With the bang of a timpani and blare of trumpets, the Olympic theme will soon be stuck in your head as the Olympic flame is lit in Tokyo. Athletes from around the world will eagerly compete in events postponed for a year due to the coronavirus pandemic, and here in the US my fellow Americans will cheer for Team USA. But before you position yourself in front of the television for 17 days, check out these little-known Team USA Olympic facts.
Heading into the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo (taking place in late July through early August 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic), Team USA has won 2,828 medals, making it the winningest nation in the history of the modern Olympics. And while you may know that Los Angeles is hosting the 2028 Summer Olympics or that Team USA swimmer Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympian of all time, you’ll likely be surprised to discover these 15 little-known Team USA Olympic facts.
1. First Team USA Woman to Win a Gold Medal
Although women were excluded from the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896, they were invited to participate in the next go-round — Paris in 1900. Born and raised in the US as Helen Barbey, sailor Hélène de Pourtalès was representing Switzerland when she became the first female Olympic champion. So the first American woman to win a gold medal for Team USA was Margaret Abbott. She shot 47 in nine holes to take first place in the golf competition, but because she was a woman, she received a porcelain bowl instead of a gold medal.
2. Bringing the Games Stateside
Long before the tiny Upstate New York town of Lake Placid and the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles hosted the Olympic Games, St. Louis was the first US city to host the Olympics. Although Chicago was originally slated to host the third modern Olympics in 1904, its organizers feared that the World’s Fair in St. Louis would draw too many people away from the Windy City. So in addition to showcasing the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904 (also known as the World’s Fair), the Gateway to the West also hosted the Games of the III Olympiad.
3. First African American to Win an Olympic Gold Medal
Several decades before Jesse Owens stood on the winner’s podium in Berlin, demonstrating the fallacy of Hitler’s deranged Aryan supremacy beliefs, another African American was the first to win an Olympic gold medal for Team USA. In the fourth modern Olympics, held in London in 1908, John Baxter Taylor Jr. was the first African American to win a gold medal as part of the men’s medley relay team.
4. A Switch Hitter (of Sorts)
Although thousands of athletes have competed in the modern Olympics over the past 125 years, only one American has won gold in both the Summer and Winter Games. Boxer turned bobsledder Eddie Eagan won the gold medal in the light-heavyweight division for boxing at the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium. Eight years later, he won a gold medal in bobsledding at the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid.
5. Tuning In On TV
In the 21st century, round-the-clock media coverage of the Olympic Games is as much a part of the event as the five interlocking circles on the Olympic flag or the percussion-and-brass-fueled theme song composed by John Williams. But did you know that the first Olympics in history to be televised were the 1960 Winter Games in Squaw Valley?
6. Forgotten Miracle
Known as the “Miracle on Ice,” one of the most memorable moments in Team USA Olympic history was when the men’s hockey team won the gold medal in Lake Placid in 1980. Coached by Herb Brooks, the team of American college students and amateurs stunned the world when it beat the Soviet national team, who had long dominated the sport. But did you know that the first US men’s hockey team to win gold was actually in the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California? And, in a surprising turn of events, before he would coach the 1980s men’s hockey team, Herb Brooks was the last player cut from the 1960s team by coach Jack Riley a week before the Olympic Games started.
7. Staying Home
When the modern Olympics began in 1896, athletes from 14 nations participated, including the United States. But despite its success in the games over the past 125 years, the winningest nation will never be able to join the elite few who have competed in every Olympics. Why? Because the United States boycotted the Moscow 1980 Summer Olympics, protesting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
8. Opening by The Gipper
Although it was the sixth Olympics held in the United States, the 1984 event in Los Angeles was the first Olympics to be opened by a US president. According to Olympic protocol, the person opening the Summer Olympics is to say, “I declare open the Games of [name of host city] celebrating the [number of the Olympiad] Olympiad of the modern era.” However, former actor turned president Ronald Reagan went slightly off script, saying, “Celebrating the XXIII Olympiad of the modern era, I declare open the Olympic Games of Los Angeles.”
9. An Equal Opportunity Long Overdue
Never part of the ancient Olympic Games, the marathon has one of the most fascinating histories of all sports included in the modern Olympics. And one of the most surprising facts is that women weren’t allowed to compete in the Olympic marathon until 1984. That’s more than 60 years after women earned the right to vote, more than two decades after the Equal Pay Act was signed, and nearly three years after the first woman was appointed to the US Supreme Court. Wow!
10. So Who Won the First Ever Women’s Olympic Marathon?
American long distance runner Joan Benoit was the first woman to win an Olympic gold medal, in the marathon at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. She covered the distance between Santa Monica College and the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in just under two hours and 23 minutes.
11. America’s Sweetheart
The women’s all-around gymnastics program debuted at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin where the host nation swept the category, earning gold, silver, and bronze. Then the Soviet Union and Soviet bloc nations dominated the sport for decades. But in 1984, at the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, American teenager Mary Lou Retton made history as the first American gymnast to win gold in the women’s all-around program.
12. Divide and Conquer
If Baby Boomers and Gen Xers think back to the Olympic Games of their childhoods, they’re likely to remember that the Olympics were once held every four years, with both the Summer and Winter Games taking place in the same year. However, 100 years after the advent of the modern Olympics, that tradition changed in 1996 at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
13. The World’s Fastest Ice
When it was built for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, the Olympic Oval was expected to have the world’s fastest ice. That’s because it is the world’s highest indoor ice rink at 4,675 feet above sea level, an elevation 30% higher than Calgary (the second-highest Olympic Oval). Higher altitudes equate to less air resistance for speed skaters. Plus, the ice is harder and denser, making the overall competition much faster. With 10 Olympic records and eight world records set in Salt Lake City’s Olympic Oval, this American Olympic host city retains bragging rights for the fastest ice on earth!
14. What It Would Take to Beat Michael Phelps
With 28 Olympic medals to his credit, it’s no surprise that Michael Phelps is a legendary athlete. But the gap between his gold medal count and the next Olympian is one that may never be closed. Over his 16-year Olympic career, Phelps swam to a record 23 gold medals. The next closest athlete, Cold War-era Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina, “only” has nine.
While some Olympic venues from around the world are abandoned and left to ruin, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum has held the opening and closing ceremonies of two Olympics. And in 2028, it will become the first stadium in the world to host three Olympic games.
Do You Have Olympic Fever?
What’s your favorite Olympic sport? Any other little-known Team USA Olympic facts you want to pass along? Share your experiences in the comments section below.
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