Yahoo! Sports writers recall their most memorable Olympics moments

The can't-forget moments of London 2012 will come fast and furious as Friday's Opening Ceremonies roll into a full weekend schedule and the first golds of these Summer Games. But what makes the Olympics so deeply compelling, so urgent, so memorable is the transcendent power of this every-four-year gathering of athletes and nations. 

Five of our award-winning Yahoo! Sports writers on the ground in London explain their standout moment of past Summer Olympics (it's hard to pick just one). We offer their thoughts to celebrate the 16 days ahead and urge you to check more top-of-mind Summer highlights —including the fans' vote for top 9 of all time— as part of Yahoo! Sports Memorable Moments series.

Plus, as the London Olympics unfold, look for "instant" Memorable Moments from 2012 as part of our comprehensive coverage of who wins the gold and who wins our hearts.

Iraqi soccer team 'cobbled together from war-torn country with brutal past, painful present and uncertain future'

Dan Wetzel

By Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

On an August night in 2004, about 2,500 Iraqis, some who just flew in from bombed out Baghdad, some who fled Sadaam Hussein many years ago, filled up part of a soccer stadium in Patras, Greece.  

Iraqi players celebrate their win over Portugal in 2004. (Getty Images)They came to watch the first sporting event of their new country, few expecting victory, all wanting to witness history.  

This was the Iraq soccer team of the Athens Games, a cobbled together unit from a war-torn country of a brutal past, a painful present and an uncertain future.  

It was complicated. Everything was complicated. No one was certain about the other factions in the country. No one was certain about the United States of America. No one could truly know anything, except this was a night few had seen coming.  

The team's home stadium had been mostly destroyed in the war. Travel difficulties resulted in just two practices and just a few days together. They had surprised everyone in qualifying for the Games the spring before.

Now here they were, a group of Kurds, Shiite and Sunni Muslims, from all corners of the country, trying to beat Portugal, trying to please those 2,500 on hand, trying to bring a bit of relief, a measure of pride and joy back home.  

It was a team like no other, representing a situation like few others. This wasn't a clean and neat story. Not everyone liked each other. Not everyone liked the United States. Not everyone dreamed of the same future for Iraq.  

Post-game press conference turned into United Nations briefings. Some players were asked political views. Others quizzed about everything from President Bush to religion to viable water supplies. No one ever asked Michael Phelps about those things, but that's what made this different.  

After one game the coach, Adnan Hamad, was asked to make a public statement in support of the release of a kidnapped Italian journalist. He obliged. “Let him go,” Hamad said.  

Back home was still a daily testament to violence, uprisings, occupation, stress and desperation. The players and coaches knew this. For a couple hours, the guns were mostly laid down. They knew that too. Keep winning and the team provided another couple hours of normalcy and unity. So they did, all the way to the semifinals, the deepest Iraq soccer had ever gone in a major international tournament. There would be no medal but it hardly mattered.  

“You all know the situation in Iraq is very, very difficult,” Hamad said that night in Patras. “I think we try to make our people happy. It is very, very important to us.”  

The war-torn, rag tag team was important in those tiny, yet significant, ways that sports can be. It did nothing to end the violence. It did nothing to rebuild the country. It did nothing to prevent the suffering.  

It wasn't supposed to.  

The small stuff was enough, such as those 2,500 going wild after a dramatic 4-2 victory. The players ran over and celebrated with fans. Everyone was dancing and clapping and hugging each other. The one sentiment most commonly shared was a hatred of Saddam Hussein and his brute son, Uday, who used to oversee the sports ministry and wasn't above beating and imprisoning athletes.  

Those two were gone by that night in 2004 and the Iraqis, still trying to find their way as a people, rewrote one of Saddam's propaganda songs.  

Out was the old version: “By our souls and blood we are giving life to you, Saddam, Saddam, Saddam.”  

In was the new: “By our souls and blood we are giving life to you, Iraq, Iraq, Iraq.”  

They sung that line into the Greek air over and over and over again.

Phelps' No. 7 in Beijing: 'No better race in any Olympics to come'

Pat Forde

By Pat Forde
Yahoo! Sports

I've seen a lot of stuff in covering six Olympic Games -- from the guy who lit the caldron in Barcelona with a flaming arrow to the absurdity of Tonya and Nancy in Lillehammer to the fraud of Marion Jones in Sydney -- but nothing compares to Aug. 16, 2008, in Beijing.

Michael Phelps celebrates winning the 100m butterfly final in 2008. (Getty Images)That was the date when Michael Phelps defied the human eye and conventional swimming wisdom to win the most exciting race I've ever seen.

The race: 100-meter butterfly. The stakes: Phelps was battling through intense physical and mental fatigue in search of his seventh gold medal of the Games, trying to tie Mark Spitz's record. The competition: previously unheralded Milorad (Mike) Cavic of Serbia, by way of California.

Just a few days earlier I witnessed the most thrilling Olympic event I'd seen to that point: the United States' miracle comeback victory in the 400 freestyle relay. Thanks to an out-of-body anchor leg by Jason Lezak, the Americans won by .08 seconds over the French. 

Then Phelps somehow topped it.

Cavic was the fastest semifinal qualifier for the final, and he talked a brazen boatload of trash along the way. Then in the final he worked some astonishing mind games on the king of the pool -- staring him down as the two stood ready to get on the blocks. 

He very nearly backed it up.

A pure sprinter, Cavic roared to a solid lead after 50 meters – that was expected. Then Phelps failed to close the gap until the final 10 meters – that was unexpected. Into the final stroke, it appeared Cavic had pulled a monumental upset and derailed Phelps' quest for a record eight gold medals.

Caught between strokes, Phelps chopped the wall. In swimming parlance, he took an abbreviated extra stroke. That's usually a bad thing. In this instance it was the difference between gold and silver, by one-hundredth of a second.

Still, it appeared to everyone in the Water Cube that morning to be a Cavic victory. It wasn't until every head swiveled toward the scoreboard and saw the astonishing truth –Phelps 1, Cavic 2 – that anyone thought Phelps had won.

In the stands, I jumped to my feet in disbelief. I had a lot of company.

The Cube was filled with gasps and boos. The Serbian delegation filed a protest. But the result was upheld on review, and frame-by-frame photographs later showed that Phelps somehow, some way, hit the wall a fraction of an instant before Cavic. 

It was the highlight of the greatest Olympic performance ever. Phelps won most of his races with talent, conditioning, determination, competitiveness and coolness under pressure. But this one he won with a combination of sheer luck and desperation, by the smallest unit of time measurement. There will be no better race in any Olympics to come.  

'Quickest of Phelps' eight gold medals would take longest to sort out'

Charles Robinson

By Charles Robinson
Yahoo! Sports

My hands were strangling a railing in the Beijing Water Cube, and the southern gentleman in the cowboy hat standing to my right was yanking my right arm out of the socket. There were 25-meters left in the 100-fly in the 2008 Summer Olympics, and Michael Phelps had lost. I was so sure of it, I unconsciously started screaming it to the other reporters standing near me, who were also squeezed against a pool railing and holding on for dear life.

Milorad Cavic (L) and Michael Phelps reach for the wall in the 100m butterfly final. (Getty Images)“It's over!” I screamed. “He lost!”

This was the precursor to the most memorable moment of my Olympic lifetime – watching Phelps and Milorad Čavić touch the wall in that astonishing 100-meter butterfly, and realizing nobody in the venue was sure of the winner. Not Phelps. Not Cavic. And certainly not the 17,000-seat capacity crowd. The confusion was so prevalent that in the next second, every head in the venue – including Phelps' coach Bob Bowman – wheeled around for a look at the video board.

And it popped: Phelps, 50:58 ... Milorad Čavić, 50:59.

Phelps had his seventh gold medal – the most improbable finish of a seemingly impossible run. More unbelievable than Jason Lezak's comeback finish in the men's 4 x 100 relay that had taken place only five days earlier. And so unrealistic that when I walked down for the post-race press conference, my colleague Dan Wetzel refused to believe it.

“They screwed Čavić,” he said, shaking his head.

One hour later, with time elapsed pictures displayed on a screen in front of us, and weary timing officials having suffered through endless questions, even Wetzel relented.

Čavić had lost. He had given his concession speech. The quickest of Phelps' eight gold medals would take the longest to sort out, and has lingered in my mind ever since.

'Dancing around the track with Australian and Aboriginal flags held aloft'

Martin Rogers

By Martin Rogers
Yahoo! Sports

 

Within days of the start of Sydney 2000 it became obvious that this would be a special Olympic Games, as the nation of Australia and its biggest city opened its arms and hearts to the world with charm and color.

Australia's Cathy Freeman is elated after winning gold in the 400m final in the 2000 Games. (Allsport)But despite the national pride on display and the spectacular show beamed across the world from Down Under there was one night that every Australian cared about more than any other.

It was September 24, 2000, the evening of the women's 400 meters track final, featuring Cathy Freeman, the girl who had become the symbol of an entire nation's past and present. Freeman was an overwhelming favorite going into the final, with her biggest rival and defending champion Marie Jose Perec of France having pulled out before the event.

Yet Freeman faced extraordinary pressure, the kind that only the hopes of a country can bring. Furthermore, Freeman represented two peoples, with every Australian backing her to succeed and the Aboriginal minority she hailed from lauding her as its finest ambassador.

Australia's Aborigines had been marginalized from the time white men settled in the country in the 18th century, with the discrimination and mistreatment sadly continuing deep into the 20th century.

Freeman might have been a heroine to her fellow Aussies, but she resembled a goddess to the Aborigines, an ultimate competitor who had fought the odds to become the best in the world.

All that would mean little without a gold medal around her neck, and Freeman wore a strained look as she lined up for the final.

The Australian made a solid but unspectacular start from lane six and as she rounded the final turn, screamed on by 112,000 fans, she was dead even with Katharine Merry of Great Britain in lane three and Lorraine Graham of Jamaica alongside her.

Then Freeman dug in, found one final effort and surged clear of her rivals, with Graham coming in second and Merry just behind her.

Freeman sunk to the track in exhaustion, utterly spent after four years of build-up and expectations, and peeled back the cap of her one-piece running suit.

After a moment of reflection she was back on her feet, dancing around the track with both the Australian and Aboriginal flags held aloft, a champion accepting the accolades of an adoring crowd.

It was my first Olympic Games and I watched Freeman's exploits from the second tier of the Olympic Stadium, aware that a slice of history for a nation obsessed with sports was unfolding before my eyes.

India boxing medal: 'Journalists weren't shouting questions. They clapped. They cheered. They chanted his name'

Les Carpenter

By Les Carpenter
Yahoo! Sports

This was on a lost night in Beijing during the 2008 death spiral of the U.S. boxing team when magic happened. I was standing in an empty interview area beneath the Beijing Workers Gymnasium, waiting for another failed American boxer so I did not see history being made. The fact that a middleweight boxer named Vijender Singh was winning his country's first Olympic medal in boxing was lost on me. I didn't even realize that at the time India had won only 16 medals in its entire Olympic existence.

I was waiting for the American.

SinghThen I heard the shouting. It came from a tunnel out to the arena floor where Singh was being pushed forward by members of India's Olympic delegation. They laughed and cheered and slapped him on the back. He beamed. As the mob of Indian boxers and coaches shoved into the interview area, there came a bigger throng: the Indian journalists.

Suddenly the tiny interview area set up in a curved, concrete corridor was packed with people clutching television cameras and tape recorders and notebooks. The flashes from cameras flickered like lightning. Only the journalists weren't shouting questions. They clapped. They cheered. They chanted his name.

Here was an instant national hero and instead of chronicling the moment his country's reporters were basking in the joy. The small group of volunteers tasked with managing the normally-sleepy boxing venue tried to corral the mob, but there was no use. The journalists surged and swirled in a delighted whirlpool of humanity spinning around and around the dazed Singh. The camera flashes kept lighting his face.

The American fighter was forgotten, lost in the scrum that shoved toward Vijender Singh.

Then as fast as it came, the mob was gone. Singh disappeared into his locker room and the joyous band of reporters ran into the night to tell the people back home about the news. Like a sudden summer thunderstorm the pack of Indian reporters had thundered for a few moments then vanished. The hallway was silent once again.

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