Eileen Battersby: 10 names forever etched in Olympic lore

Delany, Spitz and Korbut are among the athletes who achieved sporting immortality at the Games

1 Ulrike Meyfarth
(High jump)

At 16 and just about emerging on the national scene thanks to her mastery of the then still pioneering Fosbury Flop technique, teenager Ulrike Meyfarth narrowly made the West German Olympic team for the Munich Games in 1972.

She looked exactly like the schoolgirl she was, and felt “just thrilled to be there” with a personal best of 1.85. Possibly because she was oblivious to pressure and had the support of the home crowd, she remained calm, taking the gold on count back at 1.90, and then equalled the existing world record of 1.92.

The dream quickly faltered as she failed to make the Montreal final four years later. Meyfarth entered a relative limbo. Then she revived, twice held the world record and took the 1982 European title.


At Los Angeles in 1984, at 28, she regained her title clearing 2.02 (her career best was 2.03 when setting her second world record in 1983). Only in later life did she describe her career as a fairytale.

2 Steffi Graf

Ironically, considering she was involved in one of the most ruthless of professional sports, German Steffi Graf always seemed to personify that mysterious purity at the heart of Baron de Coubertin’s Olympic vision. Tennis featured in the revived Olympics in 1896 and remained part of the programme until after the 1924 Games. Re-introduced, somewhat controversially, at the Seoul Games in 1988, the women’s singles title was won by Graf from Argentine Gabriela Sabatini in straight sets, 6- 3, 6-3. Weeks earlier they had won the doubles at Wimbledon.

In that same year Graf, a natural athlete who in another life could as easily have been a world class 800 metres runner, also took the 1988 Grand Slam. Quiet and dignified, she won 22 Grand Slam titles and had the complete game, including a deadly forehand.

3 Teofilo Stevenson

The great Cuban heavyweight looked every inch a hero. He stood 6ft 5in and was handsome with a slight resemblance to none other than Muhammad Ali.

An orthodox fighter, he took Olympic gold at Munich in 1972, aged 20, and successfully defended in Montreal and again in Moscow. For those who felt he had done so in the absence of the US challenge, he defeated Tyrell Biggs, in February 1984.

Cuba later boycotted the Los Angeles Games, where Biggs took gold. One of three Olympic boxers to win three successive gold medals, Stevenson never fought professionally although he had been offered $5 million to fight Ali, the then world heavyweight champion, after his Montreal victory. He declined.

Of the 302 fights he contested in his career he only lost 22. Teofilo Stevenson died of a heart attack in 2012, aged 60.

4 Olga Korbut 

It had been a women’s sport, dominated by the Czech Vera Caslavska, who at 26, and at a pivotal moment in her country’s history, had smiled her way through a series of demanding routines at the Mexico Olympics in 1968.

Looking back now, she is of another era; sturdy, muscular and very womanly. She had a bleached, backcombed bouffant and wore makeup. She was in control.

Along came Olga Korbut, from Belarus, aged 17 but looking 12, and at 38 kilos weighing less than a German shepherd. She was the first of the girl gymnasts who looked like children and performed miracles.

At the Munich Olympic in 1972 she captivated the world with her charm and genius, winning gold on the beam and on the floor, as well as taking a team gold and silver in the individual overall and the uneven bars.

She initiated the evolution which would be consolidated four years later by the 14-year-old who overshadowed her, Romanian Nadia Comaneci.

5 Mark Spitz 
Even as All- American boys go, Californian Mark Spitz was an exception. He was good looking in a sleekly terrifying way with a mop of dark hair, lots of teeth and his trademark bandit's moustache. At 18 he was already impressing with his swim times and vowed to do well at the Mexico Olympics.

Dysentery intervened and he returned humiliated with only two relay golds, as well as individual silver and bronze. Revenge sustained him as he enrolled at the University of Indiana to study dentistry and train harder than ever. It worked.

Four years later at Munich, he took seven golds, including four individual sprint titles: 100 and 200 metres freestyle and 100 and 200 metres butterfly. The Palestinian attack on the Israeli athletes at Munich resulted in the Jewish Spitz being placed under FBI protection. He retired after the Games and was widely photographed, wearing his seven gold medals. At 39 he attempted an ill-fated, commercialised comeback for the Barcelona Olympics, but swimming had moved on.

In 2008, another US swimmer, Michael Phelps, surpassed Spitz’s 36-year-old record by winning eight gold medals. To date Phelps, Rio-bound at 31 for his fourth games, has won 22 Olympic medals, 18 of them gold.

6 Bill Steinkraus
(Show jumping)
By the time Bill Steinkraus began his partnership with an ex-racehorse named Snowbound, he was already an Olympic veteran having won a team silver in Rome on Ksar d'Espirit as a member of the US team.

Before that, he had a team bronze, riding Hollandia from the Helsinki Olympics in 1952. He had also served with the 124th Cavalry, and between 1943 and 1945 had been based in Burma.

Born in Ohio in 1925, he spent much of his youth riding horses and always favoured thoroughbreds. An injury to his horse, Sinjon, forced him to pull out of the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. Every rider dreams of the perfect horse. For Steinkraus, Snowbound was just that – perfect in his willingness, extravagant spring and courage, if also opinionated and sensitive.

Physically, the dark bay gelding was far from perfect and suffered chronic tendon trouble throughout his career. In Mexico City, the pair triumphed to win the first Olympic show jumping gold medals for the US.

Snowbound pulled up after his winning round lame. Steinkraus went on to win Olympic team silver on Main Spring at the Munich Olympics.

7 Irena Szewinskan

Although she competed in explosive events, the sprints and long jump, stately Leningrad-born Polish athlete Irena Szewinska always seemed to be calmly going about her job, setting world records over 100, 200, and 400 metres.

For many track fans she epitomises all that was great about a now tarnished sport. In her first Olympics at Tokyo in 1964, she was 18 and a member of the Polish gold medal-winning 4x100 metres relay team. She also won silver in the long jump and 200 metres.

Four years later in Mexico she won 200-metres gold in a world record and was third in the 100 metres. Returning to competition in 1972 after the birth of her first child, she was the bronze medallist in the Munich 200 metres. Two years later, she experimented with 400 metres and became the first woman to run under 50 seconds. That year she was world number one over 100, 200 and 400, and also set a world record for the 200.

At Montreal she won the Olympic 400 metres in majestic style. One great memory is her dramatic 400-metre victory over a young Marita Koch in the inaugural 1977 World Cup in Dusseldorf.

Koch went on to set a phenomenal world record of 47.60 in October, 1985, which still stands, yet Szewinska, now 70, is the immortal.

8 Ronnie Delany
Hollywood couldn't have written a better script. Before 19-year-old Ronnie Delany reached the 1956 Olympic 1,500 metres final in Melbourne, he had had to battle for selection which was grudgingly granted – although he had been the seventh man to break the mythical four-minute barrier.

On December 1st, 1956, he lined up in a field which included Australian John Landy, the world mile record holder and local hero. The pace was slow, as the runners completed the first three laps as a group. Back home in Ireland the race was played out on radio sets against a background of crackling static.

Landy, who had bettered Roger Bannister’s historic first sub four-minute mile, was the one to beat. Yet when Delany began to make his move from the back the commentator barely noticed.

The Villanova student surged to the front and kicked. His final lap was 58.36, bringing him to the finish in 3.41.2, an Olympic record. On breaking the tape, he sank to his knees and thanked God. It was Ireland’s first, and to date, only gold medal on the track.

9 Emil Zatopek 
More than ever athletics needs a character such as the determined Czech soldier who had begun his working life in a local shoe factory and hated it. Initially, he was not too keen on running either but on changing his mind, he revolutionised-long distance running through effective, if inhuman training methods.

Competing in army events, he soon emerged at national level, setting records. At the 1948 London Olympics he took gold in the 10,000 metres and was the silver medallist over 5,000.

Zatopek was tough if jaunty and oddly endearing with a great smile, a flair for languages and a famously agonised running style. His feats had Old World heroism.

In 1952, at the Helsinki Olympics he not only won gold at the 5,000 and 10,000, he won his first ever marathon – the distance for which running-loving Finns revered him. In 1954, he broke the 29-minute barrier for 10,000 metres.

By the Melbourne Games he was worn out yet finished 5th in the marathon. Exploited by the communist regime, his later years were heartbreaking, but the name Zatopek still equates with greatness.

10 Sebastian Coe

Nowadays credited with masterminding the 2012 London Olympics and the international policing of his sport, yet Sebastian Coe, edgy and correct, will always be the first – and to date – only man to retain the Olympic 1,500 metres title (Soviet athlete Tatyana Kazankina successfully defended her crown in Moscow in 1980).

Coe’s career was dominated by epic performances, world records, injury and illness. He set eight outdoor world records and three indoors over 800 metres, 1,000 metres, 1,500 metres and the mile, and thrilled with his elegant fluid action and surreal kick. Coe brought middle distance on to the main evening news; a 41-day spree in 1979 saw him set three world records.

His father Peter was his coach. Coe also had great rivals in Steve Ovett and Steve Cram. After his shock defeat in the 800 metres in Moscow, Coe took the 1,500 metres gold. In 1981 he set an 800-metres world record, which stood for 16 years. Taking the 800-metres gold at the 1982 European Championships, he continued drifting between fitness and a blood disease.

At Los Angeles he seemed more accepting of his second 800-metres silver yet time stood still as with 200 metres to go, he glanced across at Cram and Spain’s Jose Abascal and sprinted defiantly to his second Olympic 1,500-metres title, and into athletics history.