Ever since the inception of the modern Games in 1896, athletes have strived to prove they're the best in their discipline, no matter what the consequences.
And as well as showcasing some of the greatest ever stories of human endeavour, the Olympics also bear witness to the social upheavals and key historic movements of our times.
The rivalry between the titans of middle distance running, Sebastian Coe, now chief organiser of London 2012, and Steve Ovett was one of the great joys of the sport.
On this occasion, the 1984 800m, Steve won in what was his fellow Briton's favourite distance.
Seb, who had been plagued by injuries for six months, used the pain to run the race of his life a few days later and take the 1,500m.
As he crossed the line the champion turned to the press box and yelled: "Now believe in me"
Winner of two Olympics golds, decathlete Daley Thompson is considered by many to be the greatest all-round athlete this country has ever produced.
His 1984 world record of 8,847 points stood until 1992, and is still the UK's higest score in the discipline, which consists of ten track and field events.
Add to that his handsome looks and insouciance and you have a media dream
As epic tales of heroism go, Eric Liddell's is so astonishing it made the silver screen in Chariots of Fire.
Learning that his favourite event – the 100m – was due to be held on a Sunday, the minister's son pulled out because his faith wouldn't allow him to run on the Sabbath.
Instead the Scotsman retrained for the very different 400m earning himself a gold medal and respect on the track and off
Heads bowed, fists raised to the sky as their national anthem played in 1968 at the Mexico Games, Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos scandalised their countrymen with their black power protest.
The United States then in the midst of the civil rights struggle was not ready for their stance and they were sent home in disgrace
Their story of defiance took its example from Jesse Owens, who in 1936 bravely turned Hitler's racist theories on their head by winning four golds in the 100m, 200m, long jump and 4x100m relay
Featuring more than 15,000 performers and reportedly costing over $100 million, the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics was hailed as 'the greatest ever'.
The Games themselves also signalled the opening up of China as a major player on the international scene, despite reservations over the country's human rights record
In 2000, to a standing ovation in Sydney competitors from North and South Korea marched together under one 'unification' flag, for a short period turning their back on their history of conflict
Paralympic archer Antonio Rebollo provides a virtuoso touch to the Barcelona Games firing a flaming arrow hundreds of metres above the heads of spectators to light the torch
What amazed everyone about Florence-Griffith Joyner was not just her speed, but how her hair, nails and make up never managed to impede it.
In 1988 the flamboyant American won three golds and set world records in the 100m and 200m that stand to this day.
There were whispers about doping, which were never proven.
Sadly, she died at the age of 38 of epilepsy ten years after this feat
The favourite over 400m in 1992, Derek Redmond shredded his hamstring down the back straight.
Down but not out, he limped on to the finish, his face riven with pain, aided by his father
With an incredible haul of 14, swimmer Michael Phelps holds the all-time record for most Olympic gold medals.
The Baltimore Bullet's eight golds at the 2008 Beijing Games also surpassed the legendary Mark Spitz's seven-gold performance at Munich in 1972.
The 26-year-old, who'll be hoping to add to his tally in London, fuels his winning ways with a diet which isn't for the faint hearted.
Three fried egg sandwiches, cheese, tomatoes, lettuce, fried onions, mayonnaise, three chocolate-chip pancakes, a five-egg omelette, three sugar-coated slices of French toast, a bowl of grits and two cups of coffee - and that's just breafast.
The defining image of Atlanta 1996 is that of Muhammad Ali, hands shaking with Parkinson's, but proudly bearing the Olympic torch.
He proved once again that he is The Greatest by venturing into the public arena when lesser men might have hidden away
At 14 years of age Nadia Comaneci stunned spectators by becoming the first female gymnast ever to be awarded a perfect 10 on the asymmetric bars and went on to repeat the feat three more times in other events.
The most famous face of her discipline, the Romanian's impact was so great that she even has several moves named after her
South African athlete Zola Budd was already controversial for her choice of running shoe – none – and gaining British citizenship at the last minute to qualify for the Los Angeles game because her native country then in the grip of Apartheid was banned.
Then she added to her woes by clipping the golden girl of US sport, Mary Decker, felling them both
Equestrians Princess Anne and her ex Mark Phillips are the only royal husband and wife team to have both participated in the Olympics apart from Prince Albert, once a competitor in the bobsleigh, and Princess Charlene, who is a former swimmer.
The Queen's daughter rode in the 1976 Games, while Mark took gold four years earlier in Munich
Practically unknown before Beijing, Rebecca Adlington became a household name overnight.
Years of 4am starts paid off when she took gold in the 400m and 800m freestyle, earning her a heroine's welcome in her hometown and a pair of Jimmy Choos from the mayor – a luxury she can only have dreamed of before
The Sydney Olympics surely belonged to Cathy Freeman, the local girl chosen to light the flame in 2000.
The first ever Aboriginal Commonwealth Games gold medalist - aged just 16 - she won hearts and minds after racing to victory in the 400 metres in her home country and celebrated wearing the Australian and Aboriginal flags
The fastest man in the world, Usain Bolt, struck gold in the 100m and 200m in Beijing.
As well as his lightening speed, the Jamaican sprinter is also renowned for his unique celebratory move - which was mimicked by Prince Harry during a recent tour of the Caribbean