Ah, the Olympics: Every two years, our greatest athletes gather together to compete for their countries and to prove, definitively, who’s the best in the world. This winter, in Sochi, Russia, we’ve already witnessed some triumphant -- and unusual -- moments: Canadian freestyle skier Alex Bilodeau’s moving celebration with his special needs brother after winning gold, American figure skater Ashley Wagner’s made-for-memeing scowl after scoring poorly in the women’s figure skating short program, snowboarding phenom Shaun White’s shocking failure to medal in the event he’s long dominated, men’s half-pipe and Canadian cross-country skiing coach Justin Wadsworth’s kind assist to struggling Russian skier Anton Gafarov in the men’s freestyle sprint.
With more than a week left of competition in Sochi, we’ve got lots more sports-watching to do. Today, though, as we wait out NBC’s tape delay, we’re counting down the 10 most powerful Olympic moments of all time.
Wilma Unlimited by Kathleen Krull
Wilma Rudolph overcomes polio, becomes a champion
Wilma Rudolph overcame scarlet fever and polio-induced paralysis in childhood to become the most decorated American female Olympian of her time. In the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, she won three gold medals in track and field, becoming the first American woman to clinch three such medals in a single Games. Then the fastest woman in the world, Rudolph helped elevate track and field’s profile in the United States. She was also a hero in the African-American community -- and an emblem of hope in the midst of America’s civil rights movement.
Off Balance by Dominique Moceanu
The Magnificent Seven's team triumph
At the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics, the dramatic performances of Béla Károlyi’s “Magnificent Seven” -- gymnasts Dominique Moceanu, Kerri Strug, Dominique Dawes, Amy Chow, Shannon Miller, Amanda Borden, and Jaycie Phelps—kept audiences rapt. After hurting herself on her vault in the team competition, Kerri Strug logged the Games’ most moving moment when she stuck the landing on her second pass, spurring the U.S. to its first women’s gymnastics team gold ever. Moceanu, one of the team’s leaders, tells their inspiring story in her autobiography, Off Balance.
The Sports of the Time edited by William Taaffe and David Fischer
Mary Lou Retton wins all-around gold
When some members of the Magnificent Seven were just twinkles in their fathers’ eyes, American gymnast Mary Lou Retton was laying the groundwork for U.S. dominance in the sport. Retton overcame a freak knee injury that required surgery in the weeks leading up to the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles, throwing her eligibility into question. But she fought back, recovering just in time and scoring perfect 10s on floor exercise and vault to become the first American woman ever to win all-around gold. In its anthology The Sports of the Times, the New York Times details Retton’s unlikely comeback and long-lasting contribution to women’s gymnastics in the U.S.
Letters to a Young Gymnast by Nadia Comaneci
Nadia Comaneci's first perfect 10
We know, we know -- another gymnast. But, if it weren’t for Romanian phenom Nadia Comaneci, a generation of girls (Retton among them) wouldn’t have been inspired to follow in her footsteps. A wisp of a girl, Comaneci was only 14 when she became the first female gymnast to score a perfect 10 in an Olympic event. She scored a total of seven 10s at the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal, going on to win three gold medals; four years later, in Moscow, she won two more. Comaneci looks back at her history-making performance in Letters to a Young Gymnast.
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