Rare, Emotional Photos of Olympic Athletes Throughout History

American track and field athlete Florence Griffith-Joyner, known colloquially as “Flo-Jo” in 1988.© Russell Chyne/Allsport/Getty Images

“To photograph athletes when they are still preparing means to concentrate on the athletes themselves,” Annie Leibovitz once said. “Their dedication, their joy, their pain, their mastery is what makes everyone care about the Olympic Games.” A new Assouline book, The Last Heroes: 100 Moments of Olympic Legend, shows how true that really is: its 100 images—some of which have never before been seen—of the quadrennial competition form a visual ode to the continued triumph of the human spirit.

Written by noted French sports journalists Olivier Margot and Etienne Bonamy, The Last Heroes begins in 1896, with the first games of the modern Olympiad in Athens. Margot and Bonamy deftly traverse the history of sports, as well as how they both defined the times and reflected them. “It doesn’t speak of the approaching peril, but just bears witness to an infinite resistance,” they write of Jesse Owens winning gold at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, as Adolf Hitler looked on. They also include a newspaper headline from 1980, when the United States boycotted the Moscow Olympic Games as the Cold War raged on.

The Last Heroes: 100 Moments of Olympic Legend will be published by Assouline this summer.Photo: Courtesy of Assouline

“The reason the Olympics have crossed the twentieth century and entered the twenty-first is because they continue to symbolize a modernity that has influenced our societies, with its accomplishments and failures, courage and weaknesses. Stories are told through success and medals, as well as failure and defeats,” Bonamy tells Vogue.

The book also has a strong emotional undercurrent. Near a portrait of Wilma Rudolph is an explanation of how she overcame childhood polio to become a world record-holding runner; while another page tells the story of Kerri Strug, the American gymnast who landed her vault on just her right foot after injuring her left ankle, winning her team the gold. “These athletes, from Owens to Bolt, Weissmuller to Phelps, Charlotte Cooper to Nadia Comaneci, Wilma Rudolph to Simone Biles, all represent a truth, an era, a battle, and a cause,” says Bonamy. “We picked 100 to preserve the memory, but thousands of men and women keep it alive. The Olympic Games constantly foreshadow a future. It is the essence of sport to dream big.”

Below, an exclusive—and powerful— look inside The Last Heroes and the athletes within.

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