Tuesday, March 21, 2023 | Sha'ban 28, 1444 H
overcast clouds
27°C / 27°C

Legends of the Olympic Games

Tokyo marks one month until the pandemic-delayed 2020 Olympics on June 23.

Olympics organisers have weathered a historic postponement, an unprecedented ban on overseas fans and persistent domestic opposition, but with one month to go, the finish line is finally in sight.

The 32nd Summer Olympics finally start on July 23 in Tokyo after a year's delay because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Paavo Nurmi: Flying Finn - One of the Olympics' first superstars, Finland's Nurmi dominated the Games in the 1920s, winning nine gold medals and three silvers. He stole the show at Antwerp 1920, winning golds for the 10,000m, individual and team cross-country, and taking silver in the 5,000m, all in the space of just three days. In the 1924 Paris Olympics, he was untouchable, winning the 1,500m before returning to the track just over an hour later in searing heat to win 5,000m gold.

Two days later Nurmi defended his cross-country titles in temperatures in excess of 40C (104F) before the next day winning the 3,000m team race and becoming the first athlete to win five golds at a single Olympics. It could have been six but Finnish team officials, fearing for his health, refused to allow Nurmi to line up for his 10,000m defence.

An angry Nurmi returned to Finland and immediately posted a new 10,000m world record that stood for 13 years. He reclaimed his 10,000m gold in 1928 in Amsterdam, adding silvers in the 5,000m and 3,000m steeplechase. He was controversially barred from the Los Angeles 1932 Olympics three days before the 10,000m for allegedly receiving payment to race in Germany, denying him a chance of a 10th gold medal.

Johnny Weissmuller: Gold to the silver screen - Long before he swung on to the silver screen playing Tarzan, Weissmuller found fame at the 1924 and 1928 Olympics, dominating swimming to win five golds. The American son of German immigrants won three of the men's six golds at Paris in 1924 in the 100m and 400m freestyle, and 4x200m freestyle relay, adding water polo bronze. He successfully defended the 100m and relay titles four years later in Amsterdam. In an era that saw only six men's events in the pool, Weissmuller bears comparison to modern greats such as Mark Spitz or Michael Phelps, such was his superiority after innovating the sport with the flutter kick and head-turning breathing. Weissmuller went on to make even more of a splash in Hollywood, where he starred in 12 Tarzan films with his famous jungle yell.

Jesse Owens: superstar snubbed - Owens exploded the Nazi-propagated myth of Aryan racial superiority when he won four athletics gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics under the nose of Adolf Hitler. Just a year earlier the African-American had set five world records and equalled a sixth in the space of 45 minutes in Ann Arbor, including a long jump of 8.13m that would stand unsurpassed for 25 years. In Berlin, he won the 100m, 200m, 4x100m relay and long jump, setting three world records and reportedly prompting Hitler to storm out, though the "Buckeye Bullet" later said the Fuehrer had waved to him. The grandson of slaves, Owens was snubbed by his own president when Franklin D. Roosevelt failed to greet him, a customary honour for returning Olympic champions. "I wasn't invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn't invited to the White House to shake hands with the president, either," said Owens. "When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn't ride in the front of the bus," Owens said of the racial segregation that existed in the US at the time. "I couldn't live where I wanted." Owens, who died in 1980, has a street and a school named after him in Berlin.

Fanny Blankers-Koen: athlete of the century - Blankers-Koen defied conventions and blazed a pathway for women's sport when she swept to four golds at the 1948 Olympics as a 30-year-old mother of two. After making her Games debut in 1936 -- where she approached Jesse Owens for an autograph, one of her most treasured possessions -- the Dutch marvel's Olympic career was put on hold by World War II. By the time the Olympics returned in London in 1948, and despite living for six years under German occupation near Amsterdam, Blankers-Koen held six world records. Any doubts about a mother's suitability to compete were erased when she won every event she entered -- the 100m, 200m, 80m hurdles and 4x100m relay. "One newspaperman wrote that I was too old to run, that I should stay at home and take care of my children," she told the New York Times in 1982. "When I got to London, I pointed my finger at him and I said: 'I show you'." Blankers-Koen was named female athlete of the century by the IAAF in 1999. She died five years later at the age of 85.

Emil Zatopek: unmatched distance treble - Czech Emil Zatopek spoke six languages and "never shut up", according to one miffed rival. He never stopped running either as he became the only man to win all three distance events -- 5,000m, 10,000m and marathon -- at the same Olympics. Known for his ungainly running style, Zatopek won the first of his four Olympic golds in 1948 with an enormous victory in the 10,000m, lapping all but two competitors. A few days later in the 5,000m, an out-of-sorts Zatopek dropped 100m behind Belgian leader Gaston Reiff before fighting back to miss gold by a whisker. Four years later in Helsinki, Zatopek defended his 10,000m crown and then claimed a dramatic 5,000m victory when he stormed past his rivals off the final bend. But his most remarkable victory was in the marathon, which he had never run before but found so easy that he chatted with photographers along the route because, he said, it was "very boring". Zatopek later fell out of favour with Czech authorities, was assigned to collect refuse in Prague and worked for seven years in a uranium mine.

Laszlo Papp: Hungarian ringmaster - Papp tangled with Hungarian Communist authorities as well as ring opponents as he became the first boxer to win three Olympic gold medals. The fluid, hard-hitting southpaw, known for his devastating left hook, totted up a 301-12 amateur win-loss record, with 55 first-round KOs. In 13 Olympic bouts across London 1948 (middleweight), Helsinki 1952 and Melbourne 1956 (both light-middleweight), Papp lost only one round -- in the 2-1 final win against America's Jose Torres in 1956. That third gold came at a highly emotional time, just weeks after the brutal crushing of a Hungarian uprising against the Soviet-backed regime. The Budapest-born Papp turned professional the following year aged 31. But the first professional boxer from the Soviet bloc was denied a shot at middleweight world champion Joey Giardello in the United States in 1965.

The Hungarian Communist authorities revoked his passport, concerned about a boxer fighting for money in the beacon of the capitalist world. Papp retired as an undefeated European middleweight champion and was later awarded an honorary world title by the World Boxing Council, who also named him the best amateur and professional fighter of all time.

Dawn Fraser: Aussie rebel - The Australian became the first woman to defend an Olympic swimming title and the first swimmer of either sex to win the same event three times with Olympic 100m freestyle golds in Melbourne 1956, Rome 1960 and Tokyo 1964. Fraser also won gold in the 1956 4x100m freestyle relay and earned four other silvers in a career marked by clashes with Australia's swimming authorities. After Rome, she was handed a two-year ban for offences including not wearing the official team tracksuit to a medal ceremony. At Tokyo, Fraser again defied team orders, wore an unofficial swimsuit and was caught stealing souvenir flags near the Imperial Palace, earning her a 10-year ban and prompting her retirement. Fraser, the product of a working-class suburb of Sydney, remains one of Australia's most outspoken sports personalities. In 2015, she apologised for telling misbehaving tennis stars Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic "to go back to where their parents came from".

Larisa Latynina: Soviet medal machine - Ukrainian-born Latynina competed in the 1958 world gymnastics championships while four months pregnant -- and took home five gold medals. It showed the sort of determination that was to bring her 18 Olympic medals, a record which stood for nearly half a century until broken at London 2012 by American swimmer Michael Phelps. Latynina finished her Olympic career with nine gold, five silver and four bronze medals. "She was our first legend," said Bela Karolyi, the coach of Romania's Nadia Comaneci. "When she stepped out on the floor, all eyes were on her. She demanded attention and respect." At her first Games in 1956, Latynina won the vault, floor, all-around and team golds. She successfully defended all but the vault in 1960 and in 1964, aged 29, won her third straight floor and team titles.

Mark Spitz: Seven-gold spree - The brash American boasted he would win six gold medals at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics but he ended up with two relay titles and only one individual silver and one bronze, in what he called "the worst meet of my life". Four years later in Munich, Spitz stunned the world by winning an unprecedented seven gold medals at the same Games, coming home first in every event he entered with a world record each time. Spitz's haul -- 100m and 200m double in both freestyle and the butterfly, and three relay titles -- remained unmatched until Michael Phelps swam to eight golds in Beijing in 2008. Spitz retired immediately after Munich, before attempting an ill-fated comeback, aged 41, when he failed to qualify for the 1992 Barcelona Games. Spitz confessed in 2008 to being relieved to see his record eclipsed by Phelps. "He is the single greatest Olympic athlete of all time now," said Spitz. "I always wondered what my feelings would be. I feel a tremendous load off my back."

Teofilo Stevenson: Cuban Ali - The first heavyweight boxer to win three golds, Stevenson turned down a lucrative fight with Muhammad Ali to remain amateur throughout his career, earning the devotion of his adoring compatriots. "What is a million dollars worth compared to the love of eight million Cubans?" he said. Stevenson's three golds came in 1972, 1976 and 1980, making him one of only three fighters to achieve the feat and the first since Hungary's Papp 24 years earlier. The third was another Cuban heavyweight, Felix Savon, in 1992, 1996 and 2000. In a 1988 Boxing Illustrated poll, the towering, graceful Stevenson, with a thundering right hand and striking resemblance to Ali, was selected as the greatest Olympic boxer of all time. In 1974 promoters Bob Arum and Don King both tried to lure the 22-year-old to fight Ali, a match that many believe the Cuban would have won. Ali instead regained his heavyweight title by knocking out George Foreman in the famous "Rumble in the Jungle" in Zaire. Stevenson lost one only round at the Olympics, in his final bout against the Soviet Union's Piotr Zaev in 1980. Stevenson won three amateur world championships but was denied a shot at more Olympic gold when Fidel Castro's Cuba boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles and 1988 Seoul Games. Stevenson, described by his friend Ali as "one of the great boxing champions", retired aged 36 just after the 1988 boycott was announced and died in 2012 after a heart attack.

Nadia Comaneci: perfect 10 - Perfection is a rare commodity but 45 years ago in Montreal, the 14-year-old Romanian gymnast was judged to have achieved it seven times.

The tiny Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut had paved the way four years earlier in Munich when her captivating performances and three golds ignited gymnastics' popularity and four years later resulted in a fierce rivalry with Comaneci. The result was Comaneci, who like Korbut stood just 4ft 11in (1.50m), scoring the first perfect 10.00 scores -- four times on the uneven bars and three times on the beam as she won gold in both and the all-around title. Two further gold medals followed at the Moscow Games in 1980.

Fellow gymnasts later detailed abuse and beatings at the hands of Romania's coach Bela Karolyi. While under his care, Comaneci was once reportedly rushed to the hospital after drinking bleach. Comaneci competed until 1981 and fled Romania just before the fall of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989. She now lives in the United States.

Greg Louganis: diving great - The American won two golds at Los Angeles in 1984 and successfully defended both at Seoul, despite smashing his head on a springboard, and could have had more had the US not boycotted the Moscow Games in 1980. The enduring image is of Louganis painfully hitting the back of his head during a reverse two-and-a-half somersault in pike in the preliminary rounds at Seoul -- the stuff of nightmares for divers. But with his wound stitched up Louganis retained his title, cementing his place in Olympic lore. Life had never been easy for Louganis.

The adopted son of a Swedish-Samoan teenage couple was bullied at school, abused by his business manager and discovered he was HIV positive six months before the Seoul Games.

Edwin Moses: Unbeatable hurdler - Rarely has an athlete exerted such sustained dominance as American 400m hurdler Moses, who won 122 consecutive races from 1977 to 1987, picked up two Olympic gold medals and set four world records. At the 1976 Montreal Olympics, his first international event, the 20-year-old Moses won by a record margin of eight metres and set a new world mark. Moses missed the 1980 Moscow Games because of the US boycott, but won a second gold at Los Angeles in 1984 and a bronze at Seoul in 1988, aged 33. When asked how he wanted to be remembered, Moses said: "As the guy, nobody could beat." His 1983 world record of 47.02sec was broken by current holder Kevin Young's 46.78 at the Barcelona Olympics and to this day only four athletes have ever dipped under Moses's best, set 38 years ago. -

Daley Thompson: decathlon king - Thompson was studying at boarding school when his father was shot dead in a street argument, but he overcame the tragedy to become the most celebrated decathlete in history, winning two Olympic golds and setting four world records. The Briton, whose fierce competitive drive and irreverent attitude divided opinion, won his first Olympics at 1980 in the Moscow Games boycotted by the United States and West Germany, winning over the pro-Soviet crowd. Four years later, Thompson had a hard-fought battle with German world record holder Jurgen Hingsen, until pulling away with strong performances in the discus, pole vault and javelin. Thompson, virtually assured of gold, could afford to finish 11 seconds below his personal best in the final 1,500 metres and still break Hingsen's world record, but he cantered home to finish a whisker off a new mark. -- a provocative reference to rumours about US great Carl Lewis. He then joked about fathering a child with Princess Anne, creating negative headlines in his hour of triumph. Thompson's athletic achievements are not in doubt: he was undefeated in all competitions between 1979 and 1987, and he is the only decathlete to hold the world, Olympic, Commonwealth and European titles at the same time. "All I ever wanted to be was the best. I don't enjoy fame," he told the Independent in 2008.

Carl Lewis: heir to Owens - Lewis stole the show at the 1984 Los Angeles Games when he matched Jesse Owens' achievement of winning four gold medals in the 100m, the 200m, the long jump and the 4x100m relay. In 1988, Lewis gained a second gold medal in the 100m after Ben Johnson was disqualified for doping, successfully defended his long jump gold and picked up a silver in the 200m. In Barcelona in 1992, the American anchored the 4x100m relay team to victory and won a third consecutive long jump gold, beating fierce rival and world record holder Mike Powell in the final. In 1996, a 35-year-old Lewis summoned up one last golden leap to win a fourth long jump in Atlanta, taking his career haul to nine Olympic titles. Lewis was named male athlete of the century by the IAAF in 1999 and sportsman of the century by the International Olympic Committee. But Lewis was never universally popular, his aloof attitude rankling with rivals and spectators. His achievements lost some lustre in 2003 when it was revealed that he had failed three tests for small amounts of stimulants at the US Olympic Trials for the 1988 Seoul Games, where Canada's Johnson was vilified for doping and Lewis inherited his gold. "The climate was different then," Lewis said later of the stimulants. "Over the years a lot of people will sit around and debate (whether the drug) does something. There really is no pure evidence to show that it does something. It does nothing."

Steve Redgrave: awesome oarsman - The message could not have been any clearer when, at Lake Lanier outside Atlanta in 1996, Britain's Redgrave declared: "Anybody who sees me go near a boat has my permission to shoot me." Redgrave had, at the age of 34, just won rowing gold for the fourth consecutive Games and announced his retirement in unequivocal fashion. Yet at Sydney 2000 -- after being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes and suffering for eight years with debilitating ulcerative colitis -- Redgrave put his 38-year-old body through a punishing training regime one last time and achieved another Olympic triumph, as a member of the coxless fours. In doing so Redgrave became the only endurance sport athlete to win five golds in five consecutive Games: 1984 (coxed fours), 1988, 1992, 1996 (coxless pairs) and 2000 (coxless fours). His secret? "I decided that diabetes had to live with me, not me live with it," he said.

Michael Johnson: one-lap master - The American dominated the 200m and 400m sprints in the final decade of the 20th century, winning four gold medals, and he was unlucky not to have won more. Johnson arrived at Barcelona in 1992 unbeaten in 54 straight finals at 400m, but a bout of food poisoning left him weak and he was eliminated in the semi-final. He failed to make the 200m line-up for the 2000 Games after pulling up with a muscle strain in the US Olympic trials, but was part of the 4x400m US team that won in Sydney, only to be disqualified eight years later after teammate Antonio Pettigrew admitted doping. Vehemently opposed to doping, Johnson immediately returned his medal to the IOC, saying he had won it "unfairly". But he remains the only man to win the Olympic 400m twice, in 1996 and 2000, after taking his first gold in the Barcelona 4x400m relay. In Atlanta 1996 he smashed his own 200m world record by more than three-tenths of a second with an incredible 19.32sec in the final, the largest improvement in the history of the distance. That record stood for 12 years until Usain Bolt ran 19.30 in Beijing. Only Bolt and Yohan Blake have ever run faster in the 25 years since Johnson set his mark. Johnson's 400 metres world record of 43.18sec, set in 1999, lasted 17 years until South African Wayde van Niekerk ran 43.03sec in winning gold at Rio 2016.

Ian Thorpe: freestyle king - The swimmer's five gold medals make "Thorpedo" the most decorated Australian Olympian. Three came in his home Sydney 2000 Games (400m free, 4x200m and 4x100m freestyle relays) and two more in Athens 2004 (400m free, 200m free). Michael Phelps opted to compete in the Athens 2004 200m freestyle in a quest to win a record eight gold medals, which Thorpe called "impossible". The final was dubbed the "Race of the Century" as Thorpe and Phelps lined up against two former world record-holders, Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands and Australia's Grant Hackett. It proved Thorpe's greatest victory. Van den Hoogenband turned more than a second ahead of the world record pace at halfway, but Thorpe chased the Dutchman down in the final 50 metres to take gold in an Olympic record 1min 44.71sec, with Phelps third. An emotional Thorpe celebrated by tearing off his cap, punching the air wildly and screaming at the top of his lungs. Thorpe also won three Olympic silvers and a bronze in his only two games before retiring at the age of 24 in 2006, though an ill-fated comeback attempt saw him fail to make the cut for London 2012.

Michael Phelps: gold standard - A hyperactive Phelps was encouraged into swimming aged seven to give his boundless energy an outlet. By the time he had swum his last race in Rio five years ago, the American had become the most decorated Olympian of all time with 23 gold medals, three silver and two bronze -- 13 of the golds in individual events, another record. But the "Baltimore Bullet" came home empty-handed from his first Games at Sydney 2000, aged 15. He struck gold six times in Athens four years later, but finished third in two other events, leaving Mark Spitz's 1972 Olympic record of seven swimming golds intact. Motivated by Ian Thorpe's comment that beating Spitz's record was "impossible", which he kept pinned on his locker, Phelps stormed to an incredible eight golds at Beijing 2008. "Never in my life have I been so happy to have been proved wrong," said Thorpe, after being poolside to witness Phelps's eighth Beijing win in the 4x100m medley relay. In London 2012 Phelps expanded his collection to 18 golds, two silvers and two bronzes before retiring, saying: "I'm done. No more". But in 2014 he came out of retirement and at 31 -- well beyond the usual peak age for swimmers -- extended his incredible run with five more golds and a silver in Rio.

Usain Bolt: lightning strikes - The fastest man the world has ever seen, "Lightning Bolt" shot to worldwide fame in Beijing in 2008 as the first man to win both the 100m and 200m since American Carl Lewis in 1984. He went on to become the only man to complete the sprint double twice when he repeated the feat in London -- and then swept all before him for the third time in Rio. The charismatic Jamaican smashed both 100m and 200m world records in Beijing before lowering them to 9.58sec and 19.19sec respectively, times which are still to be beaten. He anchored Jamaica's 4x100m sprint relay team to cross the line first in all three games, though in 2017 the quartet was stripped of the 2008 gold because teammate Nesta Carter was found guilty of doping. Bolt retired in 2017 with a record eight Olympic and 11 world championships sprint gold medals.

arrow up
home icon