Every four years, track and field has its chance to shine on the ultimate stage in sports, the Olympic Games. With so many compelling athletes and narratives emerging every Olympiad, it is no wonder that lasting memories are made in every Games.
As fans would hope, some of the world’s best athletes have taken full advantage of the moment and produced some of the more iconic and stunning performances of all time.
Moreover, some of the great drama in sports history has taken center stage on the track in the form of redemption stories, epic rivalries and unforgettable controversies that resonate years later.
The grand arena and bigger-than-sport feel of the Olympics has also allowed athletes to take stands that transcend track and field and push worldwide issues to the consciousness of everyone watching.
With all those elements in mind, I present to you a list of the top 10 most memorable moments in Olympics track and field history.
A quick disclaimer on the list: The list will be skewed to recent events. I am a young guy, and most of what I can remember I saw or heard about from my parents or people of that generation. So, I apologize in advance to worthy greats of the Olympics like Jesse Owens, Wilma Rudolph, Emil Zatopek and Babe Didrikson.
The 1996 Olympics were the perfect stage for American sprinting superstar Michael Johnson.
They were set on US turf in Atlanta, and on arguably the fastest track ever built. Sensing the moment, Johnson sported gaudy gold spikes that became the envy of every aspiring speedster.
Given the opportunity of a lifetime to establish himself as one of the greatest of all time, Johnson bettered even what must have been his wildest dreams with a performance for the ages in 200-meter dash.
Johnson busted away from the field with a blistering first 100 of 10.12 seconds on the turn, and then only extended his lead in the home stretch with a mind-blowing 9.20 100-meter split.
His 200 clocking of 19.32 shattered his previous world record by over three-tenths of a second and left a strong group of competitors what felt like a football field behind.
The reactions of the fired-up announcers and the athlete himself resonated with the millions watching around the world.
Johnson’s 200 mark was so dominant that even as the 100-meter record fell steadily in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, no one ran within even three-tenths of a second of his record for almost 10 years.
While he has ceded his record to the incomparable Usain Bolt (I’ll get to him later), the lasting image of Johnson wearing his gold spikes and then yelling in joy after crossing the line is something that will never be forgotten in Olympics lore.
In the first women’s Olympic marathon, one woman put in an utterly dominant performance that was inspiring to millions.
Running against the great Norwegian world champion Grete Waitz, Joan Benoit Samuelson showed absolutely no fear with a bold front-running strategy.
It was but a mere 14 minutes into the race when she took over the lead in response to a dawdling pace.
Many thought she would be caught and was making a suicidal move, but Joanie, as she was known, was feeling great and the race felt "easy," as she would say later.
Running by one’s self, hunted for over two hours, is a herculean task, but on that day she was perfectly up to it. Over the next 23 miles, Benoit barely gave back anything and ran completely unchallenged to Olympic gold.
The context of the achievement made the moment even more special. The race took place in Los Angeles, and as an American, Benoit was obviously a crowd favorite. In addition, it was the inaugural women’s marathon, which gave her the distinctive honor of being the first champion of the event.
The battle to get the women’s marathon had been a bitterly fought one, due to some of the sexist attitudes that abounded even into the 1980s.
In past non-Olympic marathons, women were forbidden from competing and were forced to bandit the races or disguise themselves to elude race officials. The event was only added to the docket after much lobbying and a dogged effort to make sure the IOC saw the light.
For all of those reasons, when Benoit entered the LA Coliseum, the applause was deafening.
As she ran what amounted to a victory lap, her brave effort and the triumph of all the women who fought to have the marathon included came into focus and provided fans with a remarkable moment.
Going into the Moscow Olympics in 1980, the track and field-mad British press and public were at the peak of their madness over their two middle-distance prodigies.
Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett were two wonderfully talented British athletes who seemed primed to own their respective primary events (Coe in the 800-meter run, Ovett in the 1,500-meter run) for the next decade.
Moreover, they provided a wonderful contrast to each other that led to a predictable picking of favorites. Coe was from a privileged background and was coached by his meticulous and scientific father. Ovett hailed from a grittier background and took on a more blue-collar image with some rugged individualism.
In Moscow, Coe was expected to win their first matchup of the Games in the 800. Before the race, it was evident to onlookers and his peers that Coe was not at ease. According to The Guardian, he slept badly the night before the final and clumsily dropped a jug of milk at breakfast. Ovett, meanwhile, was reportedly loose and ready to go.
In the 800 final, there was a shock as Ovett pulled an upset that Coe could only describe in expletives. His tactics had been all wrong, as he ran far too passively and wide to contend in a physical, topsy-turvy contest.
His unsparing father was no kinder to him, declaring that Seb "ran like an absolute idiot."
The harsh self-criticism and scathing words from his father could only be outdone by a pouncing British press, which piled on and started to write off his chances in the 1500, Ovett’s stronger event.
In this toxic environment, Coe summoned unforgettable resolve and achieved redemption. His stunning kick from 150 meters out to take down the as-yet-undefeated Ovett stands as one of the great moments in Olympics history.
Coe was overcome with emotion after the race. He kissed the track, yelled defiantly at the heavens and gave Steve Ovett a Jim Harbaughian handshake.
He had gone from rock-bottom to the pinnacle of achievement in but a few trying days.
One of the most memorable moments in Olympics track and field history didn’t even take place in the stadium or in the infield.
Rather, it played out on television. Depending on the coverage you were watching, it came from the set of a newscast or the live feed of the press conference where the stunning news of Ben Johnson’s positive test was revealed.
The race itself that was tarnished by the bombshell was memorable in its own right.
In a ballyhooed matchup with the well-liked, multiple-gold-medalist Carl Lewis, Johnson shot up right out of the blocks with a remarkable start.
His explosion to an upright position seemed unreal, and maybe that was the point. After his brilliant start, he was far from done, as he crushed Lewis and set a decisive world record with a 100-meter dash clocking of 9.79 seconds.
Johnson’s dominance was clear as he gazed across while pointing his finger in triumph and seeing nothing but air where Lewis might have been. With that, the world record was chopped down four-hundredths of a second.
Johnson’s joy, however, would be short-lived, as his world came crashing down just hours later when the decision rolled in.
The stripping of the gold medal became another black mark for a sport that has been dogged by doping problems before and after.
Even though Johnson’s physical appearance and superhuman explosion had certainly caused people in the know to wonder, the fact that he actually was busted was a shock to many.
Certainly, there were plenty of notable performances in Seoul, but nothing stuck with the public more than the World’s Fastest Man getting unceremoniously stripped of his title just hours after his coronation.
Nothing beats a victory in front of the home nation.
With the extraordinary weight of both her country—Australia—and her people—the Aborigines—400-meter sprinter Cathy Freeman delivered.
Freeman faced staggering pressure, as she was given the task of lighting the Olympic flame to open the Games and was her home nation’s best hope. The expectations were heightened when Freeman's chief rival, Marie-José Pérec, fled the Games, citing the ruthless media and threats at her hotel.
The race was not a foregone conclusion by any means. After 200 and 300 meters, a cautious Freeman was in fair position, but certainly not a lock to take home the gold.
In her last 100, her class separated her from the field and she stopped the clock in a stellar 49.13-second clocking for the 400-meter run.
Following the race, her relief at winning was the first thing that shined through. Australia's hopes were riding on her, and anything less than gold would have been considered a disappointment.
As the crowd roared in approval, Freeman’s relief slowly turned to joy.
The raucous reception was a heartwarming moment of unity for the Aborigines and the Australians, as they embraced Freeman as their champion. The Games had almost not even come to Sydney, as some Australians protested given the lingering racism and mistreatment of the Aborigines.
The moment was made complete when Freeman was able to celebrate with both the Aboriginal flag and the Australian flag.
Freeman’s gallant run in the face of extraordinary pressure was enough to make the showing one to remember. The run’s effect on the 112,000-plus in the stadium and the way it brought two groups of people closer together made it a triumph that transcended sports.
Usain Bolt burst onto the scene with a spectacularly timed and placed showcase just outside the Big Apple. His 9.72 second 100-meter dash world record set alarm bells off throughout the track world at the perfect time, the beginnings of the stretch run to the 2008 Beijing Games.
Following the sensational run, the hype for his Olympics performance reached levels that hadn’t been seen in track probably since Michael Johnson’s aforementioned performance.
Bolt was the perfect worldwide star. He was a playful showman with personality. He also was a physical freak of nature with turnover that had never been seen out of a man so tall.
Coming into the Olympics, the question on everyone’s mind was: Could the scintillating Jamaican possibly put together an Olympics to match the sky-high expectations?
Boy, did he ever.
Bolt’s 100-meter triumph in Beijing captured the world’s imagination and vaulted the Jamaican to his current perch as arguably the world’s biggest sports star.
After a solid start, Bolt blasted away and made a mockery of the whole field with an incredible final 60 meters.
His final margin was astounding, and perhaps what made the moment truly unforgettable was his mid-race antics.
In the midst of his astonishing close, Bolt had the audacity to put his arms out in celebration. He completed the gesture by slapping his own chest as he crossed the line.
Best of all, he did all that and still set a world record. That led to even more buzz as wannabe scientists, and even real scientists, attempted to calculate just how fast he would have gone had he run through and held off his celebrations.
Bolt’s showmanship in the midst of a resounding, world-record-setting performance at the Olympics is unlikely to ever be replicated.
Though I hear there’s a certain someone who could have his chance to do so in a few weeks.
Two American sprinters produced one of the most iconic pictures not just in Olympics history, but in world history, with their bold display upon the medal stand in the 1968 Olympics.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos used the grand stage of the Olympic Games to protest human rights violations, and the plight of blacks in particular, with their famous "Black Power" pose.
Today, many look upon the image favorably as an instance when athletes took it upon themselves to express their social beliefs and address something bigger than sports.
In the 1968 climate, however, the track community and Olympics community were appalled by the gesture and took swift action against the pair.
The two were expelled from the Olympics after IOC President Avery Brundage threatened to kick out the entire US Olympics team. It is a testament to the sheer power of the pose that it caused such a rash reaction.
The press was no kinder, with young journalist Brent Musburger calling them "black-skinned storm troopers," a reprehensible comparison to the Nazis.
Following their return to the US, Carlos and Smith, along with the supportive Australian athlete David Norman, received death threats and were branded by the media as unpatriotic and far worse.
Over time, the two were welcomed back into the fold as attitudes evolved. There is no question that as apolitical as the Olympic bureaucracy might want the Games to be, that is just not a realistic goal.
Since the 1968 games, there have been many politically-charged boycotts and statements made by athletes.
None of them, however, can match the total clout of the moment when Carlos and Smith raised their fists in solidarity in front of millions.
At a track meet, there are lots of crowd noises you tend to hear. Thunderous slow-claps for the jumpers, grown men yelling "MOVE!" at sprinters, people yelling "Whooo" to indicate a runner making a sizable comeback.
Booing is just not one of those sounds.
But in the LA Coliseum in 1984, the partisan US crowd showered bare-footed teenager Zola Budd with boos after she inadvertently tripped local favorite Mary Decker, causing the American star to cry in agony on the infield of the track.
Decker was the reigning world champion and the "Golden Girl" of American distance running. Ironically, she was even Zola Budd’s hero.
As they ran together in the Olympic final, both of their inexperience at running in packs showed.
Budd cut in a little prematurely after swerving in on Decker and then compounded the mistake by keeping the pace steady. Decker surely ran too aggressively and up close to Budd, even after repeated contact with her.
The result was one of the most jarring moments in Olympic history, as Decker lay helplessly surrounded by medical personnel as Budd continued to circle around her while hearing it from some of the crowd.
The teenager Budd claimed to be so shaken by the boos that she purposely slowed down the last lap, so as not to face the hostile crowd on the medal stand.
The crowd and much of the American media quickly rushed to condemn Budd. Decker was no kinder, initially, scoffing at Budd's attempt to apologize with a "Don't bother" and then blaming her in the press.
Decker would later acknowledge her inexperience at running in packs contributed to the fall and that none of Budd’s actions were deliberate.
Track officials withdrew a hasty disqualification for Budd after reviewing the incident on film, and it seems for the most part Budd has been exonerated as the years have passed.
Still, the image of Decker yelling in pain by the track as Budd ran to a chorus of boos endures as one of the more controversial moments in Olympic history.
For the most iconic and memorable athletes in sports, we tend to refer to them on a one-name basis—think Magic, Babe, Wilt, Larry.
It’s a sign of respect for their accomplishments and just how significant and unique the athletes are. It is a rare thing.
Even rarer is for a performance to reach this sort of exalted one-name status.
Bob Beamon’s extraordinary long-jump in 1968 Olympic Games is one that has reached this level, with the label of "Beamonesque."
So, what is a Beamonesque performance?
How about one that is so shocking and so beyond what has ever been done before that it causes the athlete who accomplished it to encounter a catalectic seizure? How about one that takes an extra 15 minutes to evaluate because it was beyond the limits of the measuring equipment?
Both of those are true of Beamon’s remarkable 8.90 metres (29.2 feet) long jump that decimated the world record by a staggering 55 cm (21.65 inches) and stood for some 23 years.
Beamon soared beyond what were considered the confines of human beings. It was almost like seeing someone line up to do a free-throw dunk and then having him take off from the three-point line.
Beamon’s jump seemed impossible at the time, and that is why it utterly devastated his opposition. He won the long jump by almost two-and-a half feet and set the standard for an outrageous and unfathomable performance.
He is now afforded the greatest of compliments, as a spectacular performance inevitably invokes his name as a Beamonesque achievement.
Coming into the Barcelona games, British 400-meter sprinter Derek Redmond was in fine form and looking to add individual glory to a resumé that included gold on the 4x400 relays.
Redmond’s career had been marred by injuries, but there was hope that this Olympics would be his chance to shine.
While Redmond’s individual aspirations were again dashed by an unforgiving injury, a snapshot of the essence of the Olympic Games emerged from a heroic run in his semifinals.
Just 15 seconds into his 400m semifinal, Redmond’s hamstring gave out, and he admitted he felt as if he’d been shot.
While his medal hopes were gone, the man’s resolve and resiliency were not. Defiantly, he rose to his feet and began to hobble as fast as he could to complete what he had started.
He refused medical assistance and the attempts of officials to flag him and stop him from what seemed like a reckless act of determination.
Completing the powerful scent was his father’s similar instincts to aid his son and help him finish what they both had started years ago.
His father fought off security guards and joined his son, now sobbing uncontrollably, in one of the most simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting moments in Olympics history.
If Derek Redmond had given in after his injury or dodged it altogether, it is likely he would have been long forgotten as just another talented athlete.
Instead, his courageous desire to finish, coupled with his father’s own determination to join him, provided us with the enduring symbol of the Olympic spirit.