Coming up with five of the greatest Olympians is not easy, considering how many Summer Games we’ve had since the first one in 1896! (To think, they didn’t have TV back then.) The Rio Games have given us some great moments, despite being in one of the most dangerous and vile cities in the world. The games have been exciting because of all the memorable performances, not the crime and filth.
5.) Mark Spitz
Spitz is a nine-time Olympic champion in men’s swimming and is best known for his incredible accomplishments in the 1972 Summer Olympics. Spitz captured two gold medals (the 4×100-meter freestyle relay and the 4×200-meter freestyle relay) in the 1968 Games in Mexico. Four years later in Munich, he won seven gold medals and set a new world record in each event: 100-meter freestyle, 200-meter freestyle, 100-meter butterfly, 200-meter butterfly, 4×100-meter freestyle relay, 4×200-meter freestyle relay and 4×100-meter medley relay. His life was saved in Munich in 1972 during the Palestinian terrorist massacre when U.S. Marines arrived to protect him when the massacre started. The seven gold medal record stood until Michael Phelps came along in 2008. Spitz attempted a comeback for the 1992 Games in Barcelona at age 41, but failed to qualify.
4) Usain Bolt
Never before has a name befitted an athlete. Usain Bolt’s recent gold in the men’s 100 m with a time of 9.81 seconds gave him the gold in three consecutive Olympics, the first to ever accomplish this feat. He won three gold medals in the 2008 Summer Games and another three in 2012. As of this writing, he may add to that total since he is currently competing in Rio. There is no doubt, Bolt is the greatest sprinter of all time. In a sport where doping has run rampant, Bolt has never failed a drug test and has brought respect back to sprinters. He once told The Gleaner that he welcomed authorities to test him. “We work hard and we perform well and we know we’re clean.”
3.) Carl Lewis
One of the greatest track and field performers of all time, Lewis won 10 Olympic medals, 9 gold, in his career. At the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, he won four gold medals (100 m, long jump, 200 m, 4 x 100 m relay) equaling the feat of Jesse Owens in 1936. At the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, he lost in the 100 m final to Canadian Ben Johnson. Three days later, when Johnson tested positive for steroids, Lewis was awarded the Gold Medal for his time of 9.92 second (an American record). However, Lewis’ greatest accomplishment came at the 1991 World Outdoor Championships in Japan where he jumped an astounding 8.91 m (29 ft 23⁄4 in). It was considered a wind-aided jump, so it did not count as a world record. The battle between he and Mike Powell that day, eventually won by Powell, was one of the greatest battles ever in Track and Field history. Lewis was named the athlete of the 20th century by the International Olympic Committee and Olympian of the Century by Sports Illustrated.
2.) Jesse Owens
Owens’ feat during the 1936 Berlin Olympics was like none other. It came during a time of great unrest in the world. Adolph Hitler was determined that the Games show the world “Aryan” superiority, and was very critical of the USA’s including black athletes on its Olympic team. Owens won four gold medals (100 m, 200 m, 4 x 100 m relay, long jump) and was later snubbed by Hitler, though some reports deny that every happening. Owens said that Hitler refused to shake his hand. He later told “bio.” that the snub carried over into the United States. “When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus,” he said. “I had to go to the back door. I couldn’t live where I wanted. I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the president (FDR), either.”
1.) Michael Phelps
There has never been an athlete like Michael Phelps. The “most decorated” Olympic athlete of all time finished his career in Rio with five gold medals and one silver for a career total of 28 medals, 23 of them gold. He also had the luxury of competing in a time where television and the Internet followed his every move and gave him more exposure than any Olympian in the past. I sometimes wonder how the Jesse Owens story would have played out under the glare of the media in 2016. Regardless, Phelps first became a household name when he won eight gold medals in Beijing in 2008, breaking the seven gold medal mark set by Mark Spitz in 1972. He won another six medals in London in 2012. His personal problems of DUI charges and marijuana use put him in the media spotlight, which cost him an endorsement with Kellogg’s. After coming out of retirement in 2014, his last DUI, also in 2014, resulted in his being dropped from the team for the 2015 World Aquatics Championships. A year later, Phelps was on the Olympic medal stand again. And again. And again. No one may ever accomplish what he has, especially in light of all the personal problems he has battled through.