10 Best American Moments in Summer Olympics History

The 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics would have officially opened today, but a global pandemic has delayed the Games for a year. Most athletes train their entire lives to peak at the Olympics, and the Games historically have brought out the best in athletes and their humanity.

The COVID-19 outbreak may have put the Olympics on a temporary hold, but the historic moments will never go away.

Ancient Olympics took place for almost 12 centuries, from 776 B.C.through 393 A.D., all in Greece. About 1,500 years after those events ended, the Modern Olympics restarted in 1896, back in Athens, Greece.

Summer Olympics have evolved from traditional sports like swimming, track and field, wrestling, fencing and shooting to new sports. The Games in 2020 added events like karate, sport climbing, surfing and skateboarding. Baseball and softball were brought back because of their popularity in Japan.

Olympics have survived boycotts, terrorists attacks, doping allegations and the move from amateurism to professional athletes. There have only been three cancellations, all because of world wars. The 2020 postponement to 2021 is the first of its kind.

That said, here are 10 of the top memorable American moments in Summer Olympics history.

(In order by year)

Jesse Owens 1936 Berlin Olympics
The gold, silver and bronze medal winners in the long jump competition salute from the victory stand at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. From left, Japan's Naoto Tajima (bronze), American Jesse Owens (gold) who set an Olympic record in the event and offers an American-style salute with his hand to his forehead, and Germany's Luz Long (silver) giving a Nazi salute with his arm extended out. August 8, 1936. Getty Images

Jesse Owens, 1936 Berlin Games

Jesse Owens, a Black track and field athlete, won four gold medals at 1936 Berlin Games. Adolf Hitler, who was the German Chancellor, wanted to use the Games as a way to demonstrate not only Aryan racial superiority, but Germany's budding chance to become the supreme world power. Owens went on to win the 100 meters, 200 meters, 4x100 relay and long jump, breaking or tying nine Olympic records in the process. Hitler wanted to shake the hands of the greatest Olympian champions, but he refused to shake the hand of Owens.

Bob Beamon 1968 Olympics
American athlete Bob Beamon breaks the Long Jump record at the 1968 Mexico Olympics, 20th October 1968. Photo by Douglas Miller/Keystone/Getty Images

Bob Beamon, 1968 Mexico City Games

Bob Beamon barely made it into the finals of the long jump in the Mexico City Summer Olympics. His first leap during the final round, though, will remain something of Olympic legend. Beamon jumped so far on his first attempt that he almost left the entire sand pit. He only needed to jump 27-feet, 5 inches to set a new world record and presumably win gold. Beamon smashed that by almost 2 feet as he recorded a jump of 29-2 ½, a world record that stood for 23 years before American Mike Powell broke it. Beamon's jump still remains an Olympic record, though.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos
Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medalists in the 200-meter run at the 1968 Olympic Games, engage in a victory stand protest against unfair treatment of blacks in the United States. With heads lowered and black-gloved fists raised in the black power salute, they refuse to recognize the American flag and national anthem. Australian Peter Norman is the silver medalist. Getty Images

Tommie Smith and John Carlos — 1968 Mexico City Games

Black Power or Human Rights? Tommie Smith and John Carlos finished first and third, respectively, in the 200-meter race in Mexico City. While on the podium, both of them, along with the second-place runner (Australia's Peter Norman), all stood on the podium while sporting human rights badges on their uniforms. Smith and Carlos each wore a black glove on a fist that was hoisted into the air. Though many saw it as a "Black Power" salute, Smith, who set a world record in that race, said the fist raise was for human rights.

Their image still is still talked about, and revered, more than 50 years after it happened.

Mark Spitz 1972 Munich Olympics
Mark Spitz of Carmichael, Calif. USA, wings his way to a seventh gold medal as he swims the butterfly leg of the 4x100 meters medley at the Olympics 9/4. The American team broke the world record with a time of 3:48.16 minutes. Getty Images

Mark Spitz — 1972 Munich Games

Mark Spitz became the first Olympian from any country during the Modern Olympics to win seven gold medals at one Games. The swimmer won four individual events and three relays—all with world record times—and this was before swimmers wore caps, goggles or body suits. He won these races:

  • 200-meter butterfly
  • 200-meter freestyle
  • 100-meter butterfly
  • 100-meter freestyle
  • 4x100-meter freestyle relay
  • 4x200-meter freestyle relay
  • 4x100-meter medley relay

He would have stayed for the Closing Ceremony, but a Palestinian terror attack that led to the death of other Jewish athletes led him to skipping the ceremony and heading home.

Mary Lou Retton 1984 Olympics
Gymnast Mary Lou Retton of the United States competes in the balance beam competition in gymnastics during the Games of the XXIII Olympiad in the 1984 Summer Olympics circa 1984 at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles, California. Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Mary Lou Retton — 1984 Los Angeles Games

Competing on her home soil, Retton became the first American gymnast to win an individual all-around gold medal. She went on to win four other medals, setting the stage for the future of gymnastics in America. Retton's idol was Nadia Comaneci of Romania, and Retton later became the benchmark for future Americans, most recently Simone Biles, who has formerly trained under Bela and Marta Karolyi, who also trained Comaneci for the 1976 Olympics.

Greg Louganis 1988 Seoul Olympics
Greg Louganis of the United States gets tended to after hitting his head on the spring board during the Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea. Pascal Rondeau /Allsport via Getty Images

Greg Louganis — 1988 Seoul Games

Greg Louganis was already considered one of the top divers in American history before the 1988 Seoul Games in South Korea. He won silver in 1976, had to sit at home because of the 1980 boycott and pulled a remarkable feat in 1984 by winning both the 3-meter springboard and 10-meter platform gold medals. However, 1988 showed his unbelievable grit. During a preliminary-round dive, his head clipped the board on a two-and-a-half somersault in pike position. He left the pool for just 35 minutes to get medical attention. He made the finals, then won gold. The gold-winning dive was what he called the "Dive of Death," which was the same dive that led to his injury.

Muhammad Ali 1996 Atlanta Olympics
Muhammad Ali holds the torch before lighting the Olympic Flame during the Opening Ceremony of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia. Getty Images

Muhammad Ali — 1996 Atlanta Games

One of the most-anticipated moments during the Opening Ceremony of the 1996 Atlanta Games was wondering who would light the Olympic flame. The torch run was to end with a great American Olympian, and Muhammad Ali ultimately lit that Atlanta flame. His storied career began as an 18-year-old boxer named Cassius Clay, who won the gold medal at the 1960 Rome Games. He turned professional and became both a hero and villain in the eyes of most Americans for his refusal to be drafted in the Army during the height of the Vietnam War. Many people called him the greatest American athlete of the 20th Century.

Michael Johnson 1996 Olympics
Sprinter Michael Johnson poses for a studio portrait with his two Olympic gold medals and his golden running shoes. Johnson became the first man to complete the Olympic "Golden Double" after winning both the 200m and 400m finals at the 1996. Getty Images

Michael Johnson — 1996 Atlanta Games

Michael Johnson proved that gold begats gold. He flew to victories in both the 200- and 400-meter races in Atlanta, cruising to world records in both races. Though his sprinting prowess was the talk of the day, his gold shoes coasting him to victory remain the talk of the Texas sprinter almost 25 years after it happened.

Kerri Strug and Bela Karolyi
Kerri Strug of the United States is carried by coach Bela Karolyi during the team competition of the Women's Gymnastics event of the 1996 Summer Olympic Games held on July 23, 1996 in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Georgia. Strug was part of the gold medal winning USA Women's team, nicknamed the Magnificent Seven. Photo by David Madison/Getty Images

Kerri Strug — 1996 Atlanta Games

Strug will be remembered for sustaining a bad ankle injury at the Atlanta Games and limping back to the mats for America's last gasp at winning gold over the Russian team. Strug sprinted down the runway and made it, landing on both feet, for only a brief moment before balancing on her one good foot. The Americans won the team all-around, thanks to Strug, and coach Bela Karolyi carried her to the medal podium. She was unable to finish any individual events, but her performance goes down in American Olympic lore.

Michael Phelps 2008 Beijing Olympics
Michael Phelps stands between teammates Brendan Hansen and Jason Lezak of the United States after winning the gold medal in the Men's 4x100 Medley Relay at the National Aquatics Centre during Day 9 of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games on August 17, 2008 in Beijing, China. The United States team set a new world record with a time of 3:29:34. Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images

Michael Phelps — 2008 Beijing Games

Not only did Beijing have one of the most memorable Opening Ceremonies of all time, those Games had some unforgettable performances by the athletes. There was America's Kobe Bryant, who may have been the most popular athlete in Beijing. Jamaica's Usain Bolt introduced his speed to the world. And then there was Michael Phelps, who did something no other athlete has done. The swimmer won eight gold medals, a couple of them in breathtaking fashion, especially the 4x100 relay, in which fellow American Jason Lezak swam an unforgettable anchor leg—perhaps one of the greatest splits of all time—to touch first. Phelps won five individual races these Games, and he swam to gold in all of these races in 2008:

  • 100m butterfly
  • 200m butterfly
  • 200m freestyle
  • 200m individual medley
  • 400m individual medley
  • 4 x 100m freestyle relay
  • 4 x 200m freestyle relay
  • 4 x 100 medley relay

Phelps finished his career with 28 Olympic medals, 23 of them gold.

Michael Phelps 2008 Beijing Olympics
US swimmer Michael Phelps reacts after winning the men's 100m butterfly swimming final at the National Aquatics Center during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games in Beijing on August 16, 2008. Phelps won the Olympic Games men's 100m butterfly gold medal here. The victory gave him a seventh gold medal here and equalled Mark Spitz's 1972 record. Photo by MARTIN BUREAU/AFP via Getty Images

Scott McDonald is the sports editor at Newsweek. He has covered Olympians and Paralympians since 2009, and he has authored two books on Olympic athletes.

Uncommon Knowledge

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Newsweek is committed to challenging conventional wisdom and finding connections in the search for common ground.

About the writer

Scott McDonald is a Newsweek deputy night editor based in Cape Coral, Florida. His focus is assigning and writing stories across all topics, from news to politics, business, weather, sports and international news. Scott joined Newsweek in 2018 after a lengthy career of print journalism in Texas, including The Dallas Morning News, where he was a sportswriter, and he's a voter for the Heisman Trophy. He has been a newspaper editor-in-chief and also a newspaper publisher. He is a graduate of The University of Texas at Austin. You can get in touch with Scott by emailing s.mcdonald@newsweek.com. Languages: English

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