‘Let’s show them who’s boss:’ Nine times Team USA won more than gold at the Olympic Games


Audiences around the world are turning their eyes to Tokyo this summer, hoping to catch a glimpse of history at the Olympic Games.   

But the games will also remind viewers of iconic moments from past Olympics, from gold medals to injuries and political statements. 

Matthew Andrews, associate teaching professor at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, explained to USA TODAY that the United States has “used the Olympic Games as a showcase for American greatness,” since the first modern games in 1896.  

“The Olympics provide a forum for America to sort of broadcast itself on the international stage,” Andrews said.  

With Tokyo Olympics upon us, here are some of Team USA’s most memorable moments: 

Jesse Owens wins gold in Nazi Germany  

Jesse Owens made history after winning four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany, sweeping in the 100 meter, 200 meter, long jump and 4×100-meter competitions. 

The Black track and field star’s victory flew in the face of Adolph Hitler’s goal for the games – to promote Nazi propaganda.

“To have an African American man come through and just blow everybody away, it was very symbolic,” Jane Rogers, a curator at the National Museum of American History, told USA TODAY. 

Sprinters send message with Black Power salute 

American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos sent a Black Power salute to the world at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. 

As they received their gold and bronze medals in the men’s 200 meter race, the sprinters lowered their heads and raised their fists in the air.    

“In many ways we sort of see this as the start of athlete activists,” Andrews said, citing ex-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and other athletes who have since used their fame to protest and raise awareness.  

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Mary Lou Retton wins gold in gymnastics  

At 16-years-old, Mary Lou Retton in 1984 became the first American woman to win an Olympic all-around gold medal for gymnastics.  

Retton, who was inspired by Romanian gymnast Nadia Comăneci, would go on to win four additional medals at the 1984 games in Los Angeles, be named Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press and more.

Her victory “catapulted the women gymnasts onto a different level than they ever had been,” Rogers said. 

Florence Griffith Joyner sets records  

Florence Griffith Joyner, or “Flo-Jo,” set the world record for the 100 meter and the 200 meter sprints during the 1988 Olympic trials and Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea. 

Griffith Joyner’s records remain unbroken today, and her performances in both the 1984 and 1988 Olympic Games have cemented her in track and field history.    

Dream Team becomes a phenomenon  

The 1992 U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team, made up of basketball stars including Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing and others became known as “The Dream Team.”  

The team took center stage at the Olympics in Barcelona, Spain in 1992, bringing home the gold and beating its eight opponents by an average of 44 points, according to the NBA.  

The victory came after the United States’ men’s basketball team lost to the Soviet team in 1988, Andrews noted. So the Dream Team wanted to send a clear message to the world during the next Olympic Games.  

“Let’s show them who’s boss,” Andrews said. “Here in the United States we invented basketball.” 

Kerri Strug’s historic injury

At the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, gymnast Kerri Strug injured her ankle on a crucial vault. But the U.S. women’s gymnastics team needed one more vault at the games.

Strug limped up to the competition and managed to stick her landing before falling to her knees in pain. The gymnast’s coach, Béla Károlyi, famously carried her to the podium to receive gold alongside her teammates.

Strug cemented herself in sports history alongside the 1996 U.S. gymnastics team known as “The Magnificent Seven.”  

Muhammad Ali returns to the Olympics  

Boxing legend Muhammad Ali surprised the world at the start of the 1996 Olympics when he lit the cauldron during the game’s opening ceremonies.

Nearly 40 years after winning a gold medal for boxing, Ali emerged as a torch bearer at the opening ceremony. Organizers managed to keep his involvement a secret, shocking viewers as he was handed the torch by swimmer Janet Evans.  

Ali lit the cauldron even while shaking as he suffered from Parkinson’s Disease, making the image one of the most moving moments of the Olympics’ opening ceremonies. 

Michael Phelps brings home record-breaking gold   

Swimming legend Michael Phelps has won 28 Olympic medals across five Olympic Games.  

But in 2008, Phelps won a historic eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics, breaking Olympian Mark Spitz’s 1972 record for the most first-place medals won at a single Olympics – seven.   

Abbey Cooper lends a hand to a competitor  

During the women’s 5000 meter race at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016, runner Abbey Cooper, formerly D’Agostino, fell to the track alongside New Zealand’s Nikki Hamblin.  

But Cooper didn’t leave her fellow Olympian behind. Instead, she went to Hamblin, helped her up and encouraged her to keep running.  

After the now-viral moment, Cooper, who tore her ACL and sustained other injuries from the incident, explained that “Simple acts of kindness are recognized and people are drawn to them.” 

“It resonates with people,” she said at the time, the AP reported. “It’s cool to have something like that shine.”

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