Friday 27 April 2018

7 Winter Olympic tales worthy of a feature film just like Cool Runnings

On the 30th anniversary of the Jamaican bobsleigh team of 1988, who else has earned a spot on the silver screen?

Australian former speed skater Steven Bradbury and the Great Britain ladies curling team at the 2002 Winter Olympics
Australian former speed skater Steven Bradbury and the Great Britain ladies curling team at the 2002 Winter Olympics

By Max McLean, Press Association

The Pyeongchang Winter Olympics marks 30 years since the Jamaican bobsleigh team of 1988 inspired one of the all-time great sports movies: Cool Runnings.

It seems the Winter Olympics is fertile ground for feature films, with I, Tonya – which tells the story of figure skater Tonya Harding – the latest to make its way onto the silver screen.

Winter Olympic history is strewn with great stories from improbable victories to crushing defeats, so here are seven tales that could easily be blockbusters too.

1. Cool Runnings, the sequel

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Jamaica in action during the two-woman bobsleigh heat at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang

Thirty years after the Jamaican men’s bobsleigh team made their debut in Calgary, the women are doing the same in Pyeongchang – but the build-up to their bow was far from plain sailing.

With just days to go before the big day, the team’s German coach Sandra Kiriasis quit, a dramatic enough development in and of itself, but the move also brought the ownership rights of the sled, which the team had been renting, into question.

However, help was just around the corner when Heineken’s Red Stripe beer offered to step in, buying them the sled they had been renting in order that they might race in their own equipment.

After two runs the team were down in 18th (of 20 teams), but that didn’t really matter. Like the men’s team of Calgary and their fictional counterparts on the big screen several years later, they achieved the honour of competing under their flag.

2. Steven Bradbury’s unlikeliest of gold medals

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Australia’s Steven Bradbury at the Winter Olympics

There aren’t many sports where being the worst can be played to one’s advantage, but Steven Bradbury’s underdog story at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City is everything a Hollywood director could dream of.

Even before he made contact with the ice in 2002, the Australian skater had been through it all. He’d won bronze in 1994 in the 5,000m team relay, suffered a horrific wound in a World Cup event, and broken his neck in training.

At Salt Lake City alone, Bradbury’s entire journey to the Olympic final was one long story of beating the odds. He made it to the semis due to another skater being disqualified, then advanced to the final when two rivals fell and another was disqualified.

In the final, Bradbury stuck to the plan and remained a safe distance behind his four rivals, whose battling for pole position, like one of Aesop’s fables, led to them all wiping each other out. Bradbury was left to mop up the gold, like the tortoise and the hare on ice.

3. Elise Christie’s Olympic curse

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Great Britain’s Elise Christie crashes out of an event at the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games

Is there a more unfortunate Olympian in British history? Elise Christie will be due a break if she competes at the 2022 Games in Beijing.

Ahead of the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Christie, then 23, looked incredibly strong, having claimed her first World Championship medal before winning two golds at the 2013 European Championships.

Hopes of a medal in Sochi were high then, but what came next were three cruel sporting blows as the speedster was disqualified from the 500m, the 1000m and the 1500m events.

Christie bounced back to win multiple golds at the 2017 Short Track Speed Skating Championships in Rotterdam, but after waiting four years to make her triumphant return, Pyeongchang proved just as cruel as Christie fell in the 500m final and the 1500m semi-final, injuring herself in the process.

The 1000m was Christie’s final chance, but after finishing second in her heat she was again disqualified after contact with another athlete. Will Beijing provide a fitting finale, or is Christie’s tale doomed to tragedy?

4. Peggy Fleming bears the weight of a nation

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Former world champion figure skater Peggy Fleming

It’s rare to see the USA struggle at an Olympic Games, but during the 1964 winter edition their figure skating team earned just one bronze medal.

Such a result was massively influenced by a tragic plane crash in 1961 which ended the lives of the entire US figure skating team. A nation was devastated.

The 1964 Games saw Peggy Fleming finish sixth in her event, but over the next four years she would become one of the dominant forces in the sport and arrived in 1968 having won multiple World Championships in the years running up to the Games.

Her goals then were shrouded in emotion and the hopes of a nation, and yet she delivered in the moment. She secured the US’s only gold of the competition, cruising to victory in her last competitive skate.

“She is a skater without weakness,” said her close rival from East Germany, Gabriele Seyfert. How’s that for a feel-good ending?

5. The battle of the Brians

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A recreational figure skater

Close in age, ambition and talent, Brians Boitano and Orser – from the USA and Canada respectively – produced a script worthy of a Rocky film with their figure-skating prowess, and it came to the boil at the 1988 Games in Calgary.

The pair initially faced off 10 years earlier at junior level before making their way swiftly to the top of the sport, regularly battling one another along the way. If their careers were journeys, Calgary was the final stop.

Orser held a 7-3 lead in head-to-heads going into the Games, but perhaps crucially he was known to struggle in the biggest moments, his form eluding him in the pressure cooker. In the battle that followed, Boitano placed ahead of Orser in the compulsory skate, but Orser socked him right back by achieving first in the short programme.

In the freeskate, Boitano’s almost flawless routine edged out Orser, who made a couple of minor errors. With higher technical scores Boitano took gold, but both left the rink with their reputations enhanced.

6. Jim Shea’s family ties

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The USA's Jim Shea Jr., a skeleton racer

Jim Shea Jr’s Olympic heritage is what makes his story so cinema-worthy, and the timing of his triumph only furthers the case.

Shea Jr is a third-generation Olympian, following in the wintry footsteps of both his father and his grandfather. Jack Shea won 500m and 1500m speed-skating gold at the Lake Placid Games in 1932, while Jim Shea Sr took part in three events at Innsbruck in 1964.

A skeleton competitor, Shea Jr arrived at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City as one of the favourites, and while Olympic glory was the goal, the then 23-year-old had other things on his mind.

Just 17 days before the opening ceremony, his grandfather Jack was killed in a car crash. Shea Jr took to the track with a picture of Jack in his helmet, and despite finding himself 0.01 seconds behind halfway through his final run, he somehow found the time in the final bends to clinch gold. In doing so he emulated his grandfather, 70 years on.

7. Great Britain make curling cool

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Great Britain sweep in front of the stone after skip Rhona Martin’s final decisive throw to win Olympic gold at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games

You’ll not see curling at the X-Games any time soon, but for a brief period in 2002 the slow-moving target sport had millions in Britain mesmerised.

Great Britain’s female curling team were not expected to do great things at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City. Canada had held the copyright on the favourites tag since 1998 when they swept past everyone to clinch gold in Nagano, while Britain settled for fourth.

In Salt Lake City however, the team, comprised of five Scottish women, squeaked through into the semi-finals where they would meet Canada. The Swiss had already beaten the USA to reach the final, and experts were waiting for Canada to complete the line-up.

But Britain capitalised on a mistake from the favourites, and it was they who moved into the gold-medal match. It had been 18 years since Britain’s last gold at a Winter Olympics. Would the wait be ended by one slide of a rock along some ice?

A total of 5.7 million people watched them try, and eventually prevail, knocking a Swiss counting stone away from the target with their final effort. It might not be a rock and roll sport, but those watching on telly could have filled Wembley Stadium 63 times over.

Press Association

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