My Top 10 Moments in Summer Olympics History (if history began in 1992)
On the eve of the Rio Games, here are my Top 10 most favorite Summer Olympics moments, with the following disclaimers:
- I only include events I actually remember, and that continued to resonate with me years later. I know amazing things occurred in the 1980s games, but I don’t include anything that didn’t capture my imagination at the time, or from when I was 2 and living in Korea without TV.
- Selections are based on sports that I personally find interesting to watch, meaning that gymnastics and basketball dominate this list. That’s what I like. Popular stuff. I am not terribly original.
- I’m Korean-American, so I root primarily for Team USA, followed by South Korea. The Summer Games is not really South Korea’s strong suit — we’re more of a speed skating, figure skating, doing stuff in the freezing cold type of people — so almost all of my picks revolve around Team USA achieving glory in some way.
10. Shawn Johnson wins the gold in balance beam (Beijing 2008)
I had to include Shawn Johnson in here somewhere. She is an inspiration to me. She delivered during the team event. And she rocked this beam routine.
Yes, she placed second to teammate Nastia Liukin in the All-Around, but Shawn Johnson has some things that Nastia doesn’t. She has a Chinese-American coach. A Midwestern sensibility. Freckles. But, most of all, she has a butter sculpture. And that’s something that Nastia will never have. Primarily because the butter sculpture lady died in 2011.
Nastia is what commentators refer to as a “classical gymnast” of the “international style,” which is usually code for lithe, elegant and balletic. Nastia is Ginger to Shawn’s Maryann, the blonde beauty who wins modeling contracts and dates other attractive celebrity athletes; whereas Shawn is efficient, compact, cheerful and steady — the kind of gymnast who lands paper towel commercials and gets a butter sculpture at the Iowa State Fair. Shawn Johnson is my kind of gymnast.
This is the only non-Team USA moment to make the cut. Derek Redmond collapses due to injury, tries to hop to the finish line, crying in pain, about to break, when his dad, Jim, comes to give him some help.
My favorite part is when Jim Redmond shoos away the sweaty official, basically telling him, “Get the hell away from us, we are finishing this race.” And they did. They (obviously) finished dead last in the heat, but most everyone in that stadium was moved to tears by that point anyway.
My other favorite part is Jim Redmond’s incredible “Have you hugged your foot today?” T-shirt. (Hey Nike, where can I get one of those in my size?)
8. The U.S. men’s gymnastics team surprises everyone and takes home the bronze (Beijing 2008).
Normally, I wouldn’t make a fuss over the bronze. Because, let’s be honest, it’s kind of a loser’s medal. It’s like the penny of medals — it’s worth something, sure, but if you’re running to catch your train and it falls out of your pocket, you’re probably not going to stop to pick it up.
But, in this case, I will make an exception.
In this case, the 2008 men’s gymnastics team had lost its leaders, the fearsome Hamm twins just weeks before, and were considered lucky to even qualify, let alone medal. But then, this team of six young men went out and had the meet of their life, giving China a run for their money. The clutch performance came at the end from Sasha Artemev, an immigrant from the former USSR, who killed the pommel horse and clinched the bronze for the team.
I love how diverse this team is. In addition to Sasha, there’s an Indian-American, Chinese-American, Ginger-American — all these kids calling each other brothers in interviews. I don’t think any other country’s team had a dynamic quite like ours.
7. Michael Johnson breaks the world record and wins the 200M (Atlanta 1996)
Michael Johnson was the fastest man in the world for over a decade, before Usain Bolt came to town. He smoked the 200M (and did the same in the 400M), but what I remember most vividly is the shoes. At the time, it felt like such a statement.
6. The Redeem Team brings the gold back home (Beijing 2008)
If you have 4–6 hours to spare, I recommend you watch Nike’s 5-episode Road to Redemption series. This will give you an idea of where Team USA men’s basketball was in 2004, and all the work they did to redeem America’s gold medal status after a disappointing bronze in Athens.
If you don’t have that kind of time, I’ll give you a summary: First, they get a new coach, the legendary Mike Krzyzewski, aka Coach K. Yes, his name is impossible to spell, and no, the way it’s pronounced (She-SHEF-ski) doesn’t remotely sound like how it’s spelled, so even after you learn to spell it, his name goes, “What you learned means nothing.”
Anyway, Coach K institutes a program where players have to make a 3-year commitment to the team. Every summer from 2005–2008, these players participated in a month-long training camp, with a few FIBA competitions thrown in, and no pay. He brings in Magic Johnson to talk about the 1992 Dream Team and has them watch this 1983 clip of Marvin Gaye singing the National Anthem.
Coach K, Army veteran and genius emotional manipulator that he is, invites wounded Iraq War veterans to talk to the team about the meaning of selfless service. Oh, he went there. DWade is tearing up. CP3 is emoting. Grown men are weeping openly. It’s beautiful.
What you learn from all this is, the guys who stuck it out — led by 2004 alums Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade — really wanted to be picked for the U.S. Olympic team. By 2008, the team had become something special. And yeah, in the gold medal game vs. Spain, Kobe still hogs the ball and takes a lot of bad shots, but he makes them and they win, so it’s fine.
5. Gail Devers wins the 100M dash in a photo finish (Barcelona 1992)
There are so many Gail Devers moments to choose from, but I picked the 100M dash in 1992 (a title she would defend in 1996) because of its visual drama. There were 4 or 5 women an inch away from the gold, but Devers bestest them all with a will to win that seemed to possess her body and propel her forward by an extra inch.
Gail Devers may be known for her dazzling nail art, but her entire being is dazzling. This woman wears keyring-sized hoop earrings while racking up gold medals at the Olympic Games. She even makes the scrunchie work for her. There is literally nothing outside her power.
4. The Fierce Five bring home the Team gold (London 2012)
I was debating between this and Gabby Douglas winning the All-Around gold, and finally settled on the team gold because I found the group dynamic so compelling. I loved watching these five young women cheer each other on (the first time only five athletes were allowed to compete in the team event), and there were so many highlights.
Also, it was nice to see Jordyn Wieber (or as one BBC announcer called her during the trials, “Jordyn Bieber”), the reigning All-Around World Champion, share in the gold after she shockingly failed to make the cut for the Olympics All-Around event.
Not only was this day just incredibly rewarding as a Team USA gymnastics fan, it was also the precursor to Gabby Douglas becoming an international superstar, Aly Raisman a national treasure, and McKayla Moroney a global meme.
3. Jason Lezak and Team USA upset France in the 4x100M Freestyle Relay (Beijing 2008)
Easily the most memorable moment of a highly memorable Beijing Games, this race captures so many of my core values. Teamwork. Belief in the underdog. Never giving up. Beating long-haired, shit-talking French dudes.
This happened relatively early in the Games, and set the tone for the rest of Olympics. The announcers kept talking about how this relay victory kept Michael Phelps’ perfect 8 gold medal goal alive, but, really, it was about so much more than that. If you recall, things were pretty terrible for America in 2008. We were facing two increasingly deadly wars, and the front end of a global financial meltdown. The Olympics gave us something to be happy about during an otherwise bleak time. So thank you, Jason Lezak, and go, Team USA.
2. The Dream Team dominates the world, changes basketball forever (Barcelona 1992)
A lot has been said about the Dream Team lately, as their 20th anniversary has drummed up a fabulous NBATV documentary and book and retroactive rivalry with Kobe. In Barcelona, they were greeted by mobs of fans, as they went on to beat their rivals by an average of 43 points per game to bring the gold back home to America.
The crazy thing is, over 20 years later, the Dream Team still lives up to the hype. They’re like the Super Friends/Justice League of basketball. Eleven Hall of Famers on ONE team (and that guy from Duke). They inspired future NBA ballers overseas like Tony Parker, Hedo Turkoglu* and Dirk Nowitzki. And they changed the face of the NBA forever.
Also, if you remember, Barcelona marked the beginning of Magic’s return to basketball following his retirement from the NBA in 1991 due to HIV. Back then, it was a death sentence. Magic did so much to change that perception. In my view, he is the greatest all-around NBA player of all time.
*Do you like how I snuck Hedo in there? Go Kings!
1. Kerri Strug lands the vault for Team USA (Atlanta 1996)
What surprises me is how easy this decision was. Of course Kerri Strug landing her second vault on one leg is the top moment. Watch as she lands it clean, gives a brave smile for the judges, and then crawls off the stage (in the words of John Tesh, “Kerri Strug is hurt! She is hurt badly!”). I still get the chills. Not even John Tesh could ruin that moment with his stupid voice.
With that performance, Kerri Strug became my new hero, the ultimate example of toughness and grit. Don’t want to go to flute lessons? What would Kerri do? Kerri Strug would play that flute with a broken leg. Get in the car.
The Magnificent 7 also featured the first African American, Dominique Dawes, and the first Asian American, Amy Chow, to medal in an individual event. What a perfect team to win the gold for Team USA for the first time.
Note: This is an updated version of the list I first made in 2012.