Originally written on Midwest Sports Fans  |  Last updated 11/20/14

We are a mere three months and three days away from the beginning of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

To get you ready for this year’s games, here is a list of history’s ten greatest Summer Olympic performances.

This year’s games will be the twenty-seventh Summer Olympics. There have been dozens, if not hundreds, of memorable and legendary performances in the history of the Olympics.

The most difficult part of putting this list together was choosing only ten.

And since this is an American site with a largely American readership, the list is heavy on American athletes and Olympic sports that get big ratings in the States (track and field, swimming, and gymnastics).

Honorable Mention

First, the honorable mentions:

1912, Stockholm: A Greco-Roman Wrestling match between Russia’s Martin Klein and Finland’s Alfred Asikainen lasts 11 hours and 40 minutes.

1948, London: 17-year-old American Bob Mathias wins the decathlon, becoming the youngest ever athlete to win a track-and-field gold medal. He defends his title in 1952.

1960, Rome: An 18-year-old boxer from Louisville named Cassius Clay introduces himself to the world by winning gold in the light heavyweight class.

1960, Rome: Hungarian fencer Aladár Gerevich wins his sixth consecutive gold meal in sabre team. Gerevich’s streak is all the more impressive when you consider that the 1940 and 1944 games were canceled because of World War II. His streak spanned 28 years, beginning in 1932.

1968, Mexico City: Dick Fosbury wins gold in the high jump with an unconventional technique that would become known as the “Fosbury Flop.” Nowadays, world-class high jumpers use the Fosbury Flop almost exclusively.

Dick Fosbury "flops." (Photo by AFP/Getty Images)

1968, Mexico City: American Bob Beamon destroys the world record in the long jump. His record of 29 feet, 2.5 inches (8.90 meters) stood for 23 years.

1984, Los Angeles: Gymnast Mary Lou Retton scores perfect tens in the floor exercise and vault during the all-around competition to become the first woman outside of Eastern Europe to win all-around gold. (It helped that the Soviets and many Eastern Bloc nations had boycotted the Los Angeles games.) Retton became a superstar and household name in the U.S., even starring in several Wheaties commercials.

1984, Los Angeles: Carl Lewis wins four track-and-field gold medals in the same four events Jesse Owens had won in 1936.

1988, Seoul: Track star and fashion designer Florence Griffith-Joyner—”Flo-Jo”—wins gold in the 100 and 200 meters, setting world records in both. After the 1988 games, Flo-Jo designed the uniforms that the Indiana Pacers wore from 1990 to 1997.

1988, Seoul: Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Flo-Jo’s sister-in-law, wins gold in the heptathlon, setting a world record that still stands.

1992, Barcelona: The United States basketball team, known to history as the Dream Team, dominates its competition, winning every game by 32 or more points.

1996, Atlanta: Gymnast Kerri Strug vaults on a bad ankle and clinches a gold medal for the United States in the team competition.

2000, Sydney: Australia’s Cathy Freeman wins gold in the 400 in Sydney, becoming the first Aboriginal athlete to win an individual gold medal.

Cathy Freeman wins gold in Sydney. (Photo by Getty Images Sport)

2000, Sydney: Eric “the Eel” Moussambani, of tiny Equatorial Guinea, swims alone in his heat and receives thunderous applause (despite posting one of the slowest times in the history of the 100 Freestyle). Prior to the race, Moussambani had never swam in an Olympic-sized pool.

2000, Sydney: American Rulon Gardner upsets Aleksandr Karelin to win Greco-Roman wrestling gold in the 130 kg weight class. Prior to the gold medal match against Gardner, Karelin hadn’t lost in international competition in more than 13 years.

2008, Beijing: Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt wins gold in the 100 and 200, setting world records in both events.

And now for the top ten:

#10 – 1924, Paris: Eric Liddell won’t race on Sunday, wins gold on Thursday.

If you’re asking yourself, “Who is Eric Liddell?” maybe this will help:

Liddell was a Scottish runner. He and British teammate Harold Abrahams were the subjects of the Oscar-winning 1981 film Chariots of Fire.

Chariots, which won Best Picture and three other Academy Awards, is about the 1924 Paris Olympics, where both Liddell and Abrahams won gold. (If you haven’t seen Chariots of Fire, it’s streaming right now on Netflix.)

Liddell’s best event was the 100 meters. He ran the 100 at the University of Edinburgh and held the British record in the event. He would have been a favorite to win the 100 in Paris, were it not for one problem: Liddell would have had to run a heat on Sunday.

Liddell was a devout Christian who refused to compete on the sabbath. So he withdrew from the 100 and entered the 400, an event in which he had little experience.

In Chariots of Fire Liddell learns that he is scheduled to run on Sunday while he is on his way to Paris. Another runner gives up his spot at the last minute so that Liddell can run the 400 instead.

In reality Liddell knew of the schedule several months before the games, and his decision not to compete in his best event was well publicized. Though he was a novice in the 400, Liddell qualified for the event on his own and didn’t need to take anyone else’s spot.

Still, Liddell’s 400 times leading up to the Olympics weren’t impressive, and no one expected him to win. Runners who specialize in the 100 don’t generally cross over to a race that requires a full trip around the track. Conventional wisdom at the time said that, by sticking to his convictions, Liddell had given up his chance of winning gold.

Liddell was a sprinter, and he treated the 400 as though it was a sprint. In the 400-meter final in Paris he got out to an early lead. The competition converged on Liddell during the second half of the race, but he was able to hold them off, winning the race—and the gold medal—in world record time.

Good thing the 400-meter final was held on a Thursday.

Abrahams, who was Jewish (and thus observed the sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday), ended up winning gold in the 100.

Here’s footage from Liddell’s gold-medal winning run:

* * * * *

#9 – 1996, Atlanta: Michael Johnson wins the 200 and 400 in gold shoes.

Eric Liddell, who specialized in shorter distances, earned a bronze medal in the 200 meters in 1924 to go along with his gold medal in the 400. It was quite an accomplishment to medal in both races.

For much of Olympic history, no male athlete had ever won both the 200 and 400. Men who compete in both events at such an elite level are rare.

Michael Johnson was rare.

Prior to the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, Johnson had won two gold medals each in the 200 and 400 at the 1991 (200), 1993 (400), and 1995 (200 and 400) IAAF World Championships. He entered the 1996 games as the world record-holder in the 200 and the favorite in the 400.

He also had a deal with Nike, who outfitted Johnson in a pair of golden racing spikes.

One of Michael Johnson's golden shoes. This one is on display at the Niketown in Honolulu. (Photo from Wikipedia.)

Nike, NBC, and millions of American sports fans had high expectations for Johnson, and Johnson more than lived up to them.

He won the 400 by nearly a full second, setting an Olympic record of 43.49 seconds. He followed that race with a win in the 200 in which he broke his own world record by 0.34 seconds. His record of 19.32 seconds stood until the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where Usain Bolt ran the 200 in 19.30.

In 1999 Johnson would set a world record in the 400, 43.18 seconds, that still stands today.

Here’s Johnson’s gold medal-winning, world record-setting win the 200:

* * * * *It’s tough to top what Michael Johnson did in 1996, but there are still eight individual performances better than his.

Click to continue reading and learn about:

  • A woman who beat polio to become a superstar.
  • A man who overcame bashing his head on a diving board to win gold.
  • A 14-year-old prodigy whose feats can never be duplicated.
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