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Olympics: 10 signature moments


1. Michael Phelps' photo-finish victory over Milorad Cavic in the 100-meter butterfly at the Beijing Olympics (Aug. 16, 2008)Every Phelps swim in the Water Cube was impressive, but this one was a stunning sleight-of-hands trick. Several meters from the finish, Cavic, who'd dominated the race, was still ahead. But with one last, fast, half-stroke, Phelps touched the wall first by .01 of a second, equaled Mark Spitz's total of seven golds in one Games and all but guaranteed that he would win a record eighth (as he did in a relay the next day). With its Phelpsian brilliance, high-tech suits and upstart challenger (Cavic, swimming for Serbia, symbolized a new wave of medalists from smaller countries), the race conjoined three of the biggest Olympic stories of the era.

2. The election of Jacques Rogge as IOC president (July 16, 2001)The decade's least flamboyant but most influential Olympic figure was an orthopedic surgeon from Belgium who helped restore the scandal-plagued IOC to respectability. Rogge, who at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games stayed in the athletes' village rather than a luxury hotel as a signal of change, dispensed with much of the IOC's royal pomposity, worked to contain mushrooming host-city costs, oversaw the approval of new sports (including golf, rugby, women's boxing and snowboardcross) and welcomed the awarding of the Games to more daring sites such as Beijing and Rio de Janeiro. Even Rogge's critics had to acknowledge that his election saved the IOC from likely calamity: The runner-up in the 2001 balloting was Kim Un Yong, who by mid-decade was imprisoned in his native South Korea for embezzlement and bribery.

3. Marion Jones' tearful apology on the steps of the federal courthouse in White Plains, N.Y. (Oct. 5, 2007)No Olympic champion -- not Jim Thorpe, not Ben Johnson -- ever fell farther than the world's greatest female athlete, who won five track and field medals (three gold) at the 2000 Sydney Games but eight years later was disgraced, bankrupt, medal-less and in jail. The poster girl of the steroid decade had bad luck with men (her husband, her boyfriend and her coach all were embroiled in performance-enhancing drug scandals), but she was responsible for her own downfall. By the time she owned up to her steroid use, she had lied to prosecutors about it and about her role in a check-fraud scam; she eventually served almost six months in prison in Texas. Jones' courthouse speech about her "wrong choices and bad decisions" doesn't rank with sports' great orations, but it belongs on any collection of significant Olympic moments.

4. Usain Bolt's 100-meter victory in Beijing (Aug. 16, 2008)His win in the 200 might have been a greater athletic feat -- he took down Michael Johnson's daunting world record of 19.32 seconds -- but the 100 came first and was a mind-bender. After pulling away from the field like a thoroughbred racing draft horses, Bolt glanced back 15 meters from the finish, saw no one, eased up, put his arms out like airplane wings, pounded his chest ... and still destroyed the world record. And then celebrated his way around the track. His mark of 9.69 seconds didn't last a year (he chopped it to an insane 9.58 at the 2009 worlds), but memories of his domination and exuberance will not soon fade.

5. The U.S. basketball loss to Argentina in the semifinals of the 2004 Athens Games (Aug. 27, 2004)

The poor-shooting Bad-Dream Team, led by Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson, had already suffered the first two Olympic defeats in the history of American men's basketball, 92-73 to Puerto Rico and 94-90 to Lithuania. But if those could be explained away (delusionally) as freak losses in early rounds by a team that hadn't hit its stride, the 89-81 semifinal defeat spoke with finality: The world had, once and for all, caught up. Recognizing the need to change, the U.S. revamped its selection system, picked a team tailored to the international game and gave the squad more time to play together. In Beijing the U.S. Redeem Team lived up to its name -- but basketball gold will never again come easily.

6. The dubious scoring of the pairs competition by French figure-skating judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne in Salt Lake City (Feb. 11, 2002)

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By giving Russians Yelena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze higher marks than Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier, who had the superior performance, Le Gougne ensured that the Russian duo would win the gold medal. In the uproar that followed, Le Gougne said she'd been pressured to vote for the Russians, allegedly as part of a deal under which French and Russian judges would help the other country's skaters win medals (an allegation that was never proved). End result: The awarding of a second set of golds, to the Canadian pair; the suspension of Le Gougne and the head of the French skating federation for three years; and a new system of scoring in figure skating that dramatically changed the sport but, alas, doesn't preclude another judging scandal.

7. Cathy Freeman wins the 400 meters in Sydney (Sept. 25, 2000)

At the confluence of history and sport and theater flowed a woman of Aboriginal descent, running free in the Olympic Stadium, uniting a nation, defining a new era. To the roar of more than 110,000 countrymen, Freeman strode gracefully through the night air in a hooded track suit, veiled yet unmistakable. The Aussies' high-spirited, Good-On-Ya Games had one of the happiest vibes of any Olympics, but Freeman's victory was not merely uplifting -- it was also profoundly moving. In a stadium where she had already lit the cauldron, Freeman kindled a flame that would burn long beyond the 17 days of competition.

8. Liu Xiang's victory in the 110-meter hurdles in Athens (Aug. 27, 2004)

An unexpected win in world-record time not only made Liu China's first track-and-field gold medalist, but also transformed the willowy 21-year-old from Shanghai into the face of the Beijing Games four years hence. Beyond that, it declared the arrival of the next great Olympic power, a reality confirmed by China's place atop the gold-medal standings in 2008. Liu didn't share in the glory in Beijing; plagued by a painful right Achilles, he grimaced and limped off the track before his first-round heat, stunning his nation and providing an image as compelling as his triumph in Athens.

9. Shaun White's halfpipe gold medal at the Turin Games (Feb. 12, 2006)

An underplayed story of the decade was the emergence of the U.S. as a Winter Olympics force. Having won no more than 13 medals at any previous Winter Games, the U.S. claimed 34 as the home team in Salt Lake City and 25 more in Turin. The breakthrough was driven by the addition of two decades' worth of new sports, from short-track speedskating to skeleton to snowboarding, in which White was a global star even before he dominated the final in Italy. The Flying Tomato's victory elevated 'boarding's place in the Olympic realm and, more significant, conferred on the Games a new sense of coolness.

10. Eric (the Eel) Moussambani's comically slow 100-meter freestyle in Sydney (Sept. 19, 2000)

The swimmer from Equatorial Guinea needed nearly two minutes -- and quite nearly a life preserver -- to finish a full lap, perhaps not surprising given that he'd taken up the sport only eight months earlier and had never seen a 50-meter pool before arriving in Australia. Yet though his performance and good nature made him a cult hero, his legacy could be less cheerful: His embarrassingly slow time caused officials to tighten qualifying standards in a number of sports, including swimming, reducing the likelihood that we'll ever see another quite like him.