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The Hollywood Insider Best Olympics Moments

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The scale and the impact of the Olympic Games are unmatched by any sports event on the planet. Firstly, they only take place once every four years. Also, unlike the American World Series or the European championships, they actually bring together the entire planet in a global competition to determine who’s really the greatest in almost every sport. And even in our fractured, Covid-distracted modern times, the Olympics remain the only event that brings everybody together to compete and celebrate. 

So, no wonder there is an array of films that capture the Olympic spirit and depict various aspects of the Olympians’ lives. However, it is also interesting to revisit the most spectacular moments in the games’ history that were cinematic even without involving cinema cameras, due to the sheer drama and the grandeur that forever stamped them on the history of sports. From record-breaking performances to emotional personal strife, let’s remember some of the most defining moments in Olympic history and the athletes who made it happen.

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Best Olympics – Most Cinematic Moments

Michael Phelps (Beijing, 2008)

It was after Beijing that it became widely accepted that Michael Phelps is more fish than human. The Baltimore Bullet and his teammates set a new world record in the medley relay event, awarding Phelps his eighth gold medal (the most won in a single Olympic Games) and pushing his medal count over that of his record-holding predecessor, Mark Spitz. Even more spectacularly than that, however, Phelps had broken a 2,000-year-old Olympic record by surpassing the 12 individual titles won by Leonidas of Rhodes, who competed in four successive Olympiads in 164 BC, 160 BC, 156 BC, and 152 BC, winning three different foot races in each. As myths and legends have it, Leonidas was worshipped as a deity after his passing, and that surely makes the achievement of the most decorated Olympian of all time even more cinematic ‒ a simple Baltimore kid challenging and besting the achievements of a demigod.  

Usain Bolt (Rio de Janeiro 2016)

Already the fastest man on earth, Bolt cemented his name forever in the Olympic Hall of Fame in 2008 and 2012. But what happened in 2016 was almost surreal ‒ a photographer was able to capture a shot of Bolt grinning while racing his opponents who are a mix of blurry or game-faced, too focused on trying to beat him. ‘He was ahead enough that he kind of looked back. I think he was looking back at other athletes, gave a big smile and I managed to capture the shot with some motion,’ said Cameron Spencer, the photographer behind the famous shot. The sheer fact that Bolt was so self-confident and so in control that he could allow himself to look back across the world’s fastest runners trying to keep up with him and have a good time acknowledging his victory at the same time is absolutely mind-blowing. 

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Jamaican Bobsled Team (Calgary 1988)   

Winter Olympics are often criticized for only being accessible to cold countries (and for involving high participation expenses) and although the engaging and charismatic Jamaican bobsledders failed to even come close to winning positions, they definitely captured the hearts of people around the world as the first-ever Winter Olympians in Jamaica’s history. The 1988 team inspired the reggae parody song ‘Jamaican Bobsled’ by The Rock ‘n’ Roll Animals, played on the GTR radio station and later released on the CD ‘Yatta, Yatta, Yatta’. In 1993, Disney released ‘Cool Runnings’, a film loosely based on and inspired by the team’s experience.

USA Ice Hockey Team (Lake Placid, New York 1980) 

The ‘Miracle on Ice’ was an ice hockey game during the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. It was played between the hosting United States and the Soviet Union on February 22, 1980, during the medal round of the men’s hockey tournament. Although the Soviet Union was a four-time defending gold medalist and heavily favored, the United States upset them and won 4–3. However, this was more than a hockey game.

 In a time when the Cold War was in full force, this was more akin to two countries that hated each other fighting it out on the ice ‒ the clash of two different ways of life. The Soviets were heavy favorites, crushing every team in their way, and all that the now-legendary coach Herb Brooks could put up against them was an American squad composed of talented but untested college players who had previously lost 10-3 to the Soviets. The general spirit in America was also not the best due to the crisis in Iran and the Soviets entering Afghanistan. So, when the young team outplayed and outscored the mighty Soviet hockey machine, it was a triumph, and the resulting relief went past the ordinary celebration of a sporting victory. The Soviet players were so upset at their loss that they did not turn in their silver medals to get their names inscribed on them.  

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Abebe Bikila (Rome 1960) 

The Ethiopian marathon runner became the first Black African to win a gold medal when he won the men’s marathon at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. But that fairy tale started with a nightmare ‒ before the race, Abebe purchased a new set of running shoes but it turned out that they didn’t fit well and gave him blisters, so he decided to run…barefoot. And guess what happened? He won, setting a new World Record time. Four years later, he competed and won again, marking the first time anyone had won the marathon twice. While he wore shoes the second time around, he also underwent major surgery one month before the race and still set a world record.  

USSR Basketball Team (Munich 1972) 

The controversy, the infamy, and the drama of the 1972 USA-USSR Olympic Basketball final game remain unmatched by any basketball game or any event in Olympic history.  Leading up to the final event of the Munich Games that year, the United States had won seven consecutive gold medals, scoring a perfect 63-0 in the Olympic competition. The United States was leading the game 51-50 three seconds before the final whistle. As the Soviets inbounded the ball, a USSR assistant coach approached the judge’s table to argue that his team should have been awarded a timeout, which he was not given and the clock was set to one second.

After a minute of absolute chaos, the clock was reset to three seconds with the Soviets inbounding quickly again but missing their last attempt as the horn sounded and the Americans stormed the court to celebrate a victory. But the game was stopped again and the USSR team was given three more seconds during which Edeshko was able to throw an across-the-court pass in the direction of Belov, who netted it in with a buzzer-beater shot and gave the Soviet Union a shocking 51-50 victory, as the team was provided three chances to score the winning basket. The US delegation protested the results but was overturned three to two by the Soviet bloc countries. The final 5 second period of that game truly remains the wildest episode in the history of basketball. 

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Jesse Owens (Berlin, 1936)

Of course, every list of remarkable events at the Olympic Games has Jesse Owens at the very top. At the 1936 Berlin Games, which was largely intended to serve as a propaganda event for Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party, Jesse Owens became the first person to win four Olympic gold medals. He won the 100 meters, the 200 meters, the 4×100-meter relay, and the long jump.

This was a direct slap in the face to Hitler and in defiance of his theories of racial superiority. As ESPN’s Larry Schwartz later wrote, Owens, who was African-American, ‘single-handedly crushed Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy.’ Owens’ success at the Games caused consternation for Hitler, who was using them to show the world a resurgent Nazi Germany. He and other government officials had hoped that German athletes would dominate the games but in the end, he had to salute an African-American standing on the winners’ podium. 

It is also worth noting that in Nazi Germany, Owens had been allowed to travel with and stay in the same hotels as whites, at a time when African Americans in many parts of the United States had to stay in segregated hotels that accommodated only Black people. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) never invited Jesse Owens to the White House following his triumphs at the Olympic Games. As Owens said himself in 1939: ‘Some people say Hitler snubbed me. But I tell you, Hitler did not snub me. I am not knocking the President. Remember, I am not a politician, but remember that the President did not send me a message of congratulations because, people said, he was too busy.’ 

By David Tsintsadze

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