London 2012 Olympics: Athletes to Watch, and the Greatest Moments in Olympic History


1896 – Athens | 14 Nations – 241 Athletes – 43 Events 

Greek water-carrier Spyridon Louis won the first Olympic marathon in 2:58:50, making him a national hero. He was fueled along the way by wine, milk, and beer.

1900 – Paris | 24 Nations – 997 Athletes – 95 Events

Held as part of the 1900 World’s Fair, the Games of the II Olympiad included some unusual events such as automobile and motorcycle racing, ballooning, cricket, croquet, and Basque pelota. Swiss sailor Hélène de Pourtalès became the first female Olympic champion as a member of the Swiss boat Lerina in the first race of 2-3 ton class.

1904 – St. Louis (USA) | 12 Nations – 651 Athletes – 91 Events

The Games of the III Olympiad were the first at which gold, silver, and bronze medals were awarded for first, second, and third place. George Eyser, a German-born American gymnast became the only man to win a medal with an artificial leg (and still is). He went on to win six medals—three gold, two silver, and one bronze. Eyser lost his leg during his youth, but even with a wooden prosthesis, he managed to still win the parallel bars, long-horse vaults and rope climb.

1906 Intercalated Games – Athens | 20 Nations – 903 Athletes – 78 Events

Although not recognized by the International Olympic Committee, the Games in 1906 had many great moments. Peter O’Conner of Ireland was forced to wear a Great Britain jersey in the 1906 Games due to the absence of an Olympic Committee in Ireland. At the age of 34, O’Connor won the “hop, step and jump” (triple jump) and came in second in the long jump. During the flag-raising ceremony for his silver medal performance, O’Connor protested by scaling the flagpole in the middle of the field to wave the “Erin Go Bragh” flag while the pole was guarded by Irish and American athletes.

1908 – London | 22 Nations – 2,008 Athletes – 110 Events

Originally selected to be in Rome, the eruption of Mount Vesuvious on April 7, 1906 forced the OIC to quickly move the Games to London. It was also in the Games of the IV Olympiad that the exact distance of a marathon was established as 26 miles and 365 yards. The first to enter the stadium during the marathon was Dorando Pietri of Italy, who collapsed several times before the finish line. Officials aided Pietri in getting to the line, but as a consequence, runner-up Johnny Hayes of the Irish American Athletic Club (running for America) protested, leading to Pietri’s disqualification. The medal went to Hayes, but because he wasn’t responsible for his disqualification, Queen Alexandria awarded a gilded silver cup to Pietri the next day. 

1912 – Stockholm | 28 Nations – 2,406 Athletes – 102 Events

The Games of the V Olympiad were the first to use electric timing, the first to include participation from an Asian nation (Japan), and the last to issue solid gold medals. With the introduction of the decathlon and pentathlon, there’s no denying the most impressive performance was from the part-French, part-Irish, part Native American, Jim Thorpe, who won both. Thorpe was greeted in America with a ticker-tape parade down Broadway but his medals would be stripped a year later when he was declared professional after receiving money to play minor league baseball years earlier. A posthumous campaign successful forced the IOC to re-award his two gold medals to his family in 1983.

1916 – Berlin | Cancelled 

The Games of the VI Olympiad were scheduled to be held in Berlin, but were eventually cancelled due to the outbreak of World War I—the first of three Summer Olympics abandoned at the hands of war. Berlin would eventually host the Summer Olympics in 1936.

1920 – Antwerp | 29 Nations – 2,626 Athletes – 154 Events

The initial choice for the site of the Games of the VII Olympiad had been Budapest, Hungary, but to honor the people of Antwerp, Belgium, for the suffering they had endured during the World War I, the Games were hosted there instead. Hungary was banned from competing in the Games for their association with the Germans, along with Germany itself, Austria, Bulgaria, and Turkey.

The 1920 Games were the first in which the Olympic Oath was voiced, the first to release doves to symbolize peace, and the first in which the Olympic Flag was flown. Oscar Swahn of Sweden became the oldest athlete ever to compete in the Olympics and the oldest medalist after winning silver in the “100m running deer (double shots) contest”.

1924 – Paris | 44 Nations – 3,089 Athletes – 126 Events

The Games of the VIII Olympiad were the first to use the Olympic motto, Citius, Altius, Fortius (Faster, Higher, Stronger), the first to use the standard 50m pool with marked lanes, and the first Games to feature an “Olympic Village”.

British sprinters Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell won the 100m and 400m, respectively. Their road to Paris was depicted in the critically acclaimed Chariots of Fire, which won Best Picture at the 1981 Academy Awards.

1928 – Amsterdam | 46 Nations – 2,883 Athletes – 109 Events

The Games of the IX Olympiad were the first in which the Olympic Flame was lit at the Olympics. Also for the first time, the opening ceremonial parade started with Greece, the origin of the Olympics, and ended with the host country, a tradition that still continues today. In addition to this, track and field events were held on a 400m track, later becoming the international standard for athletic tracks.

In the single skulls quarterfinal race against Frenchman Victor Saurin, Australian sculler Bobby Pearce faced a peculiar obstacle. The gold medal favorite stopped for a family of ducks swimming slowly from shore to shore, only to catch up with Saurin later in the race and win by almost thirty seconds.

1932 – Los Angeles | 37 Nations – 1,332 Athletes – 116 Events

Held during the worldwide Great Depression, the Games of the X Olympiad were the first to use a victory podium. Sprinters Eddie Tolan and Ralph Metcalfe were the first African-American pairing to represent the U.S. in individual sprints. In arguably the greatest 100m race in Olympic History, Tolan beat Metcalfe to win the gold medal in spite of the fact timekeepers’ hand-held watches had recorded three times of 10.3 seconds for Metcalfe, and only two times of 10.3 for Tolan (the other time being 10.4).

1936 – Berlin | 49 Nations – 3,963 Athletes – 129 Events

To outdo the Games in L.A. in 1932, Nazi Germany built a new 100,00-seat track and field stadium, six gymnasiums, and installed a closed-circuit television system and radio network that reached forty-one countries. After Hitler was forced to retract his abolishment of Jews and Blacks from the games, American sprinter/jumper Jesse Owens joined seventeen other African-American teammates to dominate the games, winning four gold medals and transforming the sport of track and field forever.

1940 – Tokyo or Helsinki | Cancelled 

The Games of the XII Olympiad were initially scheduled to be held in Tokyo, Japan, then granted to Helsinki Finland instead, then were cancelled due to the outbreak of World War II.

1944 – London | Cancelled 

The Games of the XIII Olympiad were originally scheduled to be held in London, England, but were cancelled due to World War II. London would be awarded without election to host the Games in 1948.

1948 – London | 59 Nations – 4,104 Athletes – 136 Events

After a 12-year hiatus, World War II was over and thus came the Games of the XIV Olympiad. Nicknamed the “Austerity Games” for the post-war economic climate present, WWII aggressors Germany and Japan were not invited. 

Dutch track and field athlete Fanny Blankers-Koen is best known for winning four gold medals in the 100m, 200m, 80m hurdles, and the 4x100m relay at the 1948 London Games, accomplishing this at the age of thirty and as a mother of two. Blankers-Koen was the holder of six world records at the time, but was forced by the timetable to choose only four events to compete in.

1952 – Helsinksi (FIN) | 69 Nations – 4,955 Athletes – 149 Events

The Games of the XV Olympiad saw a number of world records broken. They were the first games to include a team from the USSR, Israel, and the Republic of China.

Czech distance runner Emil Zátopek, nicknamed “Czech Locomotive”, won gold in three events. After winning and setting Olympic Records in the 5,000m and 10,000m, Zátopek decided to attempt an unprecedented triple in the marathon, a distance he had never run before. Deciding to follow world record holder Jim Peters of Great Britain, he asked Peters during the race if the pace was too slow. After getting a negative response, he took off, winning by two-and-a-half minutes in an Olympic Record. Peters did not finish.

1956 Melbourne (AUS) | 72 Nations – 3,314 Athletes – 145 Events

The Games of the XVI Olympiad were the first to be staged in the Southern Hemisphere and involved lots of political awkwardness. Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon did not participate in response to the Suez Crisis in Egypt, while the Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland refused to participate because of the Soviet Union's participation.

Known as the infamous “Blood in the Water” men’s water polo match, Hungary and the USSR faced off in a semi-final match at the 1956 Games, against the background of the Hungarian Revolution. While the Soviets were suppressing Hungary back at home, the Hungarians came up on top, winning 4-0 in a vicious battle that saw Hungarian Ervin Zádor emerge during the last two minutes with blood pouring from under his eye. Hungary would go on to win gold after beating Yugoslavia 2-1 in the final.

1960 – Rome | 83 Nations – 5,338 Athletes – 150 Events

The Games of the XVII Olympiad were full of incredible performances in addition to being the first Summer Olympic Games to be telecast in North America, Canada, and Mexico. American swimmer Jeff Farrell won two gold medals after undergoing an emergency appendectomy six days before the Olympic Trials, while American sprinter Wilma Rudolph, a former polio patient, won three gold medals on the track. The most gutsy performance, however, were from African distance runner Abebe Bikila.

Bikila, a soldier in Ethipia’s Imperial Bodyguard, became the first Sub-Saharan African to win a medal, taking the gold in the marathon in the capitol of Ethiopia’s former military occupier, and winning in Olympic record time of 2:15:16.2…barefoot.

1964 – Tokyo | 93 Nations – 5,151 Athletes – 163 Events

The Games of the XVIII Olympiad were the first Game to be held in Asia, the first games to be telecast internationally, and the debut of the Paralympic Games.

Australian swimmer Dawn Fraser became the first Olympic swimmer to win the same event (100m freestyle) at three consecutive Games, setting 27 individual and 12 team world records during her career.

American distance runner and former United States Marine Billy Mills shocked the world after winning the 10,000m at the 1964 Games, becoming the only American ever to win the Olympic Gold in this event.

1968 – Mexico City | 112 Nations – 5,530 Athletes – 172 Events

The Games of the XIX Olympiad were the first to be staged in a developing country, the first to be held in Latin America, and the first only held at high elevation (2,240m above sea level). American high jumper Dick Fosbury won the gold medal using his unconventional “Fosbury flop” technique, changing the event forever, while John Stephen Akhwari of Tanzania became internationally famous for finishing the marathon in last place, despite a dislocated knee.

In the medal ceremony for the men’s 200m race, African-American sprinters Tommie Smith (gold) and John Carlos (bronze) raised black-gloved fists wearing black socks in lieu of their shoes in order to bring attention to the ongoing Civil Rights Movement. Australian Peter Norman (silver) joined in on the “Black Power” salute by wearing an American civil rights badge. Both Smith and Carlos were banned from the Games for life while Norman was left off Australia’s Olympic team in 1972.

1972 – Munich | 121 Nations – 7,170 Athletes – 195 Events

The motto of the Games of the XX Olympiad was “Happy Games” in retrospect to the 1936 Games in Berlin which were held under the Nazi regime, but this would largely be overshadowed by the “Munich massacre” on the night of September 5, when eleven Israeli athletes and coaches, a West German police officer, and five terrorists were killed.

American swimmer Mark Spitz became a legend with his iconic mustache, setting world records and winning gold medals in seven events. Spitz’s record of 7 medals would stand until 2008.

1976 – Montreal | 92 Nations – 6,028 Athletes – 198 Events

The Games of the XXI Olympiad were the first to be held in Canada. The 1976 games were marred by boycotts, drug allegations, and a financial disaster for Montreal. Twenty-six African countries boycotted the Games because New Zealand was allowed to participate after its rugby team planned against the banned South Africans preceding the Games.

Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci, at the age of 14, single handedly broke the Soviet Union’s stranglehold on gymnastics when she won the women’s all-around title. Remembered most for receiving a perfect score of 10 for her performances on the uneven bars and the beam in the team competition, Comaneci scored five more 10s during the Games, winning three gold medals and one bronze. 

1980 – Moscow | 80 Nations – 5,179 Athletes – 203 Events

The Games of the XXII Olympiad were the first to be staged in Eastern Europe. The U.S. and several other countries boycotted the Games due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (although some athletes from boycotting countries participated individually under the Olympic Flag). Even with the smallest number of competing countries since 1956, 36 World records, 39 European records, and 74 Olympic records were set in Moscow.

The ultimate rivalry between two British athletes, Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett, reached a summit at the 1980 Games. Sebastian Coe was expected to win the 800m as the world record holder, but Steve Ovett beat him out.

After the race, Ovett said he would beat Coe in the 1,500m and set a new world record in the event. Coe would end up holding Ovett off in the final lap.

1984 – Los Angeles | 140 Nations – 6,829 Athletes – 221 Events

The Games of the XXIII Olympiad were boycotted by 14 Eastern Bloc countries including the USSR, Cuba, and East Germany, in response to the American-led boycott in 1980. The Games are considered to be the most financially successful modern Olympic Games. 

American women headlined the 1984 Games with gymnast Mary Lou Retton becoming the first non-Eastern European to win the all-around competition and marathoner Joan Benoit-Samuelson taking the gold in the Olympics’ first women’s marathon. American Carl Lewis equaled Jesse Owens’ four gold medals in the 100m, 200m, 4x100m, and long jump, surpassing him in terms of performance.

1988 – Seuol | 160 Nations – 8,391 Athletes – 263 Events

The Games of the XXIV Olympiad were the last for the world’s dominating sport powers: the Soviet Union and East Germany, as both would be nonexistent by 1992. The 1988 Games saw the largest ever number of participating nations to date, but the games were overshadowed by doping issues and a few controversial judgments made by officials.

The defeat of American boxer Roy Jones by South Korea’s Park Si-hun was full of controversy, and world records by both American sprinter Florence Griffith-Joyner and Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson had speculations of doping. Johnson would later be disqualified after testing positive for stanozolol.

Probably the most notable moment of the 1988 Games was American diver Greg Louganis’ impressive back-to-back gold medals after hitting his head on the springboard attempting a reverse two-and-a-half spike. Considered by many as the greatest diver of all time, his book “Breaking the Surface” spent five weeks on the top of the New York Times bestseller list.

1992 – Barcelona | 170 Nations – 9,356 Athletes – 286 Events

Due to the end of the Cold War, the Games of the XXV Olympiad were the first without boycotts since 1972 and the first to light the Olympic Torch via bow and arrow.

The admittance of professional players gave way to a future of absolute dominance for U.S. basketball. The formation of the “Dream Team” led to a pathetically easy gold medal for the U.S.

Easily the most poignant moment in Olympic history and my personal favorite, Derek Redmond of Great Britain tore a hamstring during a 400m semi-final heat. His father Jim entered the track without credentials to aide his struggling son across the finish line.

1996 – Atlanta | 197 Nations – 10,320 Athletes – 271 Events

The Games of the XXVI Olympiad, also unofficially known as the “Centennial Olympics,” were ridiculed for being overly commercialized and marred by the Centennial Olympic Park bombing on July 27 that killed a spectator and wounded 111 others.

Kerri Strug vaulted with an injured ankle, miraculously landing on one foot and securing the United States’ first women’s gymnastics team gold. Mia Hamm also led the U.S. women’s soccer team to a gold medal in the first ever women’s soccer final. Sprinter Michael Johnson became the first man to ever win gold in both the 200m and 400m , thus saving the Games from total failure and shattering the 200m record at the same time.

2000 – Sydney | 199 Nations – 10,651 Athletes – 300 Events

The Games of the XXVII Olympiad, also known as the “Games of the New Millennium”, included the Olympic debut of the Triathlon. Hometown hero Ian Thorpe was the most decorated athlete at the Games, winning three gold medals and two silver medals, while setting three new world records.

British rower Steve Redgrave made history by winning a fifth consecutive gold medal at the age of 38. This is after stating in 1996 that if anyone found him close to a rowing bot again they could shoot him.

Cathy Freeman won gold in the 400m as one of 11 Aboriginals on an Australian team of 628. She became a human symbol of a country’s hope towards creating new racial harmony, completing her victory lap carrying both the Aboriginal and Australian flags.

2004 – Athens | 201 Nations – 10,625 Athletes – 301 Events

The Games of the XXVIII Olympiad were the first time since 1896 that the Olympics were held in Greece (by IOC terms) and the first Games to be covered online over the Internet. Moroccan distance runner and mile world record holder Hicham El Guerrouj became the first person to win the 1500m and the 5000m since Paavo Nurmi did in 1924, and Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang won the 110m hurdles in Olympic record time—the first ever gold for China’s men’s track and field team.

The most notable event from Athens was the collapse of American marathoner and world record holder Paula Radcliffe who either gave up or couldn’t go on, four miles from the end of the race. 

2008 – Beijing | 204 Nations – 11,028 Athletes – 302 Events

The Games of the XXIX Olympiad had the largest television audience in Olympic history and although there were virtually no boycotts, China was condemned by many nations for it’s human rights record. The Beijing Olympics saw 43 new world records and 132 new Olympic records with an unprecedented number of 86 countries winning at least one medal during the games.

American swimmer Michael Phelps broke the record for most gold medals in one Olympics and for most career gold medals by winning eight swimming events in Bejing—all but one were world record performances. The 4x100m freestyle relay was probably the most exciting race of the Games.

Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt won both the 100m and 200m in World record fashion, becoming the first to do so simultaneously at the same Olympics. He would later run the third leg on the Jamaican 4x100m relay team—which also broke a world record.

2012 – London | 205 Nations – 10,500 Athletes – 302 Events 

The Games of the XXX Olympiad, which will be held from July 27 to August 12, makes London the first city to officially host the modern Olympic Games three times.

Athletes to Watch:

Ashton Eaton (USA) will be competing in the decathlon—already the world record holder—after breaking it at the Olympic Trials a few weeks ago.

Usain Bolt (JAM), challenged by newcomer Yohan Blake (JAM) in the Jamaican Trials, will ultimately destroy the field and shock the world once again in London.

American Swimmer Michael Phelps looks to maintain his dominance in swimming, but he’ll have to compete with fellow teammate Ryan Lochte to do so.

The matchup between Tom Daley (ENG) and Qiu Bo (CHN) in the 10m Platform will be the highlight of the Games. Daley was ranked number one in 2009 while Bo, nicknamed “Mr. Full Mark”, picked up 25 perfect 10s in the 2011 FINA Diving World Series in Beijing. 

The rivalry between Brazilian beach volleyball pairing Juliana Felisberta Silva and Larissaa Franca, and the U.S. duo of Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh, has been going on for seven years. As the U.S. goes for an unprecedented third consecutive gold, Brazil will do everything in their power to make sure this doesn’t happen.

While unlikely to finish in the top three, Sarah Attar (800m) and Wodjan Shahrkhani will be making history by becoming the first women from Saudi Arabia to take part in the Olympic Games.

2016 – Rio | 304 Events

The Games of the XXXI Olympiad will include golf for the first time since 1904.