Usain Bolt winning the 100-meter sprint—with his left shoelace untied. America’s soccer team. Michael Phelps taking home an improbable eight golds. When everything is on the line, and the entire world is watching, the planet’s top athletes are capable of pulling off the most incredible feats. It’s what makes the Olympics perhaps the most captivating event on television.
So it's no surprise that we're all glued to our screens. Since the first modern Olympiad in 1896, the Games have drawn the attention of the globe. People the world over have waited anxiously for newspaper reports, live radio broadcasts, and, now, beautiful 4K livestreams. No other event delivers such a unique blend of drama, tears, and utter joy. Ordinarily in sports, we focus on winners and losers, cheaters and heroes. But it’s the unexpected stories that enthrall us most at the Olympics. The underdogs, the renegades, the survivors. They have our attention—at least once every two years.
So in appreciation of what makes the Games so great, we’ve scoured the archives, polled our editors, and dredged the Web for the greatest Olympic moments of all time. We laughed; we cried. And we bet you will, too.
Oakley is the official eyewear supplier to Team USA but had no input into the moments included in this piece.
Iconic Olympic Moments
Noteable moments in the recent history of the Olympic Games
- Women compete in the Olympics for the first time. Twenty-two athletes participate in Paris across the sports of tennis, sailing, croquet, equestrian, and golf.
- During the marathon at the St. Louis Games, American Frederick Lorz decides the August heat is too much. Nine miles into the race, he hops in his manager's car and hitches a ride for the next 11 miles, getting out to run only after the car breaks down. Lorz ends up cruising to the finish line in first place—that is, until spectators call him out for not running the entire course.
- Ireland's Peter O'Connor, the world record holder in the long jump at the time, isn't pleased to compete for Great Britain at the Athens Games. He takes silver in the long jump and gold in the triple. During the medal ceremony, O'Connor climbs the flagpole bearing the Union Jack while waving his Irish flag.
- Hot temperatures at the Stockholm Games prove too much for Japanese marathoner Shizo Kanakuri, who passes out midway through the race. He returns in shame to Japan without telling anyone. Swedish officials list Kanakuri as missing for decades. In 1967, after resurfacing, he's invited back to finish the marathon. He does so, clocking a total time of 54 years, 8 months, 6 days, 5 hours, 32 minutes, and 20 seconds.
- Jesse Owens ruins Adolf Hitler's plans by winning four gold medals at the 1936 Games in Berlin. Owens is the first American to win four track and field gold medals at a single Olympics, a record that stood for 48 years.
- Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia wins the marathon in Rome running barefoot, a decision he makes at the last minute because he couldn't find a pair of shoes that fit him comfortably.
- In one of the most powerful Olympic moments of all time, American track medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise their gloved fists on the medal podium during the national anthem.
- The women's marathon is introduced to the games in Los Angeles. American Joan Benoit Samuelson wins the inaugural race, but Gabriela Andersen-Schiess nearly steals the spotlight by staggering into the packed L.A. Coliseum 20 minutes later, suffering from heat exhaustion. She collapses at the finish line.
- SPONSOR CONTENTThe Olympic road cycling races take place on Oakley HQ’s doorstep in nearby Mission Viejo, California.
- Canadian sailor Lawrence Lemieux gives up a sure shot to win a silver medal when he comes to the aid of a two-man Singapore crew racing in a different event. The duo's boat had capsized in monster waves, leaving one man clinging to the boat and the other floating out to sea. Lemieux wrangles both men into his boat, ferries them to a rescue vessel, and returns to his race to beat 11 other competitors.
- In qualifying heats, U.S. diver Greg Louganis whacks his head on the diving board, sustains a concussion, and opens up a gash that requires stitches. He goes on to compete and win his second gold medal at the Seoul Games.
- SPONSOR CONTENTOakley, the official eyewear supplier to Team USA, makes its debut at the Olympic Games when an East German athlete wins the cycling road race while wearing a pair of Oakley Eyeshades from the United States and riding an Italian bike. The feat epitomized the cross-cultural and cross-political purposes of the games.
- In Barcelona, Derek Redmond, the British 400-meter track star and medal favorite, rips his hamstring halfway through the final and collapses. Redmond's father jumps onto the track to help him up and guide him to the finish line.
- Eleven-year-old Carlos Front becomes the youngest Olympian since 1900 after taking the helm of Spain's eight-man crew boat.
- In the gymnastics competition at Atlanta, the United States needed Kerri Strug to nail her vault to secure a gold medal for the team. She sticks the landing on a bum ankle and is carried off the floor by her coach.
- Mountain biking becomes an Olympic sport only six years after its first world championships in Durango, Colorado. Among the competitors is future Tour de France winner Cadel Evans of Australia.
- Swimmer Eric Moussambani of Equatorial Guinea claims the title of Biggest Olympic Underdog Ever by competing in the 100-meter freestyle eight months after learning how to swim.
- Three-time Olympian track star Suzy Favor Hamilton leads in the final lap of the 1,500-meter final when she crumbles to the ground, feigning injury. The event marks the beginning of her public battle with mental illness.
- SPONSOR CONTENTOakley’s futuristic Overthetop shades, one of the most radical designs Oakley has every created, debut at the games. As the name implies, these sunglasses doesn't have traditional temples that wrap around your head but rather a frame that goes over the top of your head.
- German archer Coni Pfohl competes while seven month pregnant. In 2000, she won a bronze medal while two months pregnant. This year, Pfohl finishes 18th in the individual competition.
- Despite playing poorly throughout the gold medal match, the U.S. women's soccer team forces Brazil into overtime. Abby Wambach scores a winning header. It is the climax of a five-year run for the team's 1999 World Cup champion members: Julie Foudy, Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, and Kristine Lilly.
- Brazilian marathoner Vanderlei de Lima is having an Olympic glory moment, leading the race at mile 22, when a disgraced Irish priest in a beret and kilt runs onto the course and begins kicking him. Shocked and unsettled, de Lima loses 10 seconds off his 40-second lead and a mile later is passed by eventual gold medal winner Stefano Baldini. De Lima finishes third.
- Great Britain's David Davies is cruising to a win in the 10km open-water swim when he veers off course in the last 400 meters. Despite a furious attempt to make up for his wrong turn, Davies ends up losing the gold, then collapses after exiting the water. In his frustration, he dumps a bottle of water on a Chinese official during the press conference afterwards.
- Michael Phelps puts on the most dominating Olympic performance in history, winning eight gold medals. In his most memorable win, Phelps takes a last stroke to touch the wall a hundredth of a second ahead of Milorad Cavic.
- Usain Bolt of Jamaica wins the 100-meter sprint and sets a new world record with a time of 9.69 seconds. Experts believe he could've run faster, except for one thing—his left shoelace was untied.
- German canoeist Birgit Fischer wins her eighth Olympic gold—24 years after her first.
- U.S. track sprinter Manteo Mitchell breaks his leg while qualifying for the 4x400-meter relay, but the squad still finishes with the fastest qualifying time. In the finals, they lose the gold medal to the Bahamas.
- SPONSOR CONTENTOakley remains the preferred sunglass choice of athletes from around the world. During the London Games, a staggering 90 percent of medal winners who wore sunglasses—from all countries—wore Oakleys.
- For the first time in history, the current road cycling champion, Peter Sagan of Slovakia, will race in the mountain bike event at the Olympics in Rio.
- SPONSOR CONTENTOakley introduces limited-edition, hand-painted Green Fade frames with the company's proprietary PRIZM lens technology. Every lens color tint is designed to maximize vision and clarity under each sport’s unique conditions and terrain. A total of 650 athletes will compete in green frames, and this year, the U.S. Olympic Committee and Oakley are thrilled to make the Team USA eyewear collection available to Olympic fans. In addition to supplying product to the U.S. delegation through the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, a percentage of Team USA eyewear collection sales will support the training of U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes and hopefuls.