn’t advance to the semifinals, she inspired many.
At only 15 years old, Katie Ledecky boldly announced her presence as a superstar by winning gold in the 800-meter freestyle in her first international competition. For one of the greatest distance swimmers of all time, this was just the beginning. Four years later in Rio, she won the 200-meter, 400-meter and 800-meter freestyles, set two world records and picked up two more medals in relays.