Simone Biles

America's Biggest Olympic Milestones in Modern History

Simone Biles, Michael Phelps highlight America's biggest Olympic milestones

NBCUniversal Media, LLC

There is no other competition in sports like the Olympics. The athletes who perform at the highest level of their sports train for years to represent their country at destinations like Tokyo in 2021.

Over the last 125 years of Olympic competition, U.S. Olympians have given world-record-breaking performances that have stood the test of time. Here are some of the United States’ most memorable Olympic moments.

Jesse Owens wins gold at 1936 Berlin Games

Jesse Owens became the first American to win four gold medals in track and field in a single Olympics at the 1936 Berlin Games. Owens became the star of the 1936 Games, coasting to a gold medal in the 100m and besting German champion Luz Long in the long jump. He set an Olympic record in the 200m dash to secure his third medal and capped it all off with a record-shattering performance as part of the U.S. men’s 4x100m relay team.

While Owens’ accomplishments were “snubbed” by German chancellor Adolf Hilter, the sprinter left a global legacy. He showed that a Black man could thrive with the world watching and helped pave the way for future Black athletes like Jackie Robinson, pushing the door open for the civil rights movement.

Wilma Rudolph makes history at 1960 Rome Games

Wilma Rudolph’s story of perseverance and triumph inspired millions at the 1960 Rome Olympics.  

Rudolph, who suffered from pneumonia, scarlet fever and polio, was paralyzed in her left leg as a child and wasn’t able to run until age 11.

She refused to give up on her Olympic dreams, developing into a star athlete in high school and going on to win the 100m and 200m dashes as well as the 4x100m relay in Rome. She became the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympics. 

The Olympic flame travels far between every Olympic Games, but the biggest moment comes during the Opening Ceremony when the Olympic cauldron is lit. These are some of the most memorable moments in history of the Olympic cauldron’s lighting.

Bob Beamon shatters long jump record at 1968 Mexico City Games

Bob Beamon entered the 1968 Mexico City Games as one of the favorites to win the long jump after dominating competitions in the years prior. But no one predicted the then-22-year-old Beamon would break the long jump world record by almost two feet. He jumped 29 feet and 2 ½ inches to earn the gold medal for the U.S. Olympic team. His record would stand for over two decades until Mike Powell broke it in 1991.

Florence Griffith-Joyner breaks records at 1988 Seoul Games

Florence Griffith-Joyner, popularly known as FloJo, earned the title of “fastest woman in the world” by blowing away the competition at the 1988 Seoul Games. 

FloJo set world records in the 100m (10.62 seconds) and 200m (23.34) and helped lead the U.S. women’s 4x100m relay team to gold alongside Evelyn Ashford, Alice Brown and Sheila Echols. Griffith-Joyner won her fourth medal of the 1988 Games when the U.S. women’s 4x400m relay team took home silver.

FloJo captured the admiration of America in 1988 and retired from competitive running shortly after in 1989. She died on Sept. 21, 1998, at 38 years old.

You may notice that every year during the Olympic Opening Ceremony the marching order of the parade of nations is slightly different. This is why…

Greg Louganis sweeps diving events for second time at 1988 Seoul Games

At the 1988 Seoul Games, Greg Louganis became the first male diver to win both the 3m springboard and 10m platform in consecutive Olympic Games. Louganis' feat did not come without adversity as he hit his head on the diving board while performing the “Dive of Death” and suffered a concussion. However, in the platform finals, Louganis refused to be deterred, attempting the 3 1/2 reverse somersault in a tuck position that killed Russian diver Sergei Chalibashvili just five years prior. Louganis nailed the dive to earn his fourth career gold medal and left his mark in diving history in the process.

1992 Dream Team dominates the competition in Barcelona

Led by three of the NBA’s all-time greats -- Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird -- the United States men's Olympic basketball team defeated every opponent it faced by an average of 44 points at the 1992 Barcelona Games and cemented its legacy as the “Dream Team” by beating Croatia 117-85 in the gold medal game.  

Team USA -- made up of all NBA players other than Christian Laettner -- opted not to stay in the Olympic Village, instead lodging in a luxury hotel. The hotel was guarded by armed men as opposing players and athletes from other countries wanted the Dream Team’s autographs. Head coach Chuck Daly compared the team to Elvis Presley and the Beatles put together.

Muhammad Ali lights Olympic torch at 1996 Atlanta Games

Muhhammad Ali, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease, lit the flame for the Opening Ceremony of the 1996 Olympic Games.

Ali had won light heavyweight boxing gold at the 1960 Rome Games as an 18-year-old (then known as Cassius Clay). In 1975, Ali wrote in his autobiography that he threw the gold medal into the Ohio River after being refused service at a Louisville restaurant. At one of the last medal ceremonies of the 1996 Olympics, Ali received another gold medal to replace the one that he discarded decades earlier.

Michael Johnson sprints to two golds at 1996 Atlanta Games

In 1996, Michael Johnson became the only man in history to win the 200m and 400m in the same Olympic Games. Johnson set the 200m world record with a 19.32 time and the Olympic record in the 400m with a 43.49 time. His historic gold medal performance earned him the nickname “The Man with the Golden Shoes” because of the custom-made Nike spikes he wore during the 200m final.

U.S. women’s soccer team wins gold at 1996 Atlanta Games

The 1996 Atlanta Games marked the first time women’s soccer was added as an Olympic sport.

The United States women's national soccer team defeated China 2-1 to win the first-ever gold medal in front of a record-breaking crowd of 76,481 fans in Athens, Ga. Despite not being televised, the women’s soccer games were well attended during the 1996 Summer Games. The sport’s popularity has continued to grow since with the FIFA Women's World Cup in 2019 drawing 1.12 billion viewers.

Team USA’s first olympic skateboarding team was introduced Monday in Los Angeles.

Kerri Strug battles through pain for Olympic gold

In one of the bravest displays ever seen at an Olympic Games, U.S. gymnast Kerri Strug helped her team win a gold medal on an injured ankle. 

The 1996 U.S. women’s gymnastics team, known as the Magnificent Seven, was on the brink of history in front of Strug’s hometown fans in Atlanta when she landed awkwardly on her first vault and tore two ligaments in her ankle. 

Strug fought through the pain to complete her second vault and stick the landing on one leg. Strug then dropped to her knees and had to be helped off the mat, but her 9.712 score helped the U.S. team win the gold medal. 

Strug’s story became a symbol of perseverance for athletes who face adversity.

Michael Phelps wins by fingernail at 2008 Beijing Games

Michael Phelps won his seventh gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Games in the most dramatic way possible. 

Phelps was in seventh place in the 100m butterfly final when he made the turn at the halfway point. With history hanging in the balance, Phelps surged back and swam into history by beating Serbia’s Milorad Cavic by .01 for an Olympic record time of 50.58 seconds.  

Phelps and his teammates went on to set another world record in the medley relay event, awarding the swimmer with his eighth gold medal and setting the record for most won in a single Olympic Games. 

Men's basketball stages a dramatic comeback in Beijing

After the U.S. men’s basketball team disappointed at the 2004 Athens Games, the NBA’s biggest stars came together to restore international dominance at the 2008 Beijing Games. 

Led by captain Kobe Bryant and legendary basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, as well as All-Stars LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade, the U.S. men dominated China, Angola, Greece, Spain and Germany by an average of 32 points per game and entered the medal rounds undefeated. 

Team USA tore through Australia in the quarterfinals and Argentina in the semifinals. Bryant and Wade’s clutch shooting helped the Redeem Team outlast Spain for the gold medal. 

Simone Biles became the first female athlete to ever receive her own goat emoji on Twitter.

Simone Biles makes gymnastics history at 2016 Rio Games

Simone Biles became the first U.S. female gymnast to win four gold medals in a single Olympics at the 2016 Rio Games. Alongside her “Final Five”  teammates, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, Laurie Hernandez and Madison Kocian, the U.S. women’s gymnastics team also took gold in the team event. Biles had already established herself as a worldwide powerhouse for gymnastics, and her performance cemented her legacy in Olympic history. She was selected to be the American flag bearer during the Closing Ceremony.

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