As Time already noted, the Olympic Games don’t just attract incredible athletes. They also lure some of the world’s best photographers, who capture and record moments otherwise missed by the human eye: gymnasts mid-flight, the half-second that defined a record-setting swim, and cyclists racing so quickly that even the most sensitive cameras can detect them only as a blur.
Today, these elite photographers use the most high-tech equipment available (think: underwater robotic cameras; teleconverter lenses) to immortalize the Olympic Games.
But back in the day, photographers were expected to capture these seconds of athletic perfection with nothing more than analog film cameras. The images we’ve dug up from the TIME/LIFE archives, though perhaps not as vivid or clear (and definitely not as, well, underwater) are just as breathtaking—especially when you consider the fast-paced, breakneck actions they were shooting.
The cyclists in the 1948 games have been eternally preserved at breakneck speeds, and athlete Shirley Strickland can still be seen clearing the 80-meter hurdle at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki.
Check out these photos from the 1936 to the 1972 Olympic Games. While the technology (and certainly the uniforms) has evolved with the decades, the athleticism and artistry of the world’s greatest Olympians—and their photographers—has always been awe-inspiring.