Paris, 1900: First female athletes
Women first competed at the 1900 Paris Games. Women were allowed to compete in lawn tennis and golf, though there were three French women competing in croquet and there was at least one female sailor as part of a mixed crew. It is commonly believed that first woman to win an Olympic event was England’s Charlotte Cooper, who won the tennis singles title, however, Swiss sailor Hélène de Pourtalès won a gold medal as part of a team in sailing earlier than this. The 2012 Olympic Games in London were the first Olympics where every participating country included female athletes. They were also the first Olympics in which women competed in all sports in the program.
Berlin, 1936: Owens breaks records
James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens was an African-American track and field athlete and four-time Olympic gold medalist in the 1936 games. Owens’s success at the games represented a counter to Adolf Hitler, who was using the games to show the world a resurgent Nazi Germany. He and other government officials had high hopes that German athletes would dominate the games with victories. Meanwhile, Nazi propaganda promoted concepts of “Aryan racial superiority” and depicted others, including those of African descent, as inferior. Owens countered this by winning four gold medals. Owens later befriended his German competitor in the long jump, Luz Long, and the pair’s lap of honor became a symbol of the triumph of sportsmanship over Nazi ideology.
London, 1948: Wheelchair athletes competeDoctor Ludwig Guttmann founded the International Wheelchair Games to help rehabilitate wounded veterans of World War II. Using sports therapy, he invited wheelchair athletes to compete. Dr. Guttman’s aim was to create an elite sports competition for people with disabilities that would be equivalent to the Olympic Games. The games were held again at the same location in 1952, and Dutch veterans took part alongside the British, making it the first international competition of its kind. These early competitions, also known as the Stoke Mandeville Games, have been described as the precursors of the Paralympic Games. The first organized athletic day for disabled athletes that coincided with the Olympic Games took place on the day of the opening of the 1948 Olympic Games in London, United Kingdom.
Rome, 1960: Television, and scandals
As the first Olympics ever to be televised and include a brand endorsement by an athlete, the Rome Games ushered in a new era of commercialism and changed the way the world viewed its Olympians. The Games also spotlighted a negative side of the competition with the first doping scandal, revealing how far some athletes would go to bring home the gold.
Mexico City, 1968: Civil-rights protest
At the height of the civil rights movement in the U.S., black American athletes were encouraged to boycott the Games. Instead, African-American sprinters John Carlos (right) and Tommie Smith (left) staged a non-violent protest by raising their fists in a Black Power salute while the national anthem played during their medal ceremony. Although they were consequently suspended from the Olympic Village, their silent demonstration brought the American battle over civil rights to the international stage.
Munich, 1972: Terror replaces peaceThe sporting nature of the 1972 Olympic games in Munich was largely overshadowed by the Munich massacre. The Munich massacre was an attack in Munich, West Germany, at which eleven Israeli Olympic Team members were taken hostages and eventually killed, along with a German police officer, by the Palestinian terrorist group Black September.
Although the Olympics continued and the incident led to increased security, the message of international peace promoted by the Games was permanently damaged.
Montreal, 1976: African nations boycott
Most sovereign African nations (and a few others) boycotted the Montreal Games when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) would not support the banning from a competition of countries whose athletes had participated in sporting events in South Africa as long as apartheid continued, as some other international sporting organizations had. The New Zealand rugby team had been touring South Africa during apartheid and were excluded from international sporting events due to the implementation of the anti-apartheid policy. This marked the first of several politically-motivated boycotts of the Olympics.
Moscow, 1980: U.S. boycotts, hosts alternate games
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 spurred President Jimmy Carter to issue an ultimatum on 20 January 1980: if Soviet troops did not withdraw from Afghanistan within one month the United States would boycott the Moscow Olympics in summer 1980. So, the U.S. did not participate in the Olympics that summer, and instead hosted the Liberty Bell Classic in Philadelphia as an alternative competition for athletes of countries supporting the boycott.
Barcelona, 1992: Pros play the Olympics
The 1992 U.S. Men’s Olympic basketball team, nicknamed the “Dream Team” for its impressive line-up of the biggest names in basketball — Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and Patrick Ewing to name a few — was the first time active NBA players were recruited for an Olympic team. The team crushed the competition as it made its way towards the final (winning all eight games) and ultimately defeated Croatia to bring home the gold medal. Still today, the Dream Team is widely celebrated as the greatest team ever assembled in any sport.
Atlanta, 1996: Games turn 100 with Ali
Despite his struggles with Parkison’s disease, former heavyweight boxing champion, and Olympic gold medalist Muhammad Ali lit the Olympic flame during the opening ceremony of the 1996 Atlanta Games and received a replacement gold medal for his boxing victory in the 1960 Summer Olympics. It was an emotional start to the Olympics’ Centennial.
Sydney, 2000: North and South Korea unite
In a short-lived moment of alliance, North and South Korea marched together for the first time in Sydney’s opening ceremony. Rather than carry their respective national flags, the North and South Korean teams (in identical uniforms) joined hands and waved a unification flag featuring a blue map of Korea.
Athens, 2004: Medal design corrected
A new medal obverse was introduced at these Games, replacing the design by Giuseppe Cassioli that had been used since the 1928 Games. This rectified the long lasting mistake of using a depiction of the Roman Colosseum rather than a Greek venue. The new design features the Panathenaic Stadium. The 2004 summer games were hailed as “unforgettable, dream games” by IOC President Jacques Rogge.
Beijing, 2008: Phelps takes most gold ever
The American competitive swimmer Michael Fred Phelps II is the most decorated Olympian of all time, with a total of 28 medals. Phelps also holds the all-time records for Olympic gold medals (23), Olympic gold medals in individual events (13), and Olympic medals in individual events (16). In winning eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Games, Phelps broke fellow American swimmer Mark Spitz’s record of 7 first-place finishes at any single Olympic Games.