The making of memories: unforgettable moments in Winter Olympics history
What is it that turns an ordinary event into a lasting memory? What are the factors that transform forgettable, mundane moments into noteworthy narratives?
Surely there is a wide range of causes. Different emotions can entrench the memory of an occurrence into one's mind, be it elation, despair, surprise, disgust, awe, rage, satisfaction, regret, or a host of others. Our capability to feel such a litany of different sentiments is a large part of what makes us human.
Emotions always run high in sport, both for athletes and fans alike. A win or a loss in a championship game elicits wildly different emotions from each side, but they stick in the long-term memory banks of both.
If the outcome was influenced by a perceived slight, misdeed, or poor judgment from a referee or official, the emotion will take on a different character. A result decided by a single point or a fraction thereof creates a different feeling from a landslide victory, as does earning a win over a friendly opponent versus defeating a bitter rival.
The Olympic Games produce these types of memories in spades, both for participants and spectators alike. Examining the history of the Winter Games, we can relive these moments and identify the factors that made them stand out.
Seeing a dark horse or an underdog attain glory is certainly more memorable and satisfying than watching a perennial behemoth stomp its way to a championship. Entering the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, USA, no nation located in the Southern Hemisphere had ever won gold at any Winter Olympics, nor had any country in a semitropical geographical location.
Enter Australia's Steven Bradbury. A speed skater hailing from Queensland in the balmy, tropical north of the continent where ice-bound sports are far from the mainstream, Bradbury competed in the 1994 and 1998 Games but failed to record any individual accolades.
The same story continued through the first several events in 2002. After struggling throughout the competitions, only the 1,000-meter short-track race remained as Bradbury's last opportunity to earn a medal. He performed well and reached the semifinal, but the penultimate round featured much stiffer competition than he had faced in the previous heats.
Bradbury began the race in the rear of the pack, but, miraculously, three of the five competitors crashed just before the finish line, allowing him to coast to a second-place finish and an appearance in the event's final run; the first for an Australian skater.
Facing a lineup of opponents with a treasure trove of gold to their names, Bradbury entered the race as a severe underdog. He decided to adhere to the strategy that got him to the final; try his best to keep up with the pack and hope for the best.
On the very last turn of the very last lap, fate would smile upon the persistent competitor, as the four skaters, all of whom led Bradbury by a significant distance, tumbled and toppled over each other while jockeying for first position for the stretch run. One by one, they stumbled and fell to the ice while Bradbury, just far enough behind to sidestep the melee, cruised across the finish line to take the gold medal in an astonishing upset.
At times, even if an underdog is unable to finish atop the podium, perseverance and a will to fight through adversity can endear an athlete to fans and create lasting memories as well.
Michael Edwards was a ski jumper from the United Kingdom. He traveled to Calgary, Canada, in 1988 to participate in the Winter Games as the first Olympian in his sport from the UK in 60 years.
Edwards, however, was not quite up to the elite level of the majority of Olympic ski jumpers, having barely qualified after receiving a world ranking of 55th after the European championships the prior year. His weight, at around 82 kilograms, made him significantly heavier than the other jumpers in the field, but, undeterred by critics and naysayers, he pushed forward.
Despite placing last in both the 70-meter and 90-meter competitions, Edwards became a fan favorite and media darling for his refusal to quit, and they bestowed him with the nickname "Eddie the Eagle." His life story and Olympic journey were portrayed in the 2016 Hollywood film by that same name.
Feelings of astonishment or even fear can embed memories into our consciousness as well. During a 1998 downhill alpine skiing event in Nagano, Japan, Austrian skier Hermann Maier lost control on a particularly hazardous portion of the slope, flying off the course at over 100 kilometers per hour.
The harrowing footage of the crash shows Maier hurtling well off course and over two barriers surrounding the track before crashing violently into a third. The spectators and commentators were silent with shock and horror, but somehow, Maier was able to get to his feet, suffering merely a bruised shoulder from the frightening accident.
Not only that, but three days later, Maier completed a magnificent run on the same course to claim a gold medal in that very same event.
When a team or country breaks through for unprecedented success or breaks a stranglehold that another team has held on an event for an extended period, it's also a timeless moment.
At the 2010 Games, the Chinese duo of Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo took the gold in pair figure skating, earning China's first gold in the sport and the first gold in the event since 1960 for any country other than Russia (or the former Soviet Union). In breaking 50 years of Russian dominance, Shen and Zhao set a new world record for their overall combined score and led the way for China to earn five gold medals in that year's Games, the most for the country at any Winter Games to that point.
This year, of course, will be more memorable for China as the host of the 2022 Games. But, with three days of events still to come, China has already amassed seven gold medals, topping its previous high set a dozen years ago.
As the 2022 Games begin to wind down, let's hope for a few more unforgettable moments to transpire. Don't let them pass you by!