Listening to late-night sports radio on the AM dial last night, I caught an interesting topic: who would be the four heads on an “Olympics Mt. Rushmore?” Good question. The topic was spawned by the obvious: Michael Phelps destroying everyone and taking home five more gold medals in the 2016 games.
To complete this exercise, I established a couple ground rules:
Americans only. There are lots of great, historic Olympic athletes from all countries; too many to begin listing here. If you want Alberto Tomba on Mt. Rushmore Italia, knock yourself out, pussycat. For the purposes of this exercise, I’m sticking with American athletes…because, ‘Merica!
Two Rushmores. One for each, Summer and Winter Games. Hey, South Dakota’s a big, wide open state. I’m sure they can find a couple spots in the Black Hills to carve out eight more heads!
With that out of the way, here goes.
Kevin’s Olympics Mt. Rushmore—Summer Games version (in no particular order)
Michael Phelps. Was there ever any doubt? Twenty-three gold medals over four separate Olympiads. The sheer dominance Phelps has imposed over the sport and the Olympics as a whole is overwhelming and not likely to be repeated.
Jesse Owens. Any man who puts Nazis in their place in their own yard—in front of Hitler himself—is a giant and a hero. The importance of his victories can never be overstated. In an Olympiad that Hitler boasted would put Aryan dominance on display for the world to witness, a black man from Alabama proved otherwise. Owens’ four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin games were historic on every level. Take THAT, Adolf!
Babe Didrikson. Most people probably don’t even know who she is. She is mostly remembered as a dominant champion golfer in the 40s and 50s. Before that, she was a two-time Olympic gold medalist—in track & field—at the 1932 games in Los Angeles. She is roundly considered one of the greatest American female athletes of all time.
Jim Thorpe. If Nike were around back then, they would’ve used him in TV commercials instead of Bo Jackson. Thorpe won gold medals in the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Stockholm games. Afterward, he would go on to be a hall-of-fame football player as well as play professional baseball. He also dabbled in professional basketball, barnstorming with a team called “Jim Thorpe and His World-Famous Indians.” Whatever Bo knows, Jim knew it first.
Wilma Rudolph. She was the fastest woman in the world in 1960 when she won three gold medals at the Rome Olympics. Not bad for someone who contracted polio and was paralyzed as a child (to say nothing of the realities of growing up in the segregated South). Rudolph paved the way for Flo-Jo, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Gail Devers and a slew of other female American athletes.
Mia Hamm. It’s tough to single out an individual player in a team sport, but Hamm and her three medals in soccer (two gold, one silver) cement her place on the mountain. Team USA has been THE dominant force in women’s soccer at the Olympics since its inception in 1996 and Hamm is a major factor in establishing that reputation.
Kevin’s Olympics Mt. Rushmore—Winter Games version (in no particular order)
Eric Heiden. Were it not for a rag-tag group of college hockey players, Heiden would’ve been the biggest story at the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid. Five gold medals and four world records in speed skating. Simply, wow. Heiden also became a household name in the U.S.; an honor among winter Olympians usually reserved for figure skaters.
Bonnie Blair. Gold medals in three separate Olympiads (plus a Bronze in her fourth). Blair was a dominant figure in women’s speed skating for a decade. She was quiet, humble and not very flashy…but once the starting gun was fired, she was off like a rocket.
Dick Button. The man was a two-time gold medalist in men’s figure skating in an era when there were only 48 stars on the flag. He was also the first skater to land a double Axel jump and the first triple-anything jump. Plus, it’s just fun to say his name: Dick Button. Dick Button. Dick Button.
Herb Brooks. He never received a gold medal as an athlete, but his contribution as coach of the men’s hockey team in 1980 is unparalleled. He put together the team that did the impossible. There isn’t a man over the age of 40 today who doesn’t get choked up at the thought of the Miracle On Ice. Team USA’s victory over the Soviet Union at Lake Placid is, without question, the biggest upset in sports history. Because of Brooks, we do believe in miracles.
Winter Games honorable mention
Ted Ligety. Who? The two-time Olympic gold medalist in skiing, that’s who. Why Ted Ligety? Because he’s a distant, distant cousin of mine…whom I’ve never met, but I don’t care. He still gets on my Mt. Rushmore!
Peggy Fleming. She was not the first American to win a gold medal in women’s figure skating, but she might be the most famous. That’s got to count for something.
Terry McDermott. He won a speed skating gold medal in 1964. You probably haven’t ever heard of him, but I have because he’s from my hometown…well, close enough. Essexville is pretty much a part of Bay City.
Katerina Witt. I know. She’s not even American. But who cares? It’s Katerina Witt!