The Best of Summer - Bronze Medal: Barcelona 1992

Surely, Barcelona had history on her side. When the Catalan capital was awarded the 1992 Summer Games in October 1986, nobody knew that the world was just going through the last phase of the Cold War. Six years later, on opening night, July 25th, 1992, Montjuic Stadium witnessed the dawn of the Games of the new world order. The parade of nations was a caleidoscope of unifications and split-ups, comebacks and newcomers.

For the first time since 1964, Germany fielded a unified team (picture: imago), while the remnants of the Soviet Union were merely held together by the so-called "Unified Team" - a one-time construction that was replaced by the nations of the former U.S.S.R. four years later in Atlanta. Some new or reborn eastern European countries were already on the starting bloc in Spain: Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Croatia and Slovenia.

All in all, Barcelona ended almost two decades of Olympic boycotts. Cuba returned for the first time since Moscow 1980 under the eyes of a cheerfully waving Fidel Castro. Even North Korea was on the starting bloc again. 

Probably most important, South Africa ended her 32 year absence forced by apartheid politics with a team representing all ethnic groups. The women's 10,000 meter duel between Ethiopia's Derartu Tulu and South Africa's Elana Meyer (picture: Getty Images) became one of the symbolic highlights of these Olympics, with Tulu finally taking the gold. Both athletes afterwards ran their victory lap together.

But Barcelona also saw the first appearance of the so called "Independent Olympic Participant". While civil war had reaped havoc all over former Yugoslavia, her athletes were only allowed to start at the Games in single events. In the end, the competitors from Serbia and Macedonia won three medals - all in shooting

From a sporting perspective, the undisputed highlight of the 1992 Games was the U.S. basketball "Dream Team". The NBA stars put on the greatest single spectacle the Olympics had ever seen, with fans and international media going crazy. "Dream Team" head coach Chuck Daly put it that way: "This feels like being on tour with twelve rock stars."

The "Dream Team" was later often copied, but non of its successors came close to the quality, the aura, and the euphoria surrounding the original.

Amid this frenzy, its is often forgotten that Barcelona was one of the few cities to take great profit from staging the Games in the long run. In the six years before, the Catalan capital was virtually revamped and reinvented, especially the Olympic area on the Montjuic and the harbour quarter that hosted the Olympic Village.

Finally, 1992 provided one of the most emotional and inspiring episodes in the history of the Games and of sport at all. Center stage took 400 meter runner Derek Redmond from Great Britain. A world class athlete whose career had been plagued by injuries, Redmond tore a muscle after 150 meters of his semifinal run. He continued to limp towards the finish line. On the home stretch, he was accompanied and assisted by his father, tears all over his face. A memorable moment that shook the hearts of almost any spectator.

No wonder the IOC later used the images of Redmond's effort as part of a commercial campaign. The fitting title was "Celebrate Humanity".


The Best of Summer - 4th Place: Sydney 2000

On the evening of October, 1st, 2000, Juan Antonio Samaranch one final time used the closing ceremony of an Olympic Games to called them "the best ever". The outgoing president of the International Olympic Comitee had said this many times before. On this night, many TV viewers all over the world may have agreed with him for the first time.

Even if Sydney didn't see the best Games in history, at least they were brilliant, because more than anything else,  they were Australian. The country is one of the few having participated in all Summer Olympics since 1896, her genuine love for sports is legendary and was also the big story of Sydney 2000. The huge crowds and the fantastic atmosphere created a stark contrast to the heavily commercial 1996 Atlanta edition.

Furthermore, the "Games of the New Millenium" - as the local organisers had dubbed them - raised world wide attention for the aboriginal heritage of Australia. When 400 meters runner Cathy Freeman lit the Olympic flame and took home the gold in front of 115,000 roaring spectators, it was the moment when Australia for the first time seemed to come to terms with her own, often neglected past. Without doubt, it was one of the most emotional moments in any Olmpic Games:


Besides the Freeman saga, Sydney saw the re-birth of Down Under as a swimming powerhouse. Aussies had ruled the pool from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, featuring icons like Murray Rose, Dawn Fraser,  the Konrads siblings, or Shane Gould.  In the Bassin at Homebush Bay, they rolled over the rest of the world, led by Ian Thorpe. He one two golds on the first day of competition,  including the 4 x 1000 Meter freestyle relay. The United States had always won this event from its inception in 1960, with the exception of the boycott Games in 1980 at Moscow. Before the race,  American swimmer Gary Hall Jr had boasted, hid team was going to "smash the Australians like guitars". When  the hometown boys had won the race and broken tell world record, they played air guitar on the starting block. No wonder the crowd went  wild (picture: The Australian).

But even for the "Thorpedo", not everything went perfect. In the 200 meters freestyle, he lost out to Dutch Pieter van den Hoogenband. Four years later in Athens, Thorpe took revenge in the "Race of the century" that was the first to prominently feature the young Michael Phelps:

While pictoresque settings fot outdoor events - beach volleyball at Bondi Beach, triathlon at the Opera House, and sailing in front of Harbour Bridge - gained acclaim all over the world, Greco-Roman Wrestling saw the biggest upset for decades. Russian super heavyweight Alexander Kareline had not lost a single match in three consecutive victorious Olympics. American Rulon Gardner made "King Kong" loose his grip for one single moment - and Karelines streak was over.

Besides great sports and only few controversies,  Sydney organizers were the first at least trying to stage "Green Games". Not every ecological promise was kept, but a standard for future hosts was set. No wonder the closing ceremony was a big rocking party. Australia had delivered.


The Best of Summer - 5th Place: Helsinki 1952

Let's start our Top Five countdown of the best Summer Games with the 1952 edition staged in Helsinki. The Olympics in Finland probably were the most peaceful ever - which sounds ironic, as they were also the first Games of the Cold War era.

Surely, the Soviet Union made a big splash in their first Olympic appearance, winning 71 medals, second only to the United States' 76. Surely, they made a political statement by living in an own Olympic village in Otaniemi, reserved for Eastern Bloc athletes. But these were not the Games of political struggles as they came to be from the 1960s to 1980s. Seven years after the end of World War II, these Games in this small, sport loving country in the north of Europe came close to the ideals of the Olympic founding fathers. They were purely about the athletes and the competitions.

And what athletes there were on stage! After retired Finish runner Paavo Nurmi had lit the Olympic flame, Emil Zatopek (picutre: www.sportschau.de) followed in his footsteps, winning the 5,000 meters, 10,000 meters and the marathon. His wife Dana took home the javelin gold at the same hour. Luxemburg's Josy Barthel gained his country's only gold medal ever wenning the 1,500 meters. Australia's Marjorie Jackson ("The Lithgow Flash") won both gold medals in the women's sprint. The gymnasts of the Soviet Union led by Viktor Choukarine were dominating, but Japan (while re-emerging on the Olympic scene) made a big impression - a precursor of a duel for decades to come.

Together with the Japanese, the Germans re-entered the Olympic arena (at least, from the West). They didn't win a gold medal, but it was German law student Barbara Rotraut Pleyer who made headlines during the opening ceremony. In a flowing white dress, the 23 year old ran through the stadium and captured the podium for a spontaneous peace adress. But she could only say the words "Ladies and gentlemen" before she was gently taken out of the arena (picture: www.sportschau.de)

This Finish documentary gives a good impression of the spirit of these Games. Don't care about the commentary, just let the pictures speak for themselves. This film includes some very rare colour footage of the 1952 Games and interview sections with second-time decathlon gold medalist and politcian-to-be, Bob Mathias.

It was a time when amateurism still had a meaning in the Olympic world, and the socialist state sponsored pseudo-amateur was just looming on the horizon as a vague shadow. This can also be seen by this rather unpretentious documentary produced by the U.S Army Signal Corps Pictoral Service as part of the series "The Big Picture":

When FBI officer Horace Ashenfelter defeated KGB agent Vladimir Kazantsev in the 3,000 meters steeplechase, it was nothing more than an interesting footnote in the news - still far away from "war on the track" talk.

A German offical called the Helsinki Games "the Olympics of the poor man and the wealthy hearts". This may sound awkwardly cosy and corny today, but in 1952, most observers will probably have agreed.


100 Years Ago: The Games That Never Were

While the 1936 Nazi Games have made big waves in German media this summer, another part of the capital's Olympic history has been fortgotten and remaines untold: One century ago, on July 1st, 1916, Emperor Wilhelm II planned to open the Games of the VIth Olympiad. It did not happen, the Games were the first to fall victim to a war.

Officially, Berlin 1916 was never cancelled. This is even more astonishing, considering the efforts Imperial Germany made to put on a grandiose propaganda spectacle. The "German Stadium" (pictures: Bundesarchiv, Library of Congress), opened on June 8th, 1913, by the Emperor himself, had a price tag of 2.25 million Reichsmark. "The structure was opened with almost religious fervour and military pomp", The New York Times recorded. The Games themselves should have cost 1.3 million Reichsmark.

For Germany's sports authorities, the chance to stage the Games was a big chance to get the upper hand over the Gymnastics Association ("Deutsche Turnerschaft"), a powerful, nationalistic and partly anti-semitic opponent in the struggle for supremacy in the country's sports scene. When Berlin was awarded the 1916 Olympics in July 1912, Crown Prince Wilhelm took over patronage for the Organising Comittee. The organisers even planned to stage the first winter sports events in the history of the Games at the Feldberg, deep in Black Forest (picture: Hoffotograf Franz Schilling).

But the Olympic dream evaporated in the summer of 1914, when World War I broke out.

On March 16th, 1916, the German Stadium was the scene for "Patriotic Games", including military marching, running over obstacles, and throwing hand grenades. The Olympic Spirit had gone long before. Ferdinand Goetz, leader of the "Deutsche Turnschaft", in 1914 had already scorned that he could not image "to give a friendly reception to all the enemies, the English, the Belgians, the French and the Russians coming to Berlin".

It was a kind of swan song for the1916 Olympics - and a premonition of discussions to come 20 years later. By then, the "German Stadium" had given way for Hitler's "Reichssportfeld" and the brand new Olympic Stadium.


The Nazi Games - over and over again

This year it's yet another remembering. At least every decade, German TV is looking back on the most controversial Olympics ever, the 1936 Games in Berlin and Garmisch-Partenkirchen. This time, at the 80th anniversary, the fever for a new look on this event has spread even further, with the upcoming documentary "Olympic Pride, American Prejudice" putting a new, American perspective on the screen.

Today, Hitler's Games are seen as the most discussed event in the history of all sports (picture: Bundesarchiv). Hundreds of books have been published about it. Starting in 1986 with the German TV documentary "Der schöne Schein" ("The beautiful illusion"), their story has been retold over and over again in a myriad of TV productions. The ironic thing about it: All these films used nearly the same pictures, most of them taken from Leni Riefenstahl's infamous "Olympia - Fest der Völker" and "Olympia - Fest der Schönheit". This was due to the simple fact that almost no other film material has survived. There is only one notable exception to this copy and paste process: German historian Emanuel Hübner collected amateur footage from the Games and the years before in his great documentary "Olympia 1936 - Die Olympischen Spiele in privaten Filmaufnahmen".

Lacking original footage, many film producers recently have turned to actors and filmed fictional scenes to add drama to their works. Sometimes, this works out quite well, especially in "Der Traum von Olympia", which shows the fate of Wolfgang Fürstner. The Wehrmacht officer was head of the 1936 Olympic village that gained Nazi Germany praise all over the world. Because of a distant Jewish relatives, Fürstner was mobbed out of office. He did his duty until the end of the Berlin Games and then shot himself.

The film was shown on Germany's ARD TV channel shortly before this years Rio Olympics, as well as the ZDF documentary "Der verratene Traum". This piece was concentrating on Vienna swimmer Judith Deutsch. The Jewish girl broke dozens of records before the Games, but did not go to Berlin, protesting the Nazi politics. This couragous act was going to ruin her career.

Most films about the 1936 Olympics live up to the task of putting the event into the correct historical perspective, also portraying the terrible companionship between Hitler and the IOC. Still, there is one big and persisting misunderstanding: Most filmmakers (and many historians) still proclaim that the Games were an overwhelming political success for the Nazi's. This may be true for the foreign guests coming to Germany in 1936. But ist was surely not for most of the newspaper reader's abroad. In fact, many journalists gave highly critical reports on the Games and the boycott discussions before, especially in the United States.

This fact is often ignored, especially in Germany. The Nazi mantra that the Berlin Olympics impressed the whole world still seems to work, even 80 years later.


The Best of Winter - Gold Medal: Lillehammer 1994

Juan Antonio Samaranch, the late president of the IOC, made his mark at the end of each Games calling them "the best ever" (with the exception of Atlanta 1996). This sentence has seldom been justified, but so it was on the evening oft February 27th, 1994.

Lillehammer provided one last glimpse at the "old school" Winter Games. Already a colossal event with almost 1800 participants, it still had the charming aura of a non-political, merely sporting festival seated within in an almost iconic winter landscape. German commentators easily called it the "Winter fairy tale" - with some justification.

Enthusiastic and bipartisan crowds, a genuine sense for sports,  superstars like Johan Olav Koss, Markus Wasmeier, Jens Weißflog or Bjoern Daehlie - Lillehammer had it all. Furthermore, they were the last Winter Games in a small town of just over 26,000 residents, and they were placed in a traditional winter sports region. After Lillehammer, the Winter Games finally and forever went off to the big cities or to newly developed winter sports resorts.

Sure, even these Games had their share of ugliness with the awfully hyped Nancy Kerrigan/Tony Harding saga:

Still, what remains where brilliant competitions in an almost purely euphoric atmosphere. The home crowds went ballistic especially in the nordic ski events and also endured the surprise defeat of the home ski relay team in the most dramatic fashion. Enjoy the highlight of these Games with original Norwegian commentary: