The most incredible moments in Olympic history

David Goldblatt, author of the definitive sporting, social and political history of the modern Olympic Games, The Games shares what he believes to be the most significant moments from the greatest show on earth.

David Goldblatt, author of the definitive sporting, social and political history of the modern Olympic Games, The Games, shares what he believes to be the most significant moments from the greatest show on earth.

London 1908 - Dorando Pietri loses the Marathon but creates the first truly popular Olympic sporting spectacular  

Dorando Pietri Olympics 1908
Dorando Pietri at the 1908 London Olympics

The race was run from the royal castle at Windsor, with the railway station serving as the athletes’ dressing room. The course went through the Metroland of north-west London and the growing suburban villages of Uxbridge, Ickenham and Ruislip, before turning south through Harrow and Willesden.

By the twenty-mile mark, and despite the provision of hot and cold Oxo, rice pudding and raisins, eau de cologne, brandy and strychnine, fifty-five runners had been whittled down to just twenty-nine, with three out in front: the South African, Charles Heffron; the Italian, Dorando Pietri, a confectioner from Capri; and the Irish-American, Johnny Hayes.

With less than two miles to go, Heffron was in the lead and, when offered a glass of champagne by a roadside admirer, he downed it to loud cheers. Half a mile later, on Old Oak Lane, he disintegrated as alcohol-induced cramps set in; a glazed-eyed Pietri took the lead. The New York Evening Post described the scene at the stadium.

‘Outside the crowd were pressing around the gates, while the police pushed them back, shouting time and time again that there were no more tickets to be had.’ Arthur Conan Doyle was on the edge of his seat: ‘We are waiting, eighty thousand of us, for the man to appear, waiting anxiously, eagerly, with long, turbulent swayings and heavings, which mark the impatience of the multitude.’

When Pietri entered the stadium, the band started playing ‘See, the Conquering Hero Comes’, but this conquering hero, clearly utterly exhausted and disorientated, turned the wrong way and started to run away from the finishing line, until herded back in the right direction. ‘He staggered along the cinder path like a man in a dream, his gait being neither a walk nor a run, but simply a flounder, with arms shaking and legs tottering.'

A strange and unruly semi-circle of officials gathered around this Chaplinesque figure, with his odd gait, small moustache and tied handkerchief on his head, desperate to assist but attempting not to. The New York Evening Post had the crowd crying, ‘Let him alone! Don’t kill him! That’s not sport!’ He fell three times and was caught by helping hands; on the bend of the final straight, he was held up and massaged.

At this point, the American, Johnny Hayes, entered the stadium at a steady lope, with Pietri just yards from the line but on the floor. The Daily Mail reported, ‘Carried away by the excitement of the moment, two officials raised Dorando to his feet and supported him while he covered ten feeble yards.’ Some British officials wanted to deny this, but after incandescent protest from the Americans, the message from the Imperial Sports Club was that Pietri had been disqualified and Hayes made the winner.

In the following weeks, there would be offers of music hall stardom, public subscriptions and lavish gifts for the Italian. At the apex of its power, Britain would revel in glorious failure rather than measure itself by the simple steady American metrics of success.

Frankfurt 1925 - The Workers Sport Movement stages the first great Workers Olympiad - a serious political and popular challenge to the IOC

Always planned as an alternative to the IOC games, from which the Germans were still excluded, the SWSI held its first Workers’ Olympics in Frankfurt, in 1925. With financial backing from both the national government and Frankfurt’s liberal Jewish mayor, Ludwig Landmann, 75,000 Reichsmarks was spent putting on the show.

Schools, municipal buildings and the city’s athletic stadium were draped in bunting and flags; temporary tent cities were thrown up to accommodate the tens of thousands of visitors. The whole event was on a scale that far exceeded anything put on at the IOC’s games. One hundred and fifty thousand people watched the opening ceremony, during which a vast parade of 8,000 gymnasts marched into the stadium. The local socialist press eulogized:

‘Like a powerful battalion of the proletariat behind a sea of red flags, living lines and diagonals, well trained harmonic bodies, only dressed with short black trousers, stood stiff like stone pillars or waved in the cadence of the music. It was an unforgettable sight of health, life and strength and in sync united tanned bodies . . . the female gymnasts were another fabulous sight, the bodies of future mothers bending in the sunlight.’

A choir of 1,200 sang ‘The Internationale’ beneath the slogan ‘no more war’. It was noted how well the French, in particular, were received by their erstwhile foes. Alongside a huge programme of athletic events and mass gymnastic displays, there were musical marches, children’s parades and a performance by 60,000 people of the piece, ‘Workers’ Struggle for the Earth’, in which the Choir of the Powerful and the Choir of Diplomats served as chorus to the fight between finance capital and the youth of the world. The local liberal press concluded, ‘One might politically stand to these activities as one wishes but the first 1925 Workers’ Olympics has been such a generous event. Nobody should underestimate the strength of working class sports organisations’.

Berlin 1936 - The first protest from the podium

The Koreans, Sohn Kee-chung and Nam Sung-yong, gold and bronze medallists respectively in the marathon, bowed their heads in ‘silent shame and outrage’ as the Japanese flag was raised.

The two, both born under Japanese imperial rule on the Korean peninsula, had been forced to compete as Kitei Son and Shoryu Nan, romanized versions of the Japanese pronunciation of their Korean names. At home, some newspapers published their pictures with the Japanese flag erased, and saw their editors imprisoned.

Melbourne 1956 - The Olympics finally finds a ritual that breaks with the rigid nationalism of the games. Athletes break ranks and mingle in the closing ceremony

Melbourne had been free of the nationalist spite and pomp, but no one was calling it the friendly games. Then, with just a week to go, a Chinese-Australian teenager, John Ian Wing, wrote anonymously to Kent Hughes, the chair of the organising committee, with an idea to improve the closing ceremony, to make it a little less formal. Given the martial and absurdly anglocentric demeanour that characterised much of the opening ceremony, one wouldn’t have given Wing’s appeal much chance of success. He wrote,

The march I have in mind is different than the one during the Opening Ceremony and will make these games even greater, during the march there will only be 1 NATION. War, politics and nationality will be all forgotten, what more could anyone want, if the whole world could be made as one nation. Well, you can do it in a small way . . . no team is to keep together and there should be no more than 2 team mates together, they must be spread out evenly, THEY MUST NOT MARCH but walk freely and wave to the public . . . It will show the whole world how friendly Australia is. 

To Kent Hughes’ eternal credit, he took the idea on and persuaded the dry, curmudgeonly Brundage and sceptics on his own committee that it would work. The official report of the games was simply ecstatic: ‘A prophetic image of a new future for mankind – the athletes of the world not now sharply divided but . . . marching as one in a hotchpotch of sheer humanity, a fiesta of friendship.’ 

It wasn’t quite like that, and it wasn’t quite as Wing had imagined it. The athletes were all mixed up, and they did their best not to march, but, still arranged five abreast and unable to break ranks, you can see that many found it hard to saunter or to find any gear outside of the parade ground. As to ‘a hotchpotch of sheer humanity’, the Chinese were absent, and the peoples of Africa, if no one else, would have demurred. Their representation was reduced to an all-white South African team, the American returnees of Liberia, the colonial subjects of Nigeria and Kenya, and just independent Ethiopia. Fiesta is perhaps stretching the point, too. The modernists’ wider cultural and political ambitions would take another twenty or thirty years to develop and finally vanquish the straight-laced imperial Victoriana of the city. As Sir Harold Luxton said of the failure to liberalize the city’s drinking laws for the games, ‘I love Melbourne. I’ve lived here all my life, but it is still deadly dull.’15 More to the point, outside of the stadium and the people crowded around Australia’s paltry 5,000 television sets, no one could see them. At the games to come, television would make the world one, and the Olympics would try to tell it that war, politics and nationality could be forgotten. The parades would be more carefree, a more diverse humanity would be present, but the message would prove even harder to sustain.

Rome 1960 - The Empire Strikes Back - Ethiopian Abebe Bikela wins the Marathon beneath the Arch of Constantine 

Bikila served as a member of the Ethiopian Imperial Guard to Emperor Haile Selassie, a man driven into exile by the Italians when they invaded Ethiopia in 1936. He arrived in Rome an unknown, and despite having recorded quite exceptional marathon times he was disregarded by the press.

For the maximum of theatrical impact, the marathon was staged at night and lit by thousands of hand-held torches. Key monuments on the route, like the Coliseum and the Circus Maximus, were illuminated by floodlights.

Unwittingly, Bikila added his own touch to the set. He had trained in new shoes but found that they blistered his feet and decided to run the race barefoot. When the race leaders entered Rome for the final time at Porto San Sebastiano, Bikila kicked and pulled away, passing the Alum Obelix, a fourth-century Ethiopian royal burial marker that had been looted from the country by Mussolini’s army in 1937. When he crossed the line, alone, beneath the Arch of Constantine, he became the first black African Olympic champion.


Mexico 1968 - Bob Beamon, the American long jumper, leaps off the statistical scale

On his very first attempt, Beamon leapt 8.9 metres, shattering the previous world record by an unprecedented 55 centimetres.

It took nearly half an hour for the distance to be verified, for it was beyond the range of the newly installed mechanical measuring equipment and required the use of an old-fashioned tape measure.

He had destroyed the field, ended the competition and set a record that would last for forty-four years with a performance at the very outer statistical limits of his or any athlete’s range. When Beamon was finally told the official result, he collapsed on the track in what the doctors called a ‘cataplectic seizure’. At the medal ceremony he wore sweats hitched up to reveal his black socks and shoeless feet.

Moscow 1980 ‘Kozakiewicz’s gesture’ - Pole Vault champion strikes a blow for the polish opposition

The men’s pole vault pitched the Soviet favourite, Konstantin Volkov, against the Pole, Władysław Kozakiewicz.

When Kozakiewicz secured his gold medal, clearing 5.2 metres, there were loud jeers, and when, a few minutes later, he went on to smash the world record, the Soviet crowd booed him viciously. Turning to the crowd, he bent his arm at the elbow, in what is now known in Polish as ‘Kozakiewicz’s gesture’, and else-where as ‘Fuck you!’

The Soviet ambassador to Warsaw called for him to be stripped of his medal, but, in the context, that autumn, of the formation of the free trade union Solidarity, and its profound challenge to local communist rule, the Polish government insisted that the gesture was the result of an involuntary muscle spasm, and the Polish public voted him sportsman of the year.

Los Angeles 1984 - Pop culture comes to the Olympics as Lionel Richie stars in the closing ceremony

Economics aside, the most discernible impact of the LA games was its reshaping of the closing ceremony, now incomplete without an array of the host’s leading pop celebrities and musicians, but graced for the first time, in 1984, by a real star.  

Michael Jackson was the obvious choice, but his relationship to Pepsi made him a non-starter at an Olympic Games that Coke had invested in so heavily. Fortunately, there was another and a better alternative: the undisputed star of smooth and smooch, Mr Lionel Richie.

Unlike later singers, Richie performed live, oozing class in his blue-sequinned jacket and tight white slacks. A stadium-sized neon-lit dance floor pulsated around him as he thanked the crowd and sang an Olympic-length version of ‘All Night Long’. He then ascended on a shimmering gold Olympic podium, while more than 400 break-dancers took to the floor.

A calypso peon to non-stop de-caffeinated hedonism, Richie’s performance of the song reads not like the end of the party, but the invitation to the next few decades of America’s debt-fuelled consumption binge. Lionel’s main refrain was ‘Party, karamu, fiesta, forever’, but it is worth hearing the hint of an imperative and an injunction in his sign off, ‘Feel good! Feel good!’

Seoul 1988 - Ben Johnson 100m champion is stripped of his medal for doping but the games find the last Olympic hero

Lawrence Lemieux, a Canadian sailor, was running second in his Finn-class race on an open-sea course shared with the finals of the 470 two-person boats. Sailing in remarkably strong winds and high waves, he had lost the lead, unable to see an eight-foot-high buoy obscured by the swell.

Still poised to make a challenge for the gold, he saw that a Singaporean 470 had capsized, leaving one crew-member grasping the hull but bleeding profusely, and the other dangerously adrift. Lemieux sailed towards them, flipped one into his boat and, against the wind, held it steady against the upturned 470. Relieved by the South Korean navy, he returned to the race, and still finished twenty-first of thirty-two.

Barcelona 1992 -  Pathos in defeat

In the 400-metre semi-final, Derek Redmond pulled up short as he tore through a hamstring.

His father leapt from the stands and onto the track, then helped his son over the line; the crowd gave them a standing ovation.

 Vancouver 2010 - The Anti-Olympics. The games acquire their first protest village

More than a year before Occupy Wall Street would claim Zucotti Park, the Olympic tent village the protesters established would be the symbol and practical centre of resistance to the games.

Native elders tended sacred fires; music, protest and political workshops were held; Christian justice groups, peaceniks and the local Power of Women residents’ group fed and organised a considerable crowd, swollen by an influx of university students, thoughtfully given the games off class by their schools.

In conscious emulation of the tactics and language of the 2001 anti-G7, anti-globalization protest in Seattle, just across the border, the small Heart Attack March – ‘clogging the arteries of capitalism’ – made its way to the business district.

A lot of corporate plate glass got smashed, the police were hot to try out some of their new toys, but a more vital oppositional energy could be found in the VIVO Media Arts Centre, where demonstrators, bloggers, filmmakers and artists gathered for daily screening of protest actions and live performances. The Vancouver movement, uniquely, could claim its own short-lived pirate radio, staffed by poet-activists. 

The Games

by David Goldblatt

Book cover for The Games

The Olympic Games have become the single greatest festival of a universal and cosmopolitan humanity. Seventeen days of sporting competition watched and followed on every continent and in every country on the planet. Simply, the greatest show on earth. Yet when the modern games were inaugurated in Athens in 1896, the founders thought them a "display of manly virtue", an athletic celebration of the kind of amateur gentleman that would rule the world. How was such a ritual invented? Why did it prosper and how has it been so utterly transformed?

In The Games, David Goldblatt - winner of the 2015 William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award - takes on a breathtakingly ambitious search for the answers and brilliantly unravels the complex strands of this history. Beginning with the Olympics as a sporting side show at the great Worlds Fairs of the Belle Epoque and its transformation into a global media spectacular, care of Hollywood and the Nazi party, The Games shows how sport and the Olympics had been a battlefield during the Cold War, a defining moment for social and economic change in host cities and countries, and a theatre of resistance for women and athletes of colour once excluded from the show.