These 17 Moments in Olympics History Define Unforgettable

From Jesse Owens in 1936 to Shaun White in 2018, the Olympics have set the stage for some seriously remarkable moments. Cry, be inspired and jog your memory with E!'s in-depth recap below.

By Samantha Schnurr Jul 22, 2021 7:00 PMTags
Watch: Summer Olympics: Top 7 Viral Moments From Past Games

It's never dull at the Olympics

After all, it's an event built on athleticism so great, it takes your breath away practically every time. Still, as evidenced by more than 100 years of modern Olympic history, there are moments that still manage to stand out from the rest—in more ways than one. Whether they set the bar higher than we even thought possible, make a statement louder than the sport itself, spark controversy or exemplify humanity in an unexpected way, the Olympic Games have been the stage for some truly remarkable events. 

Now, with the long-awaited 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo finally officially kicking off on Friday, July 23, it's only a matter of hours before more athletes get the chance to not only take home the gold, but perhaps leave their infinite mark on sports history. 

As we keep our eyes peeled, rest assured they'll be in incredible company. We've rounded up many of the moments in Olympics history that remain unforgettable to this day. Some will amaze you, shock you, might make you cry and, perhaps, push you to take that next step toward your own dreams. 

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Without further ado: 

Jesse Owens, 1936

One of the most legendary athletes of all time, Alabama native Jesse Owens' performance at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin won him four gold medals, broke world records  and simultaneously defied the racist Nazi agenda promoted by Adolf Hitler

Abebe Bikila, 1960

The next time you're not in the mood to exercise, think of Abebe Bikila. The Ethiopian marathon runner became the first Black African to win a gold medal when he won the men's marathon at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. We should mention he did it barefoot. Four years later, he competed and won again, marking the first time anyone had won the marathon twice. While he wore shoes the second time around, he also underwent an appendectomy just over a month before running the race...and still set a world record. 

Peggy Fleming, 1968

While she won the only gold medal for the United States at the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France, Peggy Fleming simultaneously skated into the hearts of Americans watching from home (for the first time live and in color, mind you) and has since been credited with changing figure skating. 

Tommie Smith & John Carlos, 1968

With their black-gloved fists in the air, only black socks on their feet and their heads bowed, African American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos—who won the gold and bronze medals respectively—left their mark on history as they used that now-iconic moment atop podiums to protest racism.

Nadia Comaneci, 1976

At just 14 years old, Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci did what had never been done before at the Olympics when she became the first gymnast to be awarded a perfect 10.  

The United States Hockey Team, 1980

Deemed the "Miracle on Ice," the United States men's hockey team stunned the world when they won against the favored Soviet Union team at the 1980 Winter Games, held in Lake Placid, New York amid the Cold War. 

Florence Griffith Joyner, 1988

Famously known as Flo-Jo, the late California native and three-time gold medalist remains the fastest woman of all time after setting the existing Olympic records for the 100 and 200 meter-dashes in 1988. More than three decades later, they still stand. 

Greg Louganis, 1988

Despite hitting his head on the diving board during the preliminary rounds, Greg Louganis went on to win two gold medals at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, bringing his career total to four. 

Derek Redmond, 1992

It was a striking moment between a father and son forever memorialized in Olympics history. British sprinter Derek Redmond unforgettably suffered a torn hamstring mid-race at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, but tearfully made it to the finish line—with an arm around his dad. 

The United States Basketball Team, 1992

The United States basketball team assembled for the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona was a lineup of some of the sport's greatest, including Michael Jordan, Scottie PippenMagic Johnson and Karl Malone. They won the gold and were later inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame. After all, they weren't nicknamed the "Dream Team" for nothing. 

Nancy Kerrigan, 1994

While American figure skater Nancy Kerrigan ended up bringing home the silver after competing at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, it was the attack she suffered after a practice a month earlier that will live forever in infamy. 

Kerri Strug, 1996

At the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, then-18-year-old gymnast Kerri Strug secured the gold for the women's team after landing her second vault with an injury. Strug was so hurt, she crawled away after landing and was eventually carried back in by coach Béla Károlyi to receive her medal. 

Eric Moussambani, 2000

At the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, Eric Moussambani, a then-22-year-old swimmer from Equatorial Guinea, competed in the first qualifying heat of the men's 100-meter freestyle. If you're wondering why this remains a significant moment in Olympics history, we should mention that he had never even seen a 50-meter pool before that day. There was also the fact that he did not know he would be competing in the 100 meter until arriving in Australia and had instead been mistakenly told he would be swimming half that. Still, despite not having a coach and having trained with limited access to a swimming pool, Moussambani's story took another turn when his fellow competitors were disqualified for making false starts. Alone, he ultimately completed the race. 

Birgit Fischer, 2004

German kayaker and eight-time Olympic gold medalist Birgit Fischer's story is a reminder that you really shouldn't put a time limit on winning a gold medal. After all, there's more than two decades between her first—which she won as the youngest in the field—and the one she most recently took home at the 2004 Summer Games in Athens—as the oldest competitor. She was 42 years old at the time. 

Michael Phelps, 2004

The most decorated Olympian of all time, swimmer Michael Phelps kicked off his winning spree at the 2004 Summer Games in Athens when he took home six gold medals and eight total. 

Usain Bolt, 2008

At his first Olympics in 2008 in Beijing, the Jamaican sprinter left his mark on the sport when he set world and Olympic records as he won the 100 and 200-meter dashes. Before retiring, Bolt won eight gold medals and continues to hold the Olympic records (he even set new ones in 2012) for the 100 meter, 200 meter and 4x100 meters relay. 

Shaun White, 2018

Of his three Olympic gold wins, it's possible his 2018 victory is the sweetest. After all, he nabbed the gold with the final run of the men's halfpipe competition at the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, a victorious comeback after placing fourth four years earlier in Sochi. In that moment, White made history as the first snowboarder ever to win three gold medals. 

Watch 2020 Tokyo Olympics coverage every day on NBC and Peacock.