Unforgettable Winter Olympic Stories
Excitement is fast building up as the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics nears. Let us reminisce some of the greatest moments in Winter Olympic history.
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Dan Jansen’s story is truly one of heartbreak, determination, and ultimate triumph. Regarded as the best speed skater in the world, Jansen was the overwhelming favorite to win two gold medals going into the 1988 Calgary Games. However, on the very day he was about to race his best event, the 500 meters, he received the worst news of his life, that his sister, Jane, had succumbed to leukemia. He valiantly competed in his desire to win for Jane, but gave in to grief as he fell going around a turn less than 10 seconds into the race. The same thing happened three days later during the 1000 meters, leaving him without a medal. Jansen looked for redemption four years later at the 1992 Albertville Games; but it would be a repeat of what happened four years earlier—he stumbled on both his races and left the Games empty handed.
1994 Lillehammer Games was to be his final shot for an Olympic medal. In spite of having just won his second World Sprint Championships title before the Games and being the only man to hold the distinction of breaking 36 seconds in the 500 meters four times in the past four years, he stumbled his way to eighth place in the 500. Going into the 1000 meters, not exactly his best event, Jansen seemed resigned to the fact that he would end his remarkable career without an Olympic medal. Fortunately, the story has a happy ending, as he did not only win the gold but set a new world record in the process. He dedicated his win to his late sister and took a victory lap carrying his baby daughter named Jane.
1980 Lake Placid
“Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” was the famous call of the sportscaster Al Michaels when the young, inexperienced US hockey team, made up mostly of collegiate players, won the semifinal round over the mighty Soviet team, considered to be the best team in the world.
In February 1980, America was stuck in a quagmire of troubles: high inflation and unemployment at home; desperate hostages in Iran; brewing decades-old Cold War tensions due to Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; and an upcoming boycott of the Moscow Games. Things did not look any better on the ice; the Soviets handily defeated the US 10-3 in an exhibition match a week before the Olympics. But on that frigid Friday afternoon, it was a tight game from the start until Mike Eruzione made a 30-footer winning shot to make it 4-3 with exactly 10 minutes left to play. Goalie Jim Craig withstood a series of attacks from the Soviets to end the match. As the US team tried to clear the zone, the crowd started to count down the remaining few seconds until Michaels delivered his climactic call. The triumph was voted by Sports Illustrated as the greatest sports moment of the twentieth century. Two days later, the Americans clinched the gold by conquering the Finns 4-2 in the final game.
Many thought it was a joke. How could a snowless country like Jamaica manage to form a legitimate team in an event usually won by snowbound nations like Norway and Switzerland? Nevertheless, Jamaica did send a four-man bobsled team (comprising of Devon Harris, Dudley Stokes, Michael White and Samuel Clayton, all from the Jamaican military) along with their American coach Howard Siler to the 1988 Winter Games. Though they weren’t able to finish as their sled flipped over and crashed during one of the four runs, they were treated like champions while they famously walked to the finish line. These novices had won the respect and admiration from their fellow competitors, fans and the media alike. They were hailed as being the embodiment of the true Olympic spirit, which isn’t all about pure athleticism, but about determination and heart. The exploits of the team were celebrated in the 1993 Disney film “Cool Runnings,” starring John Candy as the coach.
When it comes to popularity of figure skating events during winter games, ice dancing often ranks a poor fourth after the women’s, men’s and pairs. But at the 1984 Winter Games, British ice dancers Jayne Torvill, an ex-insurance book clerk, and Christopher Dean, a former policeman, lifted their sport to new heights with a sensuously breathtaking interpretation of Ravel’s “Bolero,” mesmerizing all who watched their routine on that particular Valentine’s Day in 1984. Their performance also enthralled the judges who gave them twelve perfect sixes including nine out of nine perfect scores for artistic impression. The pair’s performance inspired legions of figure skaters to emulate their style, which, as TIME described, “melded music, blades, and bodies into a unified whole.”
Only 23 years of age, Norway’s Sonja Henie (1912-1969) was already a veteran athlete at the 1936 Winter Games in Germany, having won two Olympic gold medals (1928, 1932), six European championships (1931-1936), and an unprecedented ten World Championships (1927-1936), making her the most decorated ladies figure skater in history. She is credited to be the first figure skater to perform her routines accompanied by music and to adopt the short skirt attire in figure skating.
With her daring personality, Henie wasn’t afraid to court controversy—during the 1935 Berlin exhibition, she greeted Adolf Hitler with a Nazi salute, earning the condemnation of the Norwegian press, but endearing herself to the German populace although she did not commit the act again at the 1936 Games. After the compulsory skate, she tore the scoring sheet when she was ranked first by only a tiny margin, thinking the judges had cheated her. But the unflappable champ would clinch her third straight gold with a strong free skate program. After retiring from amateur competition, she pursued an acting career in Hollywood and became one of the highest paid actresses at the height of her fame.
At the 1948 St. Moritz Games, 18-year-old Richard “Dick” Button became the first skater to land a double axel (2-1/2 revolutions in the air following a forward takeoff) and the first to perform the flying camel spin; and in doing so, he became and remains the youngest man to earn the Olympic gold in figure skating. In the intervening years leading to the 1952 Games, Button was under constant pressure to do a new jump or spin every season; and he did not disappoint, successfully completing combination jumps such as double loop-double loop-double loop; double axel-double loop; and the double axel-double axel sequences.
At the Oslo Games, he achieved another first—the first to land the triple loop in competition—on his way to a second Olympic gold. With his groundbreaking leaps and spectacular spins, he set the figure skating standards for decades to come. In fact, it took almost three decades for another skater to improve on Button’s revolutionary jumps, when Canadian Vern Taylor completed the first triple axel at the 1978 worlds, and another decade later for Kurt Browning, also Canadian, to land the first quadruple jump at the 1988 worlds.
2002 Salt Lake City
20-year-old Simon “Simi” Ammann, who looked more like 13, had never won a single World Cup event or reached the top-12 spot in any other competition. But the Swiss ski jumper vanquished the hopes of the entire field by winning individual golds in both the normal and the large hill events at the 2002 Games. Quite a remarkable achievement considering that he almost did not make it to Salt Lake: he suffered a concussion when he landed on his face after a jump a mere two weeks prior to the Games. Also a truly rare accomplishment indeed, since only one other man, Matti Nykänen of Finland, has won both individual events at the Olympics. Ammann immediately gained celebrity status following his triumph and even appeared in several American talk shows, but much of his popularity can be attributed to his uncanny likeness to the J. K. Rowling’s boy wizard Harry Potter.
More articles on Greatest Athletes series:
- (Almost) Greatest Female Gymnasts in History
- 10 Greatest Male Gymnasts in History
- 10 Greatest Female Gymnasts in History
- Greatest American Female Gymnasts
- Greatest American Male Gymnasts
- 10 Greatest Female Figure Skaters of All Time
- 10 Greatest Male Figure Skaters of All Time
Articles on the Olympics:
- Unforgettable Summer Olympic Stories
- More Unforgettable Summer Olympic Stories
- Unforgettable Winter Olympic Stories
- More Unforgettable Winter Olympic Stories
- Unforgettable Moments of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games
- Unforgettable Moments of The 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics
- Michael Phelps: The Greatest Olympian of All Time
Golden Olympic Performances:
- Men Singles Figure Skating
- Ladies Singles Figure Skating
- Men’s Gymnastics – Floor Exercise
- Men’s Gymnastics – Pommel Horse
- Men’s Gymnastics – Still Rings
- Men’s Gymnastics – Horizontal Bar
- Men’s Gymnastics – Parallel Bars
- Women’s Gymnastics – Uneven Bars
- Women’s Gymnastics – Balance Beam
- Women’s Gymnastics – Floor Exercise