The iconic image of the five hoop rings linked together symbolizing the Olympic Games is an image all of us are familiar with. And, for athletes from around the world, achieving a goal like winning a medal for your endeavors is a dream that can be fulfilled before thrilled spectators across the globe.
However, participants also achieve many other accomplishments away from the rings, pools and fields, including raising awareness for movements in politics, racial inequity and the spirit of simply asking to be accepted for who you are. Decades of U.S. Olympians can claim that not only did they “medal” in their respective fields, but they also made in-roads in many social areas that were obscured by the glare of the glory of competition and sportsmanship.
Meanwhile, back home, things were less than idyllic for some when it came to being accepted or embraced. Americans set aside their opinions about an athlete’s race, gender, sexual orientation or political views and embraced them as fellow countrymen, compatriots in a global effort to achieve excellence recognized by people worldwide.
Yet, in a country that espouses “freedom and justice for all” there was segregation, socially accepted racial prejudices and views that women were somehow beneath men in not only sports, but life achievements as well.
Here are just a handful of memorable Americans, some of whom shattered not only records, but antiquated viewpoints globally and nationally, opening the doors for change.
15 George Coleman Poage
DATELINE: August 1904, St. Louis MO. Hometown hero makes Olympic history today, as the first Black American to medal in the games, bringing home two Bronze in track and field.
This was what people would have read at the turn of the century, when George Coleman Poage broke the “color line” participating in the Olympic Games only 120 miles from his birthplace of Hannibal MO in 1880. From there, he moved north becoming a standout on his high school track team, setting records.
He was the first African American to graduate from La Crosse High School, and went on to college where he honed his skills. He did meet with some resistance from his own race, who wanted a boycott of the games. Both the protests and Coleman’s showing lead to tearing down barriers less than 40 years removed from the Civil War.
14 Jim Thorpe
A Native American, borne in OK in 1887, was given the Potawatomi Indian name Wa-Tho-Huk, which translates to “Bright Path”. Indeed, his path was bright, but rocky too, as a student he was rarely in class, but, did love the outdoors and was discovered by legendary football coach Pop Warner, while attending school in PN in 1907.
He joined the track team, which propelled him into the limelight, going on to find Olympic glory as a gold medalist in the 1912 Sweden games. But, controversy surfaced as Thorpe was found to have been paid to play baseball, which nullified his status as an “amateur” athlete, and led to his medals being stripped.
After a long and colorful career as professional football star, multi-sport athlete and even movie actor, Thorpe did have his medals reinstated nearly 30 years after his death in 1953.
13 Peggy Fleming
What started as a hobby became a catapult to Olympic gold, and marked America’s fledgling return to figure skating prominence, following the tragic deaths of the entire U.S. team en route to an international competition in 1961.
Fleming, a California native born in 1948, wowed international crowds at the winter games in France in 1968 while winning America’s only gold in ice skating after an amazing amateur career.
Thirty years later to the day, Fleming had a malignant breast cancer tumor removed, and has been a staunch advocate for the anti-cancer movement since, donating monies from her personal business ventures to the cause, including earnings she made from the California winery she owned until 2012.
12 Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali)
A uniquely American icon born in 1942, the Olympic gold medal boxer fought nearly as many bouts outside the ring as he did in it.
Known for his speed and strength, the Louisville, KY native captured gold for the U.S. boxing team in Rome during the 1960 games. But, upon his return to America, he began to fight a battle against the draft board as a conscientious objector in 1967, following his conversion to the Islamic faith three years earlier.
He finally won in a Supreme Court appeal, after being stripped of the Heavyweight title and being forbidden to fight. He returned to the ring after a three-year absence and reclaimed his glory as “The Greatest” for several years.
After boxing, Ali continued to fight for civil, political and religious rights. He passed away early in 2016, from complications of Parkinson’s disease.
11 Jesse Owens
The Alabama Native born in 1913 will be forever remembered as the American athlete who ruined the 1936 Berlin games for then leader of Nazi Germany, Adolph Hitler and his “Master Race” ideology.
Though he won four gold medals and was a star at Ohio State in his college days, he still battled racism in the U.S. Breaking two Olympic records along the way, Owens, while standing up for America’s “ideals” in the face of Hitler’s superior race rhetoric, had to come back home to a country where he couldn’t even use the same drinking fountain as a White American.
Ironically, Owens died from lung cancer in 1980, reported to be a pack a day cigarette smoker after retiring from sports.
10 George Foreman
Long before he was helping to knock out fat from your burgers at home, the two-time Heavyweight champ was a force in the boxing ring. He claimed Olympic glory for the U.S. in the 1968 games in Mexico City, bringing home a gold medal after defeating his Russian opponent, during the “Cold War” between the then-Soviet Union and America.
He and another Olympic hero, the great Muhammad Ali battled in the now famous “Rumble in the Jungle” held in Zaire in 1974, where Foreman lost his title, in part to Ali’s “rope-a-dope” technique letting Foreman wear himself out throwing futile punches at “The Greatest”.
Foreman came back 20 years later and at age 45, won the title a 2nd time knocking out a younger Michael Moorer. He is now a successful business man and spokesman.
9 Jackie Joyner-Kersee
Referred to by some as “The Greatest Female Athlete of the 20th Century,” she still stands as the most decorated female track and field star in the history of the games. In all, Joyner-Kersee won 3 gold medals, 1 silver and 2 bronze during her amazing career.
She began her rocket ride in East St. Louis MO, born in 1962, and eventually went to college on a full scholarship to UCLA, where she set records and prepared for her Olympic dominance, which spanned a whopping 4 Olympic games, from 1984 until 1996. Her records in many events still stand to this day, a testament to her amazing skills.
These days, she’s an avid supporter of youth sports, raising awareness of the need for kids to participate in sporting activities, not just for the exercise, but to learn the spirit of team work, goal setting and making your dreams happen.
8 1980 U.S. Hockey Team
Dubbed “The Miracle on Ice,” the American men’s hockey squad, clear underdogs, stepped up and defeated a much favored and more powerful Soviet team to move on in the Lake Placid games to a gold medal match against a dominant Finish group.
The American amateurs, mainly consisting of players Coach Herb Brooks guided while at the University of Minnesota, pulled together to pull off an amazing run.
After a handful of exhibition games, the Americans were ready for the big stage, and in an epic display of grit and determination, they came back in the semi-final round, eventually scoring the winning goal with around 10 minutes left in the game.
The victory not only shocked the world, it was a political “in your face” as well to the Soviets, at the time still our nemesis in a global game of nuclear “chicken.”
7 Michael Jordan
After an inauspicious high school career, MJ went on to star at the University of North Carolina, hitting his first big trademark final shot to send home Georgetown in the 1982 NCAA Men’s Championship.
Born in New York in 1963, but raised in North Carolina, the “Tarheel” went on to become one of the NBA’s most decorated players, as well as striking Olympic gold not once, but twice; first, as a college athlete at the Los Angeles games in 1984 and then when Pro players were allowed, he headed up America’s original “Dream Team” in the 1992 version in Spain.
An avid golfer in his off time now, he uses a tournament named for him to raise funds for his many charitable foundations, while running the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats.
6 Florence Joyner
Affectionately tagged “Flo Jo,” she participated in two Olympic games where she set world records in women’s track and field that still stand today.
Many think she is fellow speedster Jackie Joyner-Kersee’s sister, but in fact, she was her sister-in-law, having married her coach Al Joyner, Jackie’s brother.
During the games in 1984 and again in 1988, she showed off her flashiness and speed, taking home medals in the 200 and 400 meter events, smashing speed records along the way.
She spent her retirement from athletics working with youth and her foundations. She tragically died at the early age of 38, after an epileptic seizure in 1998. Joyner was inducted into the Track and Field Hall of Fame just three years earlier.
5 Carl Lewis
Among his numerous accolades, the American track star was labeled “Sportsman of the Century” by the International Olympic committee, having swept a number of medals throughout his career.
The New Jersey product was born in 1961, and following an amazing high school career, he attended University of Houston where he became even more proficient at his craft.
Lewis participated in four Olympic games all, in 1984, 1988, 1992 and finally in 1996. He won an astonishing nine gold medals during that run, and after retiring, he was so respected as an athlete, that he was drafted by BOTH the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys and NBA’s Chicago Bulls, though he never played for either club.
4 Bruce (Caitlyn) Jenner
Although she only came away from the 1976 Olympic games in Montreal with one gold medal, as Bruce Jenner, she was the first athlete to take a victory lap with the American flag, and was featured on the Wheaties cereal box.
Capitalizing on her fame, Jenner went on to star in TV shows doing cameo appearances, giving her an early taste for what would come later.
Jenner was born in New York in 1949, and after having to quit football following an injury, she changed her focus to track and field. Though not performing well at the 1972 Munich games, Jenner game back and set a record in the decathlon.
In more recent years, Jenner married into the now famous Kardashian clan, hurtling her into the limelight of reality TV stardom. In 2015 Jenner revealed she identifies as a woman, stopped calling herself Bruce, and took on the name Caitlyn, and now works as an advocate for the rights of the transgendered.
3 Mark Spitz
Along with Jenner, swimmer Spitz adorned a box of Wheaties cereal, after capturing what was then an unheard of seven gold medals during his time in the pool at the 1972 Munich. Though he did win two others four years earlier, they were both team events.
Spitz hails from Modesto CA, born in 1950 and did his collegiate swimming for Indiana University. Of Jewish decent, he wasted little time getting home to the U.S. and then retiring from the sport due to the backdrop of the murders of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists.
Spitz tried his hand at acting, but, eventually settled down in CA with a successful real estate business and does motivational speaking. His record number of medals was bested in 2008 by fellow countryman Michael Phelps.
2 Michael Phelps
Like the famous bunny, he keeps on going and going. Including the most recent Rio games, America’s aquatic phenom has a lifetime total of 28 gold medals, the most decorated athlete in the country’s history.
He came close to Spitz in the 2004 Athens games, garnering 6 golds, but he went beyond even the worldwide attention that drew, by topping it with eight gold medals in 2008 in Spain. He also is the only athlete to be on five Olympic teams, from 2000 until 2016. And, there’s even talk that he may even go for a sixth time in Tokyo in 2020.
Phelps did have to fend off some controversy; when he was arrested for drunk driving in 2004, his public image took a mild hit. But his athleticism and contrition trumped the issue, and has led to him being one of America’s most heralded and respected competitors. Phelps was born in 1985 in Maryland.
1 Simone Biles
One of America’s new generation and youngest gymnastics stars, Biles has left audiences breathless with her feats in both individual and team events, making her the nation’s darling with 5 gold medals.
The petite 19-year-old from Columbus, OH has been tumbling and springing all her young life. She had a tough go early, having been raised by her grandparents when her mother who suffered from addiction issues could not. But, it was her resilient spirit that brought her through that, and helped lead to the grit and determination she now shows as one of the world’s best gymnasts, and leading up the U.S. Women’s team, tagged “The Final Five” for these Rio games.
Her contagious smile and quick wit have endeared her to Americans across the continent, and is a shining example of the excellence the U.S.A. can display on the world stage in both grace and victory.