There is something special about an Olympian. While many athletes are treated like gods, the breed of competitors who materialize every four years occupies the upper reaches of the pantheon. There seems to be something a little more pure, a little more genuine about them. Perhaps it is the amateur ideal. Or the fact that the Olympic games strive to bring together all nations in peace on a level playing field.
Of course, these ideals do not always stand up to scrutiny. Many Olympians are now highly paid professionals, as were their ancient Greek counterparts. Cheating, primarily in the form of performance enhancing drugs, remains a huge problem. And while the games of antiquity ran without interruption for nearly a thousand years, the modern Olympics have been cancelled four times, as well as experiencing two major boycotts.
Despite these difficulties, the Olympian continues to inspire us like no other athlete. He can still surprise us. For all the superstars arriving in London next month with entourages and endorsement deals, we will keep a special eye out for the an unknown figure, perhaps from a remote corner of the globe and performing in an obscure sport, who will emerge during the course of the games to remind us of the athlete's eternal promise. While these sublime performances often result in great fame for the newcomer, an athlete's heroism can just as easily be lost in time. What follows is a list of neglected athletes whose performances deserve to be remembered and celebrated.
Stephen Amidon is the author of "Something Like the Gods: A Cultural History of the Athlete from Achilles to LeBron" [Rodale Press, $24.99].