No one can deny the Winter Games deliver drama, sometimes scandal, and always the thrill of victory or agony of defeat, despite what Jack Donaghy says.
Whether we exult in the unbridled joy of Jonny Moseley’s 360 Mute Grab in Nagano ’98 or despair in the calamity of Lindsey Jacobellis’ method grab in Torino ’06, the Winter Games can take your breath away or knock the wind out of you in the blink of an eye.
With margins of error literally as thin as a blade’s edge and margins between medals sometimes thinner, the events consistently leave us awestruck by what our fellow men and women can do on snow and ice. Here are 14 indelible memories from Winter Olympics past…
Lake Placid 1980: Heiden’s speedskating sweep
At the 1980 Winter Games, an unassuming Eric Heiden showed up at an unassuming outdoor track in front of the high school on Main Street in Lake Placid. Then he put on what will likely be the most dominant display of Olympic speedskating the world will ever see. From the five races—500, 1,000, 1,500, 5,000 and 10,000 meters—he garnered five golds. Almost a generation before Michael Johnson wrapped his fleet feet in golden spikes, Eric had the chutzpah to ensconce his entire body in one heckuva gold speed suit. Had the The Colbert Report been around in 1980, Stephen would’ve been proud (and probably a little jealous: the 6-foot-1, 185-pound Madison, Wisconsin native had thighs so massive—27 inches each!—he needed size 38 pants even though his waist measured only 32 inches). Eric later turned that determination and focus towards international cycling and then to his schooling, going on to Stanford to study orthopedic surgery.
Calgary 1988: Eddie the Eagle sort of soars
The greatest—or at least best-known—British ski jumper of all time, Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards shot to fame at Calgary 1988 faster and further than he shot off the normal and large hills at Canada Olympic Park. His endearing efforts, buoyed by those huge glasses, dapper mo’, and irrepressible Gloucestershire accent, were rewarded with chants of “Edd-ie, Edd-ie, Edd-ie” (see 2:40 of this great video). His legacy lives on today in the form of the International Olympic Committee’s 1990 “Eddie the Eagle Rule” requiring Olympic hopefuls to place in the top 30 percent or top 50 competitors in international events. Amsterdam’s Eddie the Eagle Museum honors him differently: “…years later he is still symbol for the art of trying.”
Calgary 1988: The Jamaican Bobsled Team, you know, bobsleds
So inspirational (and, let’s face it, comical) were the boys from Jamaica in Calgary 1988 that Disney was moved to immortalize them in Cool Runnings. Despite crashing out on their only competitive run, the Jamaicans charmed fans across the globe, and then went on to qualify for Albertville 1992 and Lillehammer 1994, launching a trend in bobsledding towards track-and-field crossover athletes (see Lolo Jones in Sochi 2014). Given how Jamaicans now dominate sprinting in the Summer Games, their foray onto the sliding track in Calgary seems to make more and more sense with every passing Olympiad.
Calgary 1988: Tomba’s charmed life
Alberto “La Bomba” Tomba was the Italian stallion of ski racing, known to sip shots of espresso on either side of the start house and celebrate victories with back flips from a standstill in racing boots. He scored two Ferraris for his two golds (slalom and giant slalom) in Calgary 1998, as promised from his proud papa. His flair—and his hair—reputedly won him trophies off piste, as well, capiche?
Calgary 1988: Witt doubles her pleasure—and ours
The flower of East Germany, Katarina won the “Battle of the Carmens” against American Debi Thomas in Calgary 1988, becoming the first repeat Olympic champ since Norway’s Sonja Hennie (1928 and 1936). She stayed fit enough through age 29 to make a return to Lillehammer 1994, this time for a unified Germany, and somehow got progressively fitter into her 30s, famously appearing in the December 1998 Playboy at 34 and again in the December 2001 German Playboy in December 2001 at 37. Her 1998 cover was the first to sell out since Marilyn Monroe’s 1953 inaugural issue. If we’re being honest, we actually got a little distracted while sourcing her photos.
Lillehammer 1994: Jansen gets knocked down, but he gets up again…
Probably the greatest Olympic saga of falling down, getting back up, and ultimately triumphing. To the speedskating world, Dan Jansen was a perennial champ, holding the five fastest 500-meter times in history going into Lillehammer, but to the world at large he had become a quadrennial heartbreak kid. His crashes in ’88, empty hands in ’92 and 8th place finish in the 500 meters in ’94 were almost unbearable to witness. But all sorrow was vanquished with a gold, in world record time, in the 1,000 meters in Lillehammer, his last Olympic race. His victory lap with baby daughter Jane, named for the sister who died of leukemia hours before his opening race in Calgary 1988, caps a tale of redemption told no more poignantly than in what has to be the greatest Olympic tear-jerker ad ever. (Gets us every time—damn you, Morgan Freeman.)
Lillehammer 1994: Norway and Italy make cross-country skiing—cross-country skiing!—must-see TV
This greatest of rivalries began when, after a cat-and-mouse chase through the wooded trails of Lillehammer (including dead stops and feints of acceleration), Italian Silvio Fauner and Norway’s reigning cross-country king Bjorn Daehlie entered the home stretch of the anchor leg in the 1994 4 x 10 km relay. A raucous cauldron of flag-waving Norwegians festooned in national colors had come to see their version of the Super Bowl, expecting glory on home soil in a sport they invented. Somehow, the Italian edged his toe over the line first, stunning and silencing—and ultimately drawing awed applause from—the crowd of nearly 300,000, almost all Norwegians. Dubbed the “Great Race” in an NBC centerpiece film, the only thing that could outdo this incredible battle was two more just like it at Nagano 1998 and Salt Lake City 2002, with Norway exacting revenge, each time by a final stretch of the leg. In 120 km of racing over three Winter Games, the two rivals were separated by a sum of less than one second. Now, that is epic.
Nagano 1998: Moseley’s Got #1
If you didn’t jump out of your seat and run screaming down your dorm hall when Jonny Moseley pulled off his Mute Grab 360 gold medal-winning moguls run in Nagano 1998, you must not have had a pulse. (Oh wait, was that just us?) Bred on the hot dog culture of Squaw Valley freestyle in the ’80s and ’90s, Jonny melded the best of American new school into the traditions of Olympics old school. His experiment with the Dinner Roll (seriously, watch the video) in Salt Lake City 2002, an off-axis helicopter designed to skirt the rules about feet not going over the head, was ahead of its time—resulting in the greatest 4th place finish in the history of skiing. Olympians have been climbing podiums on the backs of the tricks he laid down ever since, many inspired by the pure joy Jonny brought to skiing bumps.
Salt Lake City 2002: Bradbury stays upright
Sometimes you need a bunch of pictures to tell a story; this time you need just one. Remarkably, Australia’s Stephen Bradbury’s path to gold in the Salt Lake City 2002 1,000-meter short-track event relied on not one, not two, but three successive improbable turns: a DQ for obstructing in the quarters by defending world champ Marc Gagnon of Canada, another pileup in the semis eliminating defending Olympic champ Kim Dong-Sung of South Korea and then this legendary finish in the medal round. Knowing he was outgunned in the final by American Apolo Anton Ohno, Canadian Mathieu Turcotte, South Korea’s Ahn Hyun-Soo (now “Viktor Ahn” of Russia… who knew?), and China’s Li Jiajun (not in the picture after triggering the crash going into the final corner), he purposefully went with a tortoise-and-hare strategy that ultimately gave golden Olympic meaning to the term “last man standing.”
Torino 2006: Jacobellis’ grab and smash
In a modern-day “agony of defeat,” Lindsey Jacobellis still finished second in Boardercross at Torino 2006. Whether her method grab on the final jump, with an insurmountable lead and the finish line in sight, was showboating or just a steadying hand is beside the point, really. Though obviously devastated, Jacobellis admirably kept her composure and maintained her sportsmanship, accepting the silver—and a barrage of media attention—with a tinge of regret and a healthy dose of good humor. Not lacking bravado before Torino, she’s emerged a humbler boarder and more mature Olympian. That’s a lesson we could all employ when we inevitably have to pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off—even if we’re not reminded about it every four years. For better or worse, Lindsey, you’re more famous for tumbling to silver than you’d be if you’d cruised to gold.
Vancouver 2010: The Flying Tomato rides again
It started with the Cab 1080 for his inaugural gold in Torino 2006, then continued with the Double McTwist 1260 for the repeat in Vancouver 2010. The biggest difference going into Sochi? The flowing red mane that defined Shaun White’s boarder handle “The Flying Tomato” is now coiffed to fit the dapper rocker image of his new band Bad Things. Could it be that, like the Biblical Samson (and Chelsea/Spain striker Fernando Torres), his power was all in his hair the whole time? Sure could make that case after what went down—namely, Shaun White—the other night.
Vancouver 2010: Yanks win Nordic gold (and silver)
Despite being one of the most historied Winter Olympics events, dating to the original Chamonix 1924 Games, Nordic Combined never got much play in the United States… until these four came together to dominate in Vancouver. Brett Camerota, Todd Lodwick, Johnny Spillane and Billy Demong (from left to right on podium) brought home the USA’s first-ever medals in the event: a silver in the Team competition, a silver for Spillane in the individual normal hill/10 kilometers and silver and gold for Spillane and Demong in the individual large hill/10 kilometers. The only other Nordic medal in American history had been a solitary 30 kilometer Cross-Country silver by Vermont’s Bill Koch at Innsbruck 1976, where he progressed the sport using the skating technique that is now a racing discipline.
Vancouver 2010: Miller’s time
Heading into Torino 2006 and again in Vancouver 2010 (because of Torino), the press liked to cast Bode Miller as a bad boy ski racer, but we preferred to think of him as a pure product of his native “Live Free or Die” state of New Hampshire. His empty cup from Torino ranneth over in Vancouver, with medals of every color—bronze in Downhill, silver in Super-G and gold in Super Combined. He made good on the promise he’d shown with two silvers in Salt Lake City 2002 and gave America, mostly just peeking in every four years, a glimpse of what he’d been doing season after season on the World Cup circuit, on his way to becoming one of the greatest ski racers of all time.
Lake Placid 1980: “Do you believe in miracles?”
The one you all knew was coming. The epitome of Olympic underdog glory. A victory for amateurism over professionalism when that still meant something in the Olympics. A purely sporting moment with undeniable political overtones. (Remember, the USA boycotted the Moscow Summer Games a few months later… over Afghanistan.) This wasn’t even the gold medal game, yet it is the most significant hockey match in American history and has come to represent the very emblem of the Winter Games in so many American hearts and minds.