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The Top 7 Olympic Rivalries

Friendly competition is one thing, but these Olympic-grade, tabloid-worthy rivalries take things to a whole new level.

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Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding
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AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
Bob Thomas/Getty Images
Getty Images
Bob Thomas/Getty Images
Sports Illustrated/Getty Images
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Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding

The Rivalry: Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding had skated together on the U.S. team for years, but it was obvious each wanted gold, especially as time progressed and Harding's career became marked by increasingly more blunders -- typically involving a wardrobe malfunction that would stop her mid-performance.

The Tipping Point: At the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, which was held less than two months before the Winter Games, an attacker clubbed Kerrigan's knee in the women's locker room with a metal baton, preventing her from skating. It turned out the attack had been planned by Harding's ex-husband and her bodyguard. Kerrigan, who had largely recovered by the Games, finished second. Harding, who was inexplicably allowed to compete, fell during her routine and missed her chance at a medal. For her involvement in the attack, she was later fined, sentenced to probation and community service, and the USFSA not only stripped her of her prior Championship medals, but also banned her from future competition.

The Winner: Kerrigan, no doubt. Not to rub salt in the wound, but Harding did also later make a sex tape.

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Brian Boitano vs. Brian Orser

The Rivalry: On the ice, American figure skater Brian Boitano just trailed his friend and rival Brian Orser of Canada. Orser won the silver medal at the 1984 Olympics; Boitano placed fifth. Orser scored second at the 1985 World Figure Skating Championships; Boitano took third. Both knew they had to crank things up to take first in the 1988 Olympics, which promised to be a great show.

The Tipping Point: The media called it the "Battle of the Brians," and rightly so -- they pulled out all the stops. In his performance Boitano became the first American skater to ever land a triple axel. While Orser's performance was still staggering, one two-footed landing and a downgrade from a triple axel to a double gave Boitano the edge -- and the gold.

The Winner: Boitano. But Orser was pretty cool about it.

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Katarina Witt vs. Debi Thomas

The Rivalry: East German Katarina Witt and American Debi Thomas finished 1-2 at the 1987 World Figure Skating Championships, setting the stage for an Olympic-style showdown in Calgary the following year.

The Tipping Point: In the aptly named "Battle of the Carmens," both women skated to the music of Bizet's opera Carmen in their long programs. While taking place the same year as the Battle of the Brians, the Battle of the Carmens didn't end in a 1-2 finish. Witt took the gold; and Thomas, the bronze.

The Winner: Witt...and Carmen.

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Joan Benoit vs. Grete Waitz

The Rivalry: American marathoner Joan Benoit entered the 1979 Boston Marathon relatively unknown -- but finished the winner, having knocked eight minutes off the competition record. She repeated that success with a victory again in 1983, that took more than two minutes off the world's best time, set by Norwegian Grete Waitz in the London Marathon just the day before.

The Tipping Point: In March 1984, Benoit severely injured her knee during a training run, forcing her to undergo knee surgery just 17 days before the trials -- yet she still made the U.S. team. Three months later, she competed in the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles and won the first Olympic Women's Marathon, finishing several hundred meters ahead of Waitz, who took second.

The Winner: Benoit got the gold, but they both showed the world what astounding marathoners women could be.

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Michael Phelps vs. Ryan Lochte

The Rivalry: U.S. swimmers Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps shared a pool, sports agency, and swimwear company sponsor for years. But Lochte was always swimming in the legend's wake. Phelps, who had won already won 16 Olympic medals between 2004 and 2008, bested Lochte in three Olympic individual medley races in those two Games.

The Tipping Point: At the London 2012 Games, Lochte finally took the 400-meter event and showed the world he wasn't Phelps' tag-along. Then, together, they rocked the 400-meter freestyle relay in a pure picture of sportsmanship.

The Winner: Both of them. Come on, with bodies like those and medals to back them up, everybody's a winner.

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Mary Decker vs. Zola Budd

The Rivalry: Despite never having competed in the Olympics, Mary Decker was already America's sweetheart. The track star dominated distances from 800 to 10,000 meters across the world, but was unable to compete in the 1976 Games due to stress fractures. The U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games postponed her Olympic debut another four years. Still, her picture graced glossy magazine pages and decorated walls all over the world -- including that of South African runner Zola Budd.

The Tipping Point: The 1984 Los Angeles Games would be Decker's Olympic debut, but all eyes were on the 19-year-old barefooted Zola Budd, who had gained British citizenship after leaving apartheid-stricken South Africa. Halfway through the race, Budd crowded Decker and they collided. Decker fell to the track. While Budd regained her stride, she finished seventh.

The Winner: No one. Though neither went on to win an Olympic medal, they both set various world records and won multiple championships.

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Shirley Babashoff vs. East Germany

The Rivalry: American Swimmer Shirley Babashoff set one world record and six national records during the 1976 Olympic Trials, and was claimed a Games favorite -- yet she was no match for the mega-ripped East German swimmers. At the Games, she won four silver medals -- having been beaten by a member of the East German team in each of her individual events. And in what is considered to be the greatest race in the history of women's swimming, she swam the anchor of the 4x100-meter freestyle relay to beat the East Germans and win gold in world record time. Still, she cried foul, claiming that the East German team had cheated by using performance-enhancing drugs. The world went crazy, calling both her and her teammates "Ugly Americans" and defaming Babashoff for years to come.

The Tipping Point: Turns out she was right. The government had systematically doped its athletes -- often without their knowledge -- through what was called State Plan 14.25 for decades. Unfortunately, to this day, hundreds of former East German athletes still suffer health problems due to long-term steroid use.

The Winner: While there are no real winners here, there is some solace in the fact that Babashoff finally got the chance to rehab her reputation.

Originally published on FitnessMagazine.com, January 2014.

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