What makes a great Olympics? Spectacular athletic performances allow certain Games stand out, but there's more to it than that. A great city, excellent facilities and a generally festive, safe, comfortable atmosphere can set an Olympics apart. With the XXXI Olympiad in Brazil getting underway, it's unlikely that stellar successes on the playing fields, on the track or in the pool will let the Rio Games overcome the scare of Zika virus, the ongoing Russian drug scandal or the abject filth and poverty of the host city. But here's a look back at some of the best Olympics.
Widely acknowledged as the most successful Games in Olympic history, unlike nearly all of the Games that have followed, Sydney was virtually free of controversy and multiple world and Olympic records were set. The Games were so good, in fact, that after then-IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch declared Sydney "the best Games ever," the phrase was retired.
Thirty-four world records were set at the Sydney Games, and the fast pool was home to many of those. Australian phenom Ian Thorpe set the first world record of the Games, winning the 400-meter freestyle. Later on the same day, Thorpe anchored a thrilling 4 x 100-meter freestyle relay in which the Australians beat the U.S. by two-tenths of a second and set another world record.
But it wasn't just Thorpe who made a name for himself in the pool – Michael Phelps, now the most decorated Olympian in history, made his Olympic debut as a 15-year-old. He was the youngest swimmer to make a U.S. Olympic team since 1934.
Though the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan saga was a backdrop to this Olympics, the actual attack took place in the U.S., and Kerrigan overcame her injured knee to win silver at what is considered by most pundits the best Winter Olympics in history. Lillehammer, a quaint mountain town in Norway, brought together the sort of innocence, beauty and desire to succeed that make up the Olympic ideal. The Lillehammer Games marked the first time that the Winter Games and Summer Games were not held in the same year and this Winter Games was held only two years after the previous Winter Games. Norway won more medals than any other country, collecting 26, while 13-year-old Kim Moon-Mi became (and still is) the world's youngest gold medalist. She was a member of South Korea's 3,000-meter speed skating relay team.
There was almost no way Barcelona couldn't stage what it is often referred to as the best Olympics in history. Beginning with the lighting of the Olympic cauldron via flaming arrow, everything in Barcelona went beautifully. With its seaside setting, spectacular architecture, diverse food and warm spirit, the Catalan city was also home to several Olympic firsts – post-apartheid South Africa competed for the first time since 1960 and Germany sent a unified team for the first time since 1964. Chinese diver Fu Mingxia became the youngest Summer Games gold medalist in history, winning gold in platform diving. And the U.S. Dream Team took the Games by storm, making the professionals' Olympic basketball debut a spectacular success and spectacle.
The Olympics allowed Barcelona to show all its beauty and fun as the city instantly became a favorite destination for travelers worldwide. And beyond the competition during the fortnight, the Olympics set a foundation for sports that still exists in Barcelona today.
"In Barcelona, holding major sports competitions is now a key part of our development and I'm convinced that sport is the perfect way to inject life into a city, to improve its well-being and to put it on the international stage," said mayor Xavier Trias in 2012.
Los Angeles, 1984
Although the Soviet Union convinced 12 other countries to retaliate against the 1980 U.S. boycott by skipping Los Angeles, the absence of Eastern Bloc teams did little to tarnish these Games. And to this day, L.A. remains the only Olympics to have turned a profit, with a massive $200 million in revenue.
In response to budget overruns in Moscow and Montreal, L.A. took advantage of existing infrastructure, including the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, which had been the main venue at the 1932 Olympics and continues to serve as home to USC football. At the sporting venues, Americans in particular were treated to Carl Lewis' four-gold-medal performance (100m, 200m, 4 x 100 relay, long jump) and Mary Lou Retton became the first non-Eastern Bloc gymnast to win the all-around title in gymnastics. Beyond those achievements, the women's marathon debuted in Los Angeles (Joan Benoit won) and the world got a preview of what basketball's Dream Team would look like when Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin teamed up to win gold.
The first post-World War II Olympics nearly wasn't. London was bombed out, and Europe was exhausted after the war. But these Games were truly part of the healing process for the world after the Olympics had been cancelled in 1940 and 1944.
Known as the "Austerity Games," the London Olympics featured no new venues, and athletes were housed in existing accommodations throughout the region rather than a central Athletes' Village. With the fiscal and physical effects of World War II still very much present – rationing of food and gas were still in effect – Britain considered passing the torch to the U.S. to host the Games. After choosing to remain the host, organizer Lord Burghley called the Games a "warm flame of hope for a better understanding in the world which has burned so low."
The biggest star of the Games was "The Flying Housewife," Dutch sprinter Fanny Blankers-Koen, a mother of two, who won four golds in track. The London Games drew 59 nations, the most in history up to that point.
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