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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
The Munich Olympics did not lack for outstanding performances. Mark Spitz won a record seven gold medals in swimming, the charismatic Soviet teenager Olga Korbut helped make gymnastics a sport with mass appeal and U.S. wrestler Dan Gable won gold at 141 pounds without surrendering a single point.
Frank Shorter became the first American to win the Olympic marathon in 64 years and Lasse Viren resurrected Finnish dominance in the distance events, winning the 5,000 and 10,000 meters, the latter in world record time.
But these were the Games when Palestinian terrorists killed two Israelis in the Olympic Village, kidnapped nine more and murdered those athletes during a shootout with German police at the Munich airport.
There also was highly questionable officiating. In the gold medal basketball game, officials twice put time back on the clock in the final seconds, allowing the Soviet Union to score a buzzer-beating basket for a 51-50 victory and end the Americans' Olympic unbeaten streak at 62 games.
U.S. swimmer Rick DeMont lost his gold medal in the 400 meters when it turned out U.S. swim team doctors were unaware he was using a banned asthma medication even though DeMont had listed it on his medical form.
In track, befuddled IAAF officials went back and forth debating whether pole vaulters could use a new pole that had been introduced at the beginning of the season. The officials ultimately banned the poles just two days before the Olympic competition and gave defending Olympic champion Bob Seagren a pole he had never used before. Seagren finished second to East Germany's Wolfgang Nordwig who had only vaulted with the old pole and was unaffected by the ban.
Two American 100-meter competitors were eliminated before the quarterfinals because their coach had misread the schedule and did not get them to the track on time.
And in an ominous sign of doping controversies to come, East Germany's Renate Stecher, who looked more like a linebacker than a sprinter, won the women's 100 and 200 meters. Nearly a quarter-century later it was revealed Stecher had been given an anabolic steroid for two years before the Munich Games.
For starters, St. Louis wasn't even supposed to have the Olympics. The Games had been awarded to Chicago but St. Louis, then the nation's fourth largest city, threatened to hold its own athletic competition in conjunction with the 1904 World's Fair that marked the 100th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase. President Theodore Roosevelt entered the debate and chose St. Louis. It was not one of Roosevelt's better decisions as the fair's popularity overwhelmed the Olympics.
Barely a dozen national teams showed up in St. Louis, a difficult destination for most of the world to reach in the days before planes and paved highways. Even modern Olympics founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin didn't make the trip from France.
Most embarrassing was the finish of the men's marathon where American Ed Lorz entered the stadium first and was considered the winner. Right before the medal ceremony, however, the truth came out: Lorz had actually stopped running after nine miles, hitched a car ride back to the stadium and had run the final miles after the car broke down (this was 1904, after all).
The actual winner was another American, Thomas Hicks. Today Hicks would have been disqualified for receiving doses of strychnine sulfate and sips of brandy during the race from his trainers.
Spread over 4 ½ months the Games played second fiddle to the hubbub of the world's fair, which drew 50 more nations than the Olympics. The fair, which helped popularize the ice cream cone and was immortalized by the song "Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis" was a hit. Not so the Olympics.
A dry run for the St. Louis debacle took place four years earlier when the Olympics were held the same time as the 1900 Paris World's Fair. De Coubertin was given a secondary role in planning, and fair organizers spread the Games over 5 ½ months between May 14 and Oct. 28.
It was hard to tell what was an Olympic event and what was part of the fair. Olympic historian David Wallechinsky wrote: "Many athletes died without ever knowing that they had participated in the Olympics."
There were no closing ceremonies and no medals. About the only positives were that 28 nations competed, double the number at Athens four years earlier, and that women participated for the first time.
Paris did redeem itself with the superbly organized 1924 Olympics, the Games made famous by the Oscar-winning film
The U.S.-led boycott of the Games to protest the Soviet Union's ongoing invasion of Afghanistan resulted in 65 nations staying home from the only summer Olympics ever held behind the Iron Curtain. Eighty nations arrived at the Soviet capital, the lowest number since the 1956 Games in Melbourne, Australia.
Use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs continued as East German athletes ran up big medal totals in women's swimming and track and field.
There was also evidence of cheating by Soviet bloc officials, particularly in the men's triple jump. Phantom fouls were called on Brazilian world record holder Joao Carlos de Oliveira and on Australian Ian Campbell, who appeared to have the longest jump of the competition. The fouls cleared the way for Soviets Jaak Uudmae and three-time Olympic champion Victor Saneyev to finish 1-2.
And in the javelin, an apparent foul by the USSR's Dainis Kula was ruled a fair throw by Soviet officials, allowing Kula to reach the final round and ultimately win the gold medal.
The Olympics that featured Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci, Cuban track star Alberto Juantorena and a powerhouse U.S. men's swim team are best remembered for what went wrong: a boycott by more than 20 African nations; tainted medals in women's swimming by a steroid-addled East German team; and financial disaster for the host city.
Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere, whose quarter century of leadership oversaw a collapsed economy and political corruption, called for his fellow African nations to boycott the Montreal Games after New Zealand's rugby team had visited South Africa. That nation's apartheid policies were anathema to the rest of the continent.
Even though rugby was not an Olympic sport, Nyerere agitated for New Zealand's ouster from the Games. When the International Olympic Committee rightly argued that it had no jurisdiction over rugby and that New Zealand was welcome, the Africans stayed home, including Kenya, Ethiopia and Tanzania's Flibert Bayi, world-record holder in the 1,500 meters.
Four years earlier at Munich, East German female swimmers had failed to win one gold medal. At Montreal they dominated, winning 11 of 13 events. Their huge bodies and deep voices raised questions to which one East German Fraulein answered: "We're here to swim, not sing."
After German unification two decades later, documents proved the systematic use of performance enhancing drugs by East German athletes in a variety of sports, including women's swimming.
The legacy of the Montreal Olympics did not end with the closing ceremonies. Poor financial planning and budget overruns saddled Montreal and Quebec residents with more than 30 years of debts totaling $1 billion. And the white elephant of an Olympic stadium stands empty after the departure of the Montreal Expos in 2005.