Olympic legends: From Spyridon Louis to ‘Flo-Jo’

The Paris Olympics will be the 33rd summer edition since the first modern Games in Athens in 1896.

The Games have never failed to produce acts of bravery and brilliance as athletes push themselves in the bid for gold.

Let’s look back over the last 128 years to pick out some of the many Olympic legends.

Spyridon Louis: Greek marathon man

Spyridon Louis, a Greek shepherd who had served in the army, became a national icon when he won the marathon during the first modern Olympics, held in Athens in 1896.

Louis, who was just 24, completed the 40 kilometre race — today’s distance of 42.2km was not standarised until 1908 — in 2hr 58min 50sec despite stopping to down a glass of wine half-way through.

Wearing shoes given to him by residents of his village he finished seven minutes ahead of the field.

Greece’s Crown Prince Constantine and his brother Prince George joined Louis on his ecstatic final lap in the stadium.

Four decades later Spyros was the flagbearer for the Greek delegation at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Charlotte Cooper, the deaf tennis Olympian. Photo: Public Domain

Charlotte Cooper: deaf tennis champ

British tennis pioneer Charlotte Cooper made history when she became the first woman to win an Olympic event at the Paris Games in 1900.

With her attacking flair and deft touch at the net, Cooper, who took to the court in an ankle-length dress, beat home favourite Helene Prevost to win the singles title.

Her feat was all the more remarkable given she could not hear a racquet hitting a ball, having been diagnosed as deaf four years earlier.

She triumphed at Wimbledon too, winning the singles title five times. With the last of those coming in 1908 when she was 37, Cooper remains the oldest women’s singles Wimbledon champion.

Paavo Nurmi at the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp. Phtoto: Suomen Urheilumuseo/Public Domain

Paavo Nurmi: ‘the flying Finn’

For almost 60 years the Flying Finns were a force in middle-distance and long-distance running.

The man who symbolised their determination and discipline was Paavo Nurmi, who collected nine golds and three silvers over the three Olympics in the 1920s. Between 1921 and 1931 he set 20 individual world records at distances from 1500m to 20km.

Orphaned at 12, Nurmi discovered his love of running during military service.

Nurmi ran all his races to a strict pace, which he monitored with a stopwatch.

He made history at the sweltering 1924 Paris games, becoming the first (and only) track and field athlete to win five golds in one Olympics, including individual titles in the 1500m and 5000m within two hours of each other. Compatriot Ville Ritola won four golds and two silvers in Paris.

Johnny Weissmuller: from gold to silver screen

Johnny Weissmuller found fame at the 1924 and 1928 Olympics, dominating swimming to win five golds long before he swung on to the silver screen playing Tarzan.

The Hungarian-born son of German-speaking immigrants to the United Sates, Weissmuller won three of the men’s six golds at Paris in 1924 in the 100m and 400m freestyle and 4x200m freestyle relay, adding bronze in water polo.

Weissmuller, who revolutionised swimming with his head-turning breathing and flutter kick, successfully defended the 100m and relay titles four years later in Amsterdam.

He went on to make even more of a splash in Hollywood, and starred in a dozen Tarzan films.

 In this photograph taken in 1932 from the movie “Tarzan” shows Maureen O’Sullivan (R) in the role of Jane and Johnny Weissmuller (L) playing Tarzan. – Johnny Weissmuller found fame at the 1924 and 1928 Olympics, dominating swimming to win five golds long before he swung on to the silver screen playing Tarzan. Photo: AFP

Betty Robinson: back from the dead

The first woman to win the 100m race at the Olympics and still the youngest champion of the event, Robinson was 16 when she won gold in Amsterdam in 1928.

Her science teacher spotted Robinson’s talent watching her chase after a commuter train.

Robinson turned up to the final with two left shoes, only getting hold of a right shoe with moments to spare.

In 1931, she was pronounced dead after being involved in a plane crash but was discovered to be alive when she reached the morgue.

The accident left her unable to fully bend her knee, but she made an extraordinary comeback at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, winning the 4x100m relay, the only race that did not require her to kneel at the start.

Betty Robinson was the first woman to win an Olympic gold medal in track and field, in the 100-meter race at the 1928 games. She was severely injured in a plane crash, but came back to win another gold in 1936. Photo: Bettyrobinson.org

Jesse Owens: infuriating the Fuehrer

Owens, an African-American, exploded the Nazi-propagated myth of racial superiority at the age of 22, when he won four athletics gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics under the nose of Adolf Hitler.

He won the 100m, 200m, 4x100m relay and long jump, setting three world records and reportedly prompting Hitler to storm out, though the “Buckeye Bullet” later said the Fuehrer had waved to him.

The grandson of slaves, Owens was snubbed by his own president when Franklin D. Roosevelt failed to greet him, a customary honour for returning Olympic champions.

“When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus,” Owens said of the racial segregation that existed in the US at the time. “I couldn’t live where I wanted.”

Jesse Owens shown in action in a 200-meter preliminary heat at the 1936 Summer Olympic Games in Berlin. Photo: AP via AAP

Fanny Blankers-Koen: athlete of the century

Blankers-Koen blazed a trail for women’s sport when she swept to four athletics golds at the 1948 Olympics as a 30-year-old mother of two.

The Dutchwoman made her Games debut in Berlin in 1936 but it was at the first post-war Games, in London in 1948, that she really shone.

She won every event she entered — the 100m, 200m, 80m hurdles and 4x100m relay.

“One newspaperman wrote that I was too old to run, that I should stay at home and take care of my children,” she told the New York Times in 1982.

“When I got to London, I pointed my finger at him and I said: ‘I show you’.”

Blankers-Koen was named female athlete of the century in 1999.

Abebe Bikila: barefoot marathon runner

In a feat that has become part of Olympic lore, Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila became the first black African to win gold, running the marathon barefoot at the Rome Games in 1960.

Bikila set a world record of 2hr 15min 16sec barefoot, having discarded ill-fitting running shoes.

Four years later in Tokyo, he bettered the record, running all the way in shoes this time but barely a month after undergoing an emergency appendectomy, trimming a few minutes off his time.

In doing so, the soldier became the first man to win an Olympic marathon twice.

At home Bikila, a soldier in the Imperial Guard, was hailed a national hero, promoted in rank by Emperor Haile Selassie and presented with a Volkswagen Beetle car.

In a cruel twist, the car ended his Olympics career after he had a serious accident in 1969 that left him paralysed from the waist down.

Ethiopian Marathon runner Abebe Bikila crosses the finish line as winner of the marathon as part of 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games; the first black African to win gold, running the marathon barefoot at the Rome Games in 1960. Photo: AFP

Bob Beamon: historic leap

New York native Bob Beamon found perfection as he defied gravity with a record-smashing long jump at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

The leap shattered the previous world record by 55.88 centimetres (nearly 22 inches). His lead of 8.90 metres beat the old mark by 6.6 percent and lasted 23 years. It remains the second longest jump not assisted by wind.

He almost missed the final after overstepping on his first two qualifying jumps.

The final, Beamon remembered, was an “extraordinary day”.

Beamon was the first of the favourites to jump and won the competition with his opening leap.

“Everything was perfect for me. The wind was perfect. The weather when I jumped was perfect,” he recalls. “It rained right after I jumped.”

When team-mate Ralph Boston translated the metric distance on the scoreboard into feet and inches for him, Beamon collapsed, in what he later called a “cataplectic seizure” brought on by “emotional excitement”.

“To my surprise, it was not only a jump, but it was an incredible moment in history,” Beamon said.

After retiring, he coached and promoted sport participation, as well as working as a graphic artist and pursuing his childhood passion of drumming.

Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci competes in the women’s gymnastics floor event the Montreal Olympic Games on August 27, 1976. – Aged just 14, the Romanian became the first gymnast to score a perfect 10. Photo: AFP-IOPP

Nadia Comaneci: the perfect 10 

Aged just 14, the Romanian became the first gymnast to score a perfect 10 — winning a jaw-dropping seven maximums from judges at the 1976 Games in Montreal.

She collected four 10s for the uneven bars and three for the beam to take gold in both events plus the all-round title.

Comaneci competed until 1981 and then fled Romania just before the fall of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, settling in the United States.

From there she used the archives of Romania’s feared communist-era secret police to reveal the beatings and humiliation she suffered even while being feted for her sporting glories.

Carl Lewis: track-and-field icon

A legend of 20th century track and field, US star athlete Carl Lewis won nine Olympic golds and was eight times crowned world champion.

Graceful and instantly recognisable with his million-dollar smile, long legs and crew cut, he sat out the 1980 Moscow Games due to the US Cold War boycott.

But he romped to victory in Los Angeles four years later, matching the legendary performance of Jesse Owens in Berlin in 1936 by winning four gold medals, in 100m, long jump, 200m and the 4x100m.

Lewis took the long jump again in Seoul in 1988, also winning the 100m after Ben Johnson’s doping disqualification, becoming the first man to retain his title in the discipline.

Two more golds followed in Barcelona and in 1996, returning from injury for a last Olympic hurrah at 35, he won a fourth consecutive long jump gold.

Lewis was also a savvy businessman who was one of the first athletes to develop his own clothing line.

U.S. sprinter Florence Griffith Joyner of Los Angeles strides to a world record in a semifinal heat of the Olympic women’s 200-meter dash in Seoul Thursday, Sept. 29, 1988. Photo: AAP via AP/Lennox McLendon

Florence Griffith-Joyner: nails and glory

Known as “Flo-Jo” and admired as much for her multicoloured six-inch nails and glitzy outfits, the US sprinter is still the fastest woman ever, more than three decades after she set world records in the 100m and 200m.

She made history at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, winning her 100m heat in a record 10.49sec, which is still unsurpassed, and then collecting gold in the final with metres to spare on her closest challenger.

She also roared to victory in the 200m in 21.34sec, another world record that has never been beaten.

Her exploits on the track and rapid muscle development fuelled suspicions of doping but she tested negative throughout her career.

She retired at the height of her fame, just five months after Seoul.

The seventh child from a family of eleven, Flo-Jo’s life was cut short on September 21, 1998, when at the age of 38 she died in her sleep after an epileptic fit.

Source: AFP