The Rio Games will have large shoes to fill. They are the 28th Summer Olympics (the official count, XXXI, oddly includes the three canceled by the world wars) and one coming off a hot streak of Games that have lived up to the hype of the modern day Olympics, when all the highlights and flaws are projected on hundreds of channels to billions of people, all in glistening high-definition. In Rio, every race, competition, celebration, controversy and broken elevator will be beamed to more than 200 countries. At the end, Brazil will have either pulled it off, as Athens and Beijing before them, or become a cautionary Olympic tale, all while Chicago sits quietly, 5,000 miles to the north, trying not to mention how things would have gone so well if the IOC had chosen to come to America in 2016. The bar for Rio is set low: Get through the Games without major incident and it'll be a smashing success. Getting into the conversation of the best Summer Olympics in history, however, is whole other ballgame. How did we rank? Judiciously. In a vacuum, the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin were a tremendous sporting event. Jesse Owens did things that wouldn't be matched for nearly a half-century, putting up times and marks that still would have been Olympic-worthy 25 years down the road. Basketball made its Olympic debut. The torch relay began as did television coverage of the biggest spectacle in the world. National teams came together under their flags as never before. But with Hitler sitting in the stands and the specter of war and human atrocity upcoming, the Berlin Olympics take on a sinister air, like the Third Reich's introduction to the world. Though we tried to keep politics and future peril out of our rankings, we couldn't ignore overarching events and incidents that besmirched the good name of the Olympics, as in Berlin, Mexico City (the Tlatelolco massacre), Munich (the murders of Israeli athletes) and Atlanta (the Centennial Park bombing). And Jimmy Carter's domino-effect boycott of the 1980 Games kept those, plus the Eastern Bloc's "two can play this game" boycott of the 1984 Games, off the list too. Of the 30 Olympic Games, a full one-third have been affected (or canceled) by war, terror or major boycotts. But enough about the bad ones. Here's our top five:
Getty ImagesShaun Botterill
James Bond and a skydiving Queen Elizabeth got things off on a winning note in London. Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt did their things, Phelps in what was supposed to be his last Olympics, though that retirement was as believable as a rapper calling it quits. Unlike in China, when the nation's great track hope, hurdler Liu Xiang, failed to advance in the heats due to injury, Great Britain's biggest hopes came through, and then some. On what became known as "Super Saturday," the nation took home six golds, including three on the track - Jessica Ennis (heptathlon), Greg Rutherford (long jump) and Mo Farah (10,000m). Then, later that week, Farah, with one gold already under his belt, competed in the 5,000m, an event in which he'd been successful before but entered ranked 11th in the world and coming off the brutal 10,000m. Farah took an early lead, ran his final mile in four-minutes flat and came down the homestretch to a crowd that was described to me as the "loudest damn thing I've ever heard." He won the 14-minute race by 0.32 seconds. The fortnight was a perfect encapsulation of the all things London. McKayla, however, was not impressed.
Getty ImagesRonald Martinez
Though the first modern Olympics had taken place 16 years before in Athens, the Olympics as we (sort of) know them today began in Sweden 104 years ago. With Japan making its debut, Stockholm was the first Olympics at which all five continents were represented, thus inspiring the creation of the Olympic rings - with the five rings representing five continents. (If you're doing the math in your head and counting seven continents - six without Antarctica - and wondering if you're crazy, relax. It's the Olympics that are crazy. In the eyes of the IOC, the American continent - North and South - is one, thus making the five Olympic continents Asia, Europe, Africa, Australia and the Americas.) The Swedes also introduced electronic timing and a public-address system. Most importantly, the 1912 Games would be the first in which there were women's events in a major sport - swimming. Prior to that year, women had only competed in tennis, golf, archery and figure skating (which was a Summer Olympic event at the time). Jim Thorpe became the best-known athlete in the world at the Games, winning two golds including in the decathlon when he set a world record with a point total that would have earned him silver 36 years later. At a ceremony in his honor later in the day, Thorpe received various awards from Sweden's King Gustaf, all to the roar of the crowd who'd adopted Thorpe as a hero of their own. As things wound down, the King, a strict man with the formal tendencies befitting his regal title, leaned into Thorpe and said, in a fanboy whisper, "you sir, are the greatest athlete in the world." Thorpe sheepishly replied, "Thanks, king." (In a precursor to the longtime absurdities and sham of amateurism in sports, Thorpe would later have his medals stripped when it was revealed he was paid $25 per week on a North Carolina minor league baseball team. Seven decades later, the IOC would return the medals to Thorpe's family and reinstate him in the record books.) Oh yeah, there was also an 11-hour wrestling match.
Roger Viollet/Getty ImagesBranger
About four billion people watched some part of the London Olympics, but a few hundred thousand were able to see it in person. So, when ranking Olympics, the on-site experience can be overrated. Meaning: The comfort of journalists is not something that should be taken into account when ranking Olympics. Remember that when you'll see tweets this week from put-out reporters who post a picture of an elevator with mis-numbered floors and think it's a harbinger of Rio disaster. Anyway, that was a long way of setting up a contradiction: Apparently the Sydney Games were such a smash hit in Australia that it'd be foolish not to mention it. Here in the States there was worry that these Olympics would be a viewing disaster, as they were the first to be in a distant time zone (14 hours) in the Internet era. Ratings backed that up a bit (starting in September along with NFL season didn't help, nor did a lack of breakout American stars) but Sydney was still a blast. Cathy Freeman, who became the first Australian Aborigine to compete in the Olympics eight years before, served as the final torchbearer and then crushed the competition in the 400 for one of those indelible Olympic moments. Another Aussie, swimmer Ian Thorpe, was the most decorated athlete of the Games but wasn't involved in the best race in Sydney, which saw American teammates and training partners Gary Hall Jr. and Anthony Ervin (who will be competing in Rio) tie in the 50 free, 0.05 ahead of the third-place finisher. The Aussies would have the last laugh however. After Hall said the American 4x100 freestyle relay would "smash the Aussies like guitars," the Aussies did the smashing, winning a tight race in which both teams shattered the old American world record. On the track, American Marion Jones stole the show, winning three golds and two bronze medals. However, the former UNC basketball star had those medals stripped years later after she was caught up in the Balco PED scandal. The Sydney Olympics also marked the debut of a 15-year-old Baltimore swimmer named Michael Phelps who became the youngest American to make the swim team in 68 years and finished fifth in the 200 fly.
Getty ImagesAdam Pretty
As far as venues go, having beach volleyball at the Horse Guards Parade and tennis at Wimbledon in London seems pretty unbeatable, until you recall that Rome held wrestling in the Basilica of Maxentius and gymnastics in the Caracalla Baths. I don't know what either of those things are but they sound old and awesome. What else, what else? How about Abebe Bikila running barefoot through the Italian capital's cobblestone streets and winning gold running under the Arch of Constantine, becoming Africa's first black champion. Wilma Rudolph took a turn as America's first big sprinting star since Jesse Owens, the U.S. basketball team was actually more dominant than the one that would come 32 years later (you know, the one with Bird, Magic and that crying guy) and then there was the young American fighter named Cassius Clay, who won Olympic gold as a heavyweight and didn't take the medal off his neck for a week.
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The Opening Ceremony alone was one of the great spectacles the world has ever seen and just about the time those drummers came out, you could feel the stomachs drop right out of the London Organizing Commitee of the Olympic Games. ("How can we compete with this in four years?") To call it magical seems like an understatement. Then, 48 hours later, the sports magic began. Jason Lezak saved Michael Phelps' quest for eight gold medals with the greatest swimming comeback the Olympics has ever seen. A week later, Phelps won his seventh gold with a half-stroke to the wall that enabled him to out-touch Serbia's Milorad Cavic by .01 seconds. Phelps' record eighth gold, and the Olympic immortality (and public infamy) it brought, was a mere formality after that. While the world was still waiting on Michael to close the deal, Usain Bolt won the 100 meters "by daylight," lowering his own world record and crushing the competition by a whopping two-tenths of a second, all while smacking his chest and celebrating for the final 15 meters. Somehow, Bolt upstaged himself with a scintillating 19.30 in the 200m, breaking Michael Johnson's 12-year-old world record - a mark thought to be unbeatable, at last for a decade or three. There were memorable gymnastics events (an American woman won the all-around for just the third time ever), basketball games, historic wins by countries that had been Olympic stepsisters, adoring crowds, incredible venues, Chinese dominance, Chinese heartbreak and a Summer Games that thankfully never lived up to the fear mongering that preceded it. In the end though, it was all about Phelps and Bolt. If Lezak doesn't make that comeback or Bolt's preening had cost him the gold, maybe we look back on Beijing differently. Instead we celebrate them as the greatest Olympics and the benchmark for all in the future.