But each games produces new heroes -- athletes able to inspire and potentially change the way we see the world.
One remarkable example at Rio 2016 is Simone Manuel, who became the first African-American woman to claim an individual gold medal in the pool after winning the 100m freestyle Thursday.
A poignant moment in a country where the local swimming pool was once the ultimate symbol of racial segregation in some communities. It was not uncommon to see pools with signs declaring "whites only."
"It means a lot [to be the first black woman to earn gold in the pool]," Manuel said after the race.
"This medal is not just for me. It's for a whole bunch of people that came before me and have been an inspiration to me. And it's for all the people after me, who believe they can't do it."
1,000 and counting
Manuel claimed another two silvers -- in the 50m freestyle and the 4x100m freestyle relay -- before winning her second gold in the women's 4x100m medley relay.
And this medal marked another incredible milestone.
When the 20-year old touched home after a scintillating anchor leg, she and teammates Kathleen Baker, Lilly King, and Dana Vollmer won Team USA's 1,000th gold medal at a summer games since triple-jumper James Connolly claimed their first in Athens, Greece in 1896.
When you consider that this total is more than double than of its nearest rival -- the now defunct Soviet Union -- the scale of this sporting achievement becomes clear.
More than half of this golden haul have come from track and field -- 323 -- and swimming events -- 246.
"One thousand gold medals is a remarkable achievement made possible by the culture of sport that is the fabric and foundation of Team USA," said US Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun.
"It is a testament first and foremost to our athletes, but it also reveals the impact of the support provided by our National Governing Bodies, our sponsors and donors, and American fans.
"This is an accomplishment we celebrate together."
Who's who of world's best
Remembering gold medal-winning American Olympians is to enter the pantheon of greats.
Jesse Owens was arguably the first American athlete to achieve global fame, thanks in large part to his four golds at the Berlin games in 1936.
His success had particular resonance during a dark period in Germany's history, when the Nazis portrayed African Americans as inferior.
Decades later, another track and field star to capture the world's attention was Carl Lewis.
His haul of nine gold medals -- in the 100m sprint, the long jump, the 4x100m relay and the 4x200m relay -- included victories at four consecutive Olympics.
And women US sprinters were just as feted.
Florence Griffith-Joyner set a world record time of 10.49 seconds in the 100m sprint at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 -- a record that stands today.
The charismatic "Flo Jo" won three golds in Seoul -- in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m races -- before shocking the world by retiring the following year aged 29. Tragically she died in 1998 after an apparent heart attack.
Away from track and field, diver Greg Louganis is perhaps more famous for cracking his head on a springboard during the 1988 Seoul games.
But the American picked up golds in the 3m springboard and 10m platform competitions in Los Angeles in 1984 and in the South Korean capital four years later.
In 1988, Louganis revealed he was HIV-positive and since become a prominent advocate about HIV awareness.
Staying in the pool, Mark Spitz's seven gold medals at the 1972 Munich Olympics goes down as one of the pinnacles of modern sport.
His unbelievable list of victories -- in the 100m and 200m freestyle, the 100m and 200m butterfly, and three relay events -- even chalked up seven world records.