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Olympic History: 9 Inspirational Athletes You've Never Heard Of (PHOTOS)

Posted: 06/28/2012 10:12 am

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].

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  • Stamata Revithi

    It is fitting that there is no known photograph of the first female competitor of the modern Olympic era. Although the aristocratic founder of the games, Baron de Coubertin, made it clear that he considered women athletes to be "impractical, uninteresting, unsightly, and wrong," Revithi, while still mourning the death of a child, nevertheless attempted to enter the marathon at the inaugural 1896 games in Athens. Denied a place because of her sex, she set out on her own the following day. It took a while, but she managed to complete the course. When the press found out about her lonely, heartbroken race, they nicknamed her Melpomene, after the muse of tragedy (pictured above).

  • Len Tau and Jan Mashiani

    Coubertin was hostile to athletes of color as well as women, extolling the games as "the means of bringing to perfection the strong and hopeful youth of our white race." So one can imagine his dismay when two of the runners in the marathon at the 1904 St. Louis games turned out to be black Africans, the first to compete in the Olympics. The participation of the Tswana tribesmen was pure serendipity - Tau and Mashiani just happened to be in town to take part in an exhibition on the Boer War at the world's fair taking place at the same time. Mashiani finished twelfth; legend has it that Tau, who placed ninth, might have won had he not been attacked by dogs out on the course.

  • Luz Long

    The aptly-named German long jumper went into the 1936 Berlin Olympics not only as a gold medal contender, but also as a poster boy for Hitler's desire to have the games serve as a showpiece of Aryan supremacy. Unfortunately for the Fuhrer, Long found himself up against a young athlete from Ohio named Jesse Owens. To his lasting credit, the blue-eyed, blond German took his inevitable defeat with good grace, publicly befriending Owens despite the very real threat of retribution. He even gave Owens some timely advice on how to avoid fouling during the competition. Like so many of his generation, Long died young, killed in action while serving in the German army in Sicily in 1943.

  • Sohn Kee-Chung

    No moment better defines the Olympic athlete than when he steps onto the podium to receive his medal and salute his nation's flag. So one can only imagine the anguish of the Korean marathoner Sohn Kee-Chung when, after winning gold in Berlin, he was forced to salute the Rising Sun flag of his country's brutal conquerors. The Japanese not only forced Sohn to compete in their national colors, but also gave him a Japanese name, Son Kitei. Keenly aware that any sort of obvious protest would be met with harsh punishment back home, Sohn and countryman Nam Sung-yong, who won the bronze, could only hang their heads in what the gold medalist later called "silent shame and outrage."

  • Alice Coachman

    Although great black female athletes like Wilma Rudolph and Jackie Joyner-Kersee are now widely celebrated, the first black woman to win gold at the Olympics is considerably less of a household name. Born poor into a family of Georgia sharecroppers in 1923, Coachman had to overcome steep obstacles in order to compete, ranging from racial discrimination to a lack of athletic equipment. The indomitable high jumper made virtue of a necessity by training and competing barefoot. After being denied to the opportunity for gold when the Olympics were cancelled due to war in 1940 and 1944, she finally won her pioneering medal in London in 1948.

  • Ervin Zador

    Water polo is not usually associated with outbreaks of savage violence, but the 1956 Melbourne contest between Hungary and the Soviet Union was so belligerent that it came to be known as the "Blood in the Water" match. Played just one month after Russian tanks brutally suppressed their nation's uprising against the Soviet-back regime, Hungarian players were able to extract a measure of revenge by trouncing the Soviets 4-0. The game, in fact, never reached the final whistle - referees called it a day after Zador, the young Hungarian star, was bloodied by a Russian sucker punch. While Zador's injury was patched up with a few stitches, the wound to Soviet pride proved much longer lasting.

  • Peter Norman

    The image of Tommie Smith and John Carlos (pictured above) raising gloved fists in Mexico City is an iconic tableau of protest, though a quieter demonstration took place alongside them on the winner's podium. When the Australian 400 meter runner, who had raced to silver between the two American, learned of their plans in the locker room, he decided to join the protest by wearing a badge for their organization, the Olympic Project for Human Rights. Even for such a modest gesture, Norman was officially banned from competing for Australia for two years, and conspicuously overlooked for the 1972 Munich games. Undaunted, he went on to speak out against his own nation's discrimination against aboriginal people. Both Smith and Carlos served as pallbearers at his 2006 funeral.

  • Shirley Babashoff

    If it were not for a drug known as Oral-Turinabol, Babashoff might have become one of the most decorated swimmers in Olympic history. Going into the 1976 Montreal games, she was considered a favorite to win as many as five golds. Her dreams were shattered, however, by a squad of hulking East German swimmers who had been dosed with prodigious levels of the anabolic steroid. Although some called Babashoff 'surly Shirley' for her public protests about the abnormal size and strength of her competitors, her accusations were later confirmed. She was at least able to achieve one triumph as she led the US 4 x 100 freestyle team to an unforgettable gold medal against the East Germans.

  • Shun Fujimoto

    Top athletes are taught to "play through the pain," though few have done this quite as spectacularly as the Japanese gymnast in Montreal. During the floor exercise portion of the team competition, Fujimoto broke his kneecap, an excruciating injury that should have led to his immediate retirement from competition. Knowing this would damage his team's chances of winning gold, he decided to compete on the rings, telling no one about his injury. Somehow, he was able to remain upright as he stuck a twisting dismount, his face bearing only a hint of what must have been indescribable pain. He earned the highest marks of his life on the apparatus; his team went on to win the gold. <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/goetter/2566674665/sizes/m/in/photostream/" target="_hplink">Raphael Goetter</a></em>