In a week, my favorite sporting event will take center stage, as it does every four years. It is easy to be critical of the Olympics, and your criticisms are not remotely new, but I do like the idea of the world getting together once in a while to try and beat each other in games.
Essentially, it’s a way for us to express nationalism in a healthy way. We can root for our nation’s athletes, say that they represent our ideals, and then not kill each other over our differences. Sure, there’s too much commercialization, the IOC is run by greedy technocrats bent on taking as many bribes as possible, and athletes are taking fist-fulls of PED’s in order to stay ahead of the other guy.
But I don’t care. I love the pageantry. I love how every nation fanatically cares about something different. I love the competition. And I love falling in love with sports I only watch once every four years. Heck, I even love those maudlin athlete profiles the networks shove down our throats, to pretend every athlete is overcoming a personal tragedy.
So before I dust off the Olympic Poseur again for the fortnight, let’s look back at the five best and five worst Olympic games. Because we want to end on a high, let’s start with the worst.
5. Montreal 1976
A mystifying boycott by 20 African nations over the New Zealand rugby team visiting apartheid South Africa despite the fact rugby was not an Olympic sport and New Zealand was therefore not sending its rugby team. East Germany’s doping program reaches its zenith, as the women’s swim team wins 11 of 13 golds. The US won every men’s swim event but one, due to lack of competition. The Games plunged Montreal into debt, as Games cost over a billion dollars, not paid off until less than a decade ago. An Olympics so mismanaged that even the Olympic flame went out (re-lit by a cigarette lighter). Short on memorable moments, long on incompetence.
4. St Louis 1904
Racist as hell. Look, most of the pre-World War II Olympics were sort of a joke, and the Olympics probably would have died out had it not been for the sheer determination of the IOC. But St. Louis really upped its game for an incompetent, boring Games, even by those early standards. Only a dozen nations bothered to show up due to travel difficulties, and it still took over four months to complete. But that’s okay, because no one cared, as everyone went to the World’s Fair instead. A Games so mismanaged that the marathon winner hailed a cab. No one noticed.
3. Moscow 1980/LA 1984
The twin pair of boycotted Olympics, as half of Europe failed to show up to each, so the host nation padded its medal count to a ridiculous degree. Accusations of crooked officiating to help the host nations marred both Games, though the Moscow Games were slightly more notorious. Both host nations considered it a triumph, as they beat up on seriously weakened fields. LA became the model for the modern Games with its reliance on corporate funding and extreme commercialization. Great for defraying costs, but it would get out of control by Atlanta. So everything bad about the current Olympics starts in LA.
2. Seoul 1988
The crooked Games. Look, cheating is as old as sport, but this is when it all came to a head. Even worse, they squandered the last true Cold War Olympics and a largely non-boycotted field. Ben Johnson won the most crooked 100m in history. Roy Jones gets absolutely robbed, essentially killing Olympic boxing as a viable enterprise. Flo-Jo sets world records in sprinting that still stand, and whispers of steroid abuse dogged her for the rest of her life. US gym misses out on a medal because of a point deduction for someone standing in the wrong place (seriously). Greg Louganis hits his head on the diving board. Oh, and they burned the doves of peace alive when they lit the torch. Good job, everybody.
1. Munich 1972
It could only be this one, which is a bit of a shame. On the field, there was some excellent moments. Lasse Viren dominates long distance and secures his legend. Frank Shorter wins a US gold in marathon. Spitz sets the gold standard (and no, I didn’t intend that pun, but now I’m not deleting it). It had its share of sporting controversies like DeMont getting banned from swimming for using asthma medication. Renate Stecher sets off a half century a women’s East German steroid jokes by showing up and looking like she could play for the Chicago Bears. Then there is infamous US-Soviet hoops game, of course. And then the Palestinians took hostages. Tragic. Utterly tragic, and it marred the Olympics for years.
A palette cleanser, and then the top 5 best Olympics.
In many ways, the first modern Olympics. Berlin gave us the first torch relay, the first televised games, and first with an official film. Hitler used these Games as a propaganda piece to prop up his new Thousand Year Reich and his principles of Aryan superiority. Then Jesse Owens shoved their racist iconography in their faces. Boom. You can make a case it is both the best and the worst Olympics.
5. Helsinki 1952
The Olympics resume (not counting the Austerity Games in 1948) with a renewed sense of purpose and a truly international feel, not just Europe and North America. The Soviets participate for the first time, and kick some serious ass, notably beginning their gymnastic dynasty. Hungary finishes third in the medal count, which is just crazy. Emil Zapotek earns a crazy gold medal triple, including the marathon. Jamaica’s 4X400 team wins gold and carries Zapotek off on their shoulders, in a moment of sublime timing.
4. Sydney 2000
Cathy f’n Freeman. Beach volleyball takes the world by storm, thought it had been introduced the prior Olympiad. Sure, it’s a gimmick, but it’s fun. A party atmosphere restores faith in the Games after the disaster of Atlanta (which is unfair to Atlanta, as the actual competition in Atlanta was top notch). The US/Australia swim rivalry is in high gear, culminating in the 4x100 “smash them like guitars” race. Gardner upsets Karelin, in maybe the biggest sports upset in history. This became the gold standard for how to put on an Olympics, as it had no major controversies and nearly everyone had a good time. Lesson learned: everyone likes Australians. Except Gary Hall.
3. Barcelona 1992
The first non-Cold War Olympics came replete with no boycotts and a unified Germany. Vitaly Sherbo wins 4 golds in one day. Deratu Tulu becomes the first black African woman to medal, by beating a South African (Elana Meyer) for extra symbolism. The Dream Team rules the roost, and Derek Redmond tears his hamstring. His dad comes down to carry him to the finish. It was, in many ways, the perfect “small town” Olympics. Instead of feeling larger than life, it felt like a cool community.
2. London 2012
Yes, it’s early, but I’m calling it. Phelps and Bolt, both near the height of their powers, still gave us all a thrill and the requisite star power. OK, they were better in 2004, but we didn’t have that whole propping up an oppressive oligarchy thing. London had a fairly sustainable plan that didn’t bankrupt the city, and created housing and facilities people actually use. The host nation had its best Olympics ever, symbolized by three golds in an hour, capped off Mo Farah winning the mile. China and the US fought for medals in a proxy war, rarely in the same sports. Well-organized, great crowds, and a real surprise, apparently friendly locals.
1. Rome 1960
It’s still hard to top wrestling in the Basilica of Maxentius, gymnastics in the Baths of Caracalla and the marathon on the Appian Way. Wilma Rudolph overcomes polio. Rafer Johnson wins a brilliant duel for world’s greatest athlete. Cassius Clay announces his presence. Adebe Bikila wins the marathon on barefeet. This Olympics is still the stuff of legends. It is the dream we are still trying to recreate.