Posted: Friday July 27, 2012 9:32AM ; Updated: Friday July 27, 2012 4:36PM
Richard Rothschild
Richard Rothschild>SPORTS HISTORY

Ranking the five best and five worst Summer Olympic Games

Story Highlights

Rome, Barcelona among the best Games; Munich, St. Louis top list of worst

Barcelona featured original Dream Team, Carl Lewis winning two gold medals

Munich marred by terrorists killing Israeli athletes, basketball clock controversy

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Wilma Rudolph was the darling of the 1960 Olympics in Rome, winnng three gold medals and capturing the admiration of the world.
Wilma Rudolph was the darling of the 1960 Olympics in Rome, winnng three gold medals and capturing the admiration of the world.
AP

Rating Olympic Games is not a cut-and-dried exercise. Even those Games marred by tragedy and/or incompetence contain performances of brilliance that resound decades later.

The 1972 Munich Olympics were darkened by the murder of 11 Israeli athletes and the botched ending to the Soviet Union-U.S. basketball final but also featured Mark Spitz, Olga Korbut and Frank Shorter.

Olympics have fallen flat in a world-class city like Paris yet bloomed in smaller locales such as Helsinki and Barcelona.

What were the best -- and worst -- summer Olympics? Here are a top and bottom five based on athletic performances, historic importance, aesthetics, organization and lasting impact.

Best Olympic Games

1. Rome, 1960

No Olympics has better blended the modern with the ancient. Rome built sparkling new facilities for track and swimming but also recognized its ancient heritage. Wrestling was held in the 2,000-year-old Basilica of Maxentius, gymnastics was conducted in the Baths of Caracalla and the marathon was run along parts of the ancient Appian Way and finished, at night, in front of the massive Arch of Constantine.

These were the first Olympic Games televised in North America and viewers received a treasure trove of athletic excellence.

Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and Jerry Lucas led the greatest amateur basketball team in Olympic history as the U.S. devoured the competition, winning its nine games by an average of more than 40 points.

Glamorous Wilma Rudolph, who overcame polio as a child, became the first U.S. black female Olympic sensation by winning the 100 and 200 meters and anchoring the 4x100 relay to another gold medal. The French called her "The Black Gazelle."

One of Rudolph's many admirers was a gregarious 18-year-old boxer named Cassius Clay who talked up a storm while pounding opponents on his way to a light-heavyweight gold medal. He later changed his name to Muhammad Ali and became one of sport's transcendent figures.

Otis Davis of the U.S. broke the 45-second barrier in the 400 meters and Australia's Herb Elliot shattered his own 1,500 world record on the same day.

In the decathlon world record holder Rafer Johnson of the U.S. went to the final strides of the 10th and final event, the 1,500 meters, before clinching the gold medal over his UCLA teammate Yang C.K. of Taiwan. The two great foes -- and friends -- walked wearily off the track together.

Few had heard of Ethiopia's Abebe Bikila before the start of the marathon. Then he began running -- barefoot. Bikila strode through the streets of a darkening Rome, his path lit by thousands of candles and flashlights. He finished first at the Arch of Constantine in a world-best 2 hours 15 minutes 16.2 seconds, the first black African to win a gold medal.

2. Barcelona, 1992

These were the first summer Olympics held after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of apartheid in South Africa and the first not to be affected by boycotts since 1972. A record 169 nations traveled to the Catalonian capital, which staged an artistic and athletic hit that revitalized Barcelona -- and the Olympics.

Germany fielded its first unified Olympic team since 1964 and the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia sent their first squads since 1936. The diving events were held outdoors with the Sagrada Familia church serving as a spectacular backdrop.

Twenty years after the Munich massacre of their countrymen, Yael Arad and Oren Smadja became the first Israeli athletes to win Olympic medals with a silver and bronze respectively in judo.

The U.S. Dream Team of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird helped bring professional basketball to the Olympics and raised the profile of their sport around the world. So dominant was the U.S. that coach Chuck Daly never called a timeout.

Equally dominant was gymnast Vitaly Scherbo of Belarus who won six gold medals, four in one day.

Carl Lewis won his third of his four straight gold medals in the long jump and anchored the 4x100 relay to a world record 37.40 seconds with perhaps the most explosive 100 meters of his brilliant career.

Deratu Tulu of Ethiopia became the first black African woman to medal when she won the 10,000 meters, edging South Africa's Elana Meyer, a white runner. Meyer was the first South African medalist since her country's ban from the Olympics after 1960 due to its apartheid policy. The two shared a victory lap together, a show of solidarity for a new Africa.

And in the men's 400 semifinals Derek Redmond of Great Britain tore his right hamstring near the midway point of the race. As he struggled to his feet a figure ran onto the track. It was Redmond's father, Jim, who would help his emotionally and physically shattered son remain upright and cross the finish line. The crowd of 65,000 didn't know whether to cry or applaud. Most did both.

3. Helsinki, 1952

Six decades after advertisers and additional events have combined to make the Olympics more grandiose than grand the Helsinki Games shine as a small-scale masterpiece.

Starting with the legendary Finnish distance runner Paavo Nurmi carrying the Olympic flame around the Olympic stadium track and culminating with an unprecedented 5,000-10,000-marathon triple by Emil Zatopek of Czecholsovakia, Helsinki produced a series of gems.

The powerful Soviet Union team joined the Olympics for the first time and finished second in the medal count behind the U.S. The Soviets began a dynasty in women's gymnastics as Maria Gorochovskia and Nina Bocharova finished 1-2 in the first Olympic women's all-around competition and helped the USSR win the team event.

A true U.S.-Soviet showdown came in the 3,000-meter steeplechase where FBI agent Horace Ashenfelter ran a world-record 8 minutes 45.4 seconds to defeat Vladimir Kazantsev, the previous record holder. U.S. journalists had fun describing the Soviet tailing the FBI agent in the only Olympic steeplechase title won by an American.

The Games' seminal moment came July 27, the final day of track and field. In the greatest relay in Olympic track history Jamaica's 4x400 team defeated the U.S. by one meter with a world record 3:03.9 that shattered the former mark by more than four seconds. Herb McKenley's dazzling third leg of 44.6 seconds (the 400 world record was 45.8) had given the Jamaicans their slight lead that anchorman George Rhoden barely maintained against Mal Whitfield of the U.S.

As the Jamaicans celebrated, into the stadium strode Zatopek, well ahead of his fellow competitors in the marathon. When Zatopek, who later called the marathon "a very boring race," crossed the finish line in Olympic record time, the Jamaican team lifted him on their shoulders. They were athletes from very different cultures in very different events united by Olympic excellence.

4. Berlin, 1936

It is hard to praise any endeavor associated with Adolf Hitler and his Nazi henchmen, but the Berlin Olympics were a grand spectacle that featured one of the most exhilarating performances in the history of sport.

This was the first Olympics with a torch relay, the first to have an official Olympic film (director Leni Riefenstahl had a brief but passionate romance with decathlon gold medalist Glenn Morris) and the first to be televised -- on large outdoor TV screens around Berlin. The telecast of Hitler's opening of the Games on Aug. 1, 1936, was later included in the science fiction movie Contact.

Basketball made its Olympic debut and U.S. diver Marjorie Gestring, 13, became the youngest female gold medalist in Olympic history.

But it was the performance of U.S. black athletes that highlighted the Games and threw Hitler's toxic ideas of racial superiority right back in the Fuhrer's face. First was Cornelius Johnson, who won the high jump at an Olympic record 6-feet, 8 inches. Hitler had personally congratulated the day's first two winners but left the Olympic stadium before Johnson received his gold medal. The IOC told Hitler, who referred to U.S. athletes of color as "black auxiliaries," that he must greet all winners or none. He greeted no more -- at least not publicly.

Archie Williams then won the 400 meters and John Woodruff rallied to win the 800, but the Olympic performance for the ages came from Ohio State's Jesse Owens. Owens won the 100 meters, set an Olympic record in winning the 200 (Jackie Robinson's brother Mack finished second), set another Olympic mark in the long jump that lasted until 1960 and ran the leadoff leg on the world record 4x100 relay team that included fellow black Ralph Metcalfe.

5. 1912, Stockholm

Just as the eight-game 1912 classic between the Boston Red Sox and New York Giants unveiled the dramatic potential of the World Series, the '12 Games showcased an Olympics with superior organization and performances that were, in a word, Olympian. Jim Thorpe didn't hurt, either.

After a positive start in Athens in 1896, the modern Olympic Games nearly tumbled into oblivion. The disastrous 1900 Paris and 1904 St. Louis Olympics were paired with world's fairs and became sideshows. The 1908 London Games steadied the Olympic brand although the host nation added British-centric events like motorboat racing and tug-of-war to help it dominate the medal count.

Stockholm boosted the Olympics to another level as a record-tying 28 nations journeyed to Sweden including Japan, the first Asian nation to compete in the Games. Cycling, fencing, soccer, tennis, rowing, shooting, yachting and women's swimming joined the program as did the multi-discipline modern pentathlon. The top American pentathlete was George S. Patton, the future World War II general, who finished fifth.

A public address system was used for the first time and there were even separate competitions for literature, sculpture, painting, architecture and music.

Duke Kahanamoku, later known as the father of modern surfing, won the 100 meters in swimming, and Hannes Kolehmainen started Finland's distance running dynasty with wins in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters as well as cross country. Ted Meredith of the U.S. set a world record in the 800 and Michigan's Ralph Craig swept the 100 and 200.

But above all the athletic excellence at Stockholm towered Thorpe, whose Native American name was "Bright Path." After placing fourth in the high jump and seventh in the long jump, the former All-America football star dominated the multi-event competitions, first winning the five-event pentathlon (discontinued after 1924) and then the decathlon. His world record point total in the decathlon was so far ahead of its time it would have won a silver medal at the 1948 London Olympics.

Sweden's King Gustav V greeted Thorpe by saying, "You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world."

Thorpe's simple response: "Thanks, King."

Honorable mention: Los Angeles, 1932; Melbourne, 1956; Tokyo, 1964; Los Angeles, 1984; Sydney, 2000.

 
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