The Best Olympic Moments Since 2000

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistJuly 23, 2021

The Best Olympic Moments Since 2000

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    While every Summer and Winter Games is memorable for any number of reasons, only a truly special moment can become an unforgettable part of Olympic history.

    In the last two decades, the best stories have unsurprisingly followed the most successful athletes.

    United States swimmer Michael Phelps set a career medal record. Norwegian skier Marit Bjorgen won the most medals in Winter Olympics history. Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt and U.S. snowboarder Shaun White became household names.

    The list is subjective but includes several of the most iconic individual and team accomplishments at the Olympics since 2000.

Cathy Freeman's Victory Lap (2000)

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    THOMAS KIENZLE/Associated Press

    In the face of huge pressure, Australian sprinter Cathy Freeman blazed her way to gold in the 400-meter final.

    But as the Sydney crowd celebrated with her, the victory meant more than a medal.

    Following her triumph, Freeman also carried the Aboriginal flag on her victory lap despite the International Olympic Committee not permitting "unofficial" flags.

    "I was a kid who was quite embarrassed to be a Black kid, an Indigenous kid. I grew up with that self-image," she said in an ABC Australia documentary, per Rachel Thompson of NBC Sports. "I could never understand why, when I smiled at someone, they wouldn't smile back. ... It used to quietly really devastate me."

    On this night, though, Freeman wrapped herself in the flaga symbol of reconciliation for all Australians.

Usain Bolt Begins His Olympic Excellence (2008)

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    Thomas Kienzle/Associated Press

    Usain Bolt sprinted into the world's spotlight in 2008.

    While in Beijing, the Jamaican sprinter set world-record times in both of his individual competitions. Bolt blazed a 9.69-second 100-meter run and a 19.30-second time in the 200-meter run.

    Bolt added another gold in the 4x100 relay as the Jamaican team set a world record. Although the medal was later stripped because Nesta Carter was found guilty of a doping violation, this three-gold Olympics set the stage for a prolific career.

    During both the 2012 and 2016 Games, Bolt repeated his gold medals in the 100-meter, 200-meter and 4x100 relay.

Jason Lezak Saves Michael Phelps' Record Chase (2008)

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    Entering the 2008 Beijing Games, most attention focused on whether Michael Phelps could break Mark Spitz's 1972 record of seven gold medals at one Olympics.

    Phelps ultimately achieved that spectacular feat, but he wouldn't have done it without Jason Lezak.

    During the 4x100 freestyle relaythe second of Phelps' eight eventsLezak swam an all-time great anchor leg. He overcame a body-length deficit to stun France's Alain Bernard, giving the U.S. team an epic victory by eight-hundredths of a second.

    Phelps had a thrilling run to eight golds. Most memorably, he swam the final 100 meters of the 200-meter butterfly with water-filled goggles and edged Serbia's Milorad Cavic by one-hundredth of a second in the 100-meter butterfly.

    On only 12 occasions has an athlete won five golds in a single Olympics; Phelps did it three times.

Shaun White and the Tomahawk (2010)

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Shaun White had already locked up the gold medal before his final run at the 2010 Vancouver Games. While undeniably impressive, that's not necessarily an iconic moment.

    The enduring moment is the "Tomahawk."

    White gave that nickname to the Double McTwist 1260, which is an incredible mix of two flips and three-and-a-half twists. Never before had a snowboarder landed the trick in competition, let alone on the Olympic stage for a gold medal.

    "I wanted a victory lap that would be remembered," White said after his incredible run. "I achieved that."

Neymar's PK Gives Brazil Gold in Rio (2016)

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    Brazil entered the 2014 World Cup with dreams of a trophy on home soil. In the semifinals, however, Germany embarrassed the hosts with a 7-1 smackdown.

    Two years later, Brazil had its redemption.

    Neymar put the hosts in front during the first half, and Germany's Max Meyer equalized in the second half. Neither team scored in extra time, sending the gold-medal showdown to a shootout. And both countries buried their first four penalty kicks.

    In the fifth round, Brazilian goalkeeper Weverton turned aside Nils Petersen. The save allowed the host country's superstar a chance at Olympic glory, and he took it.

    Neymar slotted the shot into the upper-right corner, handing Brazil its first-ever soccer gold at the Olympics.

Michael Phelps' Final Medal Record (2016)

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    Phelps wrapped up a legendary swimming career at the 2016 Rio Games with a fitting accomplishment.

    By this time, he was already the most prolific Olympian in the modern era. Phelps had shattered the record for most gold medals ever, achieving that in 2008 when he topped the previous career mark of nine. His legacy was secure.

    Phelps, though, went deep into the archives in 2016 to became the most decorated athlete in Olympic history.

    And we mean ancient history.

    While totaling five gold medals and one silver, Phelps won his 13th individual gold. That broke a 2,168-year-old record owned by Leonidas of Rhodes, who reportedly won 12 titles. Phelps earned the record with his victory in the 200-meter individual medley.

Marit Bjorgen Caps Record-Breaking Career (2018)

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    Dmitri Lovetsky/Associated Press

    While the Summer Games are a reminder of Phelps' dominance, the Winter Games belong to Norway's Marit Bjorgen.

    The cross-country skier made her Olympic debut in 2002 and earned a silver medal as a member of the 4x5 km relay team. Four years later, Bjorgen added a silver in the 10-kilometer race.

    But she truly started to dominate the sport in the 2010 Vancouver Games, taking gold in three competitions with one silver and one bronze. At the 2014 Sochi Games, Bjorgen added three more golds. That lifted her career medal total to 10.

    And in 2018, Bjorgen secured the record.

    Thanks to two golds, a silver and two bronzes, she broke the Winter Olympics' record of 13 career medals. Bjorgen's 15th and final medal came in the 30-kilometer race. The triumph also pushed her into a tie with fellow Norwegians Ole Einar Bjorndalen and Bjorn Daehlie for most gold medals in Winter Olympics history.

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