Chris Rattue

Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Olympics: 10 athletes who owned the games

Ben Johnson was stripped of gold after the mandatory drugs test. Photo / AP.
Ben Johnson was stripped of gold after the mandatory drugs test. Photo / AP.

Abebe Bikila (Ethiopia) - Rome, 1960

A fabled Olympic story, representing all that is best about the Games. Rome wasn't built in a day but the Bikila legend was. A late replacement for an injured Ethiopian marathon runner, Bikila - a member of Emperor Haile Selassie's bodyguard - ran barefooted after his only pair of running shoes disintegrated in training and the replacement caused blisters. He smashed all records and danced after his victory in the moonlight as others staggered in the heat. Bikila's life story was a remarkable one, as are the events around this race, which was a watershed moment, a signpost to future dominance by African runners.

Nadia Comaneci (Romania) - Montreal, 1976

The number 10 is stamped on two women, the "actress" Bo Derek for her role in a film, but more significantly on Comaneci, the world's most famous gymnast. At just 14, she made history by recording the first perfect score, on the uneven bars. Even the scoreboard was thrown - unable to handle 10, it initially displayed one.

Comaneci's achievements obscured the questions around the forced training of such young athletes that would lead to age restrictions. She lit up these Games, with seven perfect scores, three golds, a golden smile - delivered with a quaint piano accompaniment tinkling in the background.

Mark Spitz (USA) - Munich, 1972

Swimmer Mark Spitz, with the famous moustache, had promised a deluge of medals in Mexico but, having failed there, exceeded his own predictions with an extraordinary seven golds all in world record time four years later. "If I swim six and win six, I'll be a hero. If I swim seven and win six, I'll be a failure," the notoriously cocky Spitz said before putting his record on the line in a relay. Interesting footnotes: the tragic terrorist attack on Israeli athletes led to Spitz, a Jew, being placed under armed guard in Munich; an American rival never got over living in Spitz's shadow and later committed suicide.

Jesse Owens (USA) - Berlin, 1936

The black American blasted a hole in German leader Adolf Hitler's plans to use the Games as a showcase of Aryan superiority by winning four gold medals in the sprints and long jump. Owens was generous in comments about the evil dictator, who chose to bypass the medal ceremonies rather than be forced to shake a black hand. An irony is that Owens was treated better in Berlin than he often was in his racist homeland. Fate brought these two very different men together, and history won't let them part.

Fanny Blankers-Koen (Holland) - London, 1948

The "Flying Dutch-mam", already a star, had survived life in her occupied homeland and emerged to shine with four gold medals in the sprints and hurdles. She pioneered a new attitude towards women athletes - even her athletics coach husband had once scorned their top-level credentials. At 30, and a mother, Blankers-Koen gave hope to a new way of thinking and was a beacon as the world struggled to emerge from the horrors of a world war.

Bob Beamon (USA) - Mexico, 1968

Beamon almost seemed to defy gravity in conjuring a remarkable long jump out of Mexico's thin air. Helped by a tailwind, he soared past the old world record and his mark stood for 23 years. Beamon's famous leap was an athletics anomaly that even he never came close to matching.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos (USA) - Mexico, 1968

We are cheating a bit, with Smith and Carlos sharing the Mexico podium with Bob Beamon. But few Olympic images if any have stood the test of time like the raised-fist salutes from the two American 200m runners on the victory dais. This was political sporting protest like no other - the pair's various gestures were a stand for black and human rights. IOC boss Avery Brundage, a Nazi sympathiser, turned nasty. Oh the irony, and while Smith and Carlos were shunned at the time, they have shone over time.

Michael Phelps (USA) - Beijing, 2008

Phelps' eight gold medals pipped Mark Spitz's mark although there was a shinier golden glow to the Spitz achievement, coming as it did in a more innocent and romantic sporting age. Phelps was a touch lucky as well. He was technically second according to video analysis in the 100m butterfly, but his heavier touch activated the timing device first. Spitz anointed Phelps as probably the greatest athlete in history, a subjective claim on a debate that could go on forever.

Olga Korbut (USSR) - Munich, 1972

Before Nadia Comaneci there was Olga Korbut, who at 17 was a positively ancient global gymnastics superstar compared with her Romanian successor. Korbut shares our Munich podium with Mark Spitz in a Cold War one-two act involving a Soviet and American athlete. Korbut leaped into the world's heart with groundbreaking backward flips. She revolutionised gymnastics with her daring, and little Olga's displays of emotion broke down the stereotypes Westerners had of people behind the Iron Curtain.

Ben Johnson (Canada) - Seoul, 1988

An ugly side of athletics, yes, but Johnson's image is indelibly stamped on these Games. He flew to a spectacular 100m world record in the "dirty final", but was quickly stripped of gold after the mandatory drugs test, leaving subsequently tainted stars like Carl Lewis and Linford Christie to enjoy the spoils. Lewis had secretly tested positive to a banned substance three times before the 1988 Games and while he survived to compete thanks to American athletics' widespread rort, his significant Olympic achievements have been severely diminished by the revelation. So while Lewis - once dubbed the world's greatest athlete - made the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics his own, time has wiped away the significance.

- NZ Herald

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