15 inspiring Olympic moments

What makes for an inspiring Olympic moment? Is it the years of hard work and sacrifice that culminate in a gold medal? Is it competing because you love your sport, even though it’s unlikely you’ll ever win? Is it suffering an injury but finishing the race? Is it overcoming a stereotype and proving something to the world? All these factors and more play a part in the great moments of Olympic history.

As we await the start of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, we look back at some of the most inspiring Olympic moments ever.

15. The Jamaican Bobsled Team, Calgary, 1988
It sounded like a joke. After all, how could Jamaica, a country known for its year-round sunshine and beach culture, possibly have a team in bobsledding, an event normally won by teams from snowbound places like Switzerland and Norway? Nevertheless, during the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, the Jamaican bobsled team (Devon Harris, Dudley Stokes, Michael White, Samuel Clayton, and Aiden van de Mortel) and their coach (Howard Siler) held their own, winning respect and admiration from their peers. Celebrated in the film Cool Runnings, the snowless country managed to put together a legitimate bobsled team, and in doing so reminded the world that the Olympics aren’t just about sheer athleticism — they’re about drive, determination, and heart.

14. Ice Dancing’s Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean
When it comes to figure skating, it is often the women’s, men’s, and pairs events that draw in the big crowds during the winter games. But it was the United Kingdom’s Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean’s artistic ice dance at the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo that captured the hearts and emotions of all who watched that year.

Performing to Bolero, the pair spent the first 18 seconds of their performance kneeling on the ice, moving their bodies in sync. Though they did no major tricks or stunts, they performed an artistically breathtaking program, scoring an unprecedented 12 perfect 6.0 scores. They won the gold medal that year and inspired legions of figure skaters to mimic their style, and winter sports fans to appreciate the twin foundations of ice dancing: athleticism and beauty.

13. Eddie the Eagle, Calgary, 1988
He won no medals (in fact, he finished dead last), but British ski jumper Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards made a lasting mark at the 1988 games in Calgary. What the goofy, bespectacled athlete lacked in skill was made up for in enthusiasm. Though fans enjoyed his antics, some (including IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch) complained that he was belittling the sport to gain attention for himself.

Nevertheless, every time Eddie awkwardly soared into the sky, the crowds at Calgary and around the world went wild. Even Samaranch good-naturedly said in his closing remarks, “[At Calgary] people set new goals, created new world records, and some even flew like an eagle.” Though the IOC subsequently instituted what became known as the Eddie the Eagle Rule, requiring Olympic hopefuls to finish in the top half of an international competition, Eddie’s joyous performance reminded fans that sports requires love as well as skill.

12. North and South Korean Athletes, Sydney, 2000
In the past, politics have sometimes gotten in the way of the Olympics. The games were cancelled in 1940 because of World War II, and the United States boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow because of the Cold War. However, during the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, politics briefly took a backseat to sport when athletes from North and South Korea marched together as a single nation under one flag.

The two Koreas — which split in half following a civil war in the early 1950s — have long been segregated from each other. North Korea, which is impoverished, sends fewer athletes to the Olympics than South Korea, which is wealthier, has diplomatic relations with almost every country in the world, and even hosted the Olympics in 1988. While the two countries have not yet mended their relationship (and did not compete together in Sydney), they managed to put their differences aside for the opening ceremonies and present a joint team to the world.

11. Jim McKay, Munich, 1972
ABC’s Wide World of Sports commentator Jim McKay was in the pool at his hotel, taking a break from reporting on the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, when he got the news that several members of the Israeli team had been taken prisoner by a militant Palestinian group known as Black September. McKay immediately put his clothes on over his wet swimsuit and went on camera to address the viewers. McKay remained on air almost nonstop, giving updates, until he received the tragic news that all the hostages had been killed. In a famous broadcast, he said, “When I was a kid, my father used to say ‘Our greatest hopes and our worst fears are seldom realized.’ Our worst fears have been realized tonight. They’ve now said that there were 11 hostages. Two were killed in their rooms yesterday morning; nine were killed at the airport tonight. They’re all gone.”

McKay’s grace and compassion while reporting on the tragedy was the one constant through that terrible time. He won an Emmy for that particular broadcast and continued to report on the Olympics for many years, until his recent death in 2008.

10. Nadia Comaneci, Montreal, 1976
Born in communist Romania, Nadia Comaneci began training in gymnastics as a young girl. By the tender age of 14, she was the probably the greatest gymnast in the world. In Montreal, for the first time in the history of the modern Olympics, Nadia scored a perfect 10 on the uneven bars event. Because the scoreboards did not even have enough space to show a 10, Nadia’s score appeared as 1.00. By the time the Games were over, Nadia had scored a grand total of seven perfect 10s, winning an all-around gold medal and helping her team to win silver. Nadia’s perfect score has been matched by few others, and she set a record as the youngest-ever Olympic medalist in history. A rule passed after 1976 required any Olympian to be at least 16 years old, which means that Nadia’s record will never be broken.

9. Greg Louganis, Seoul, 1988
It was the television moment replayed over and over, causing cringes and gasps the world over. In the preliminary rounds of the 1988 games in Seoul, American diver Greg Louganis bounded off the springboard into a reverse 2 1/2 pike, only to hit the back of his head on the board and flop into the water. Everyone watching was shocked as the athlete was helped out of the water. Then, in a stunning turn of events, Louganis, though suffering from a concussion, finished the preliminaries and went on to repeat the same dive in the finals. He earned near-perfect scores, the gold medal, and the admiration of the world for his guts and coolness under pressure. Louganis ignited controversy years later when he revealed he was gay and was HIV-positive at the time of the Games. However, Louganis continues to be a memorable Olympics athlete, showing that nothing can stop someone determined to win.

8. Cathy Freeman, Sydney, 2000
At the 2000 “millennium games” in Sydney, all eyes were on native daughter Cathy Freeman, an Australian of Aboriginal descent who lit the Olympic torch in the opening ceremony. As the first Aboriginal-Australian athlete to compete in the Olympics, Freeman, a sprinter, was under intense pressure to perform big in the 400 meters in her home country. She had won the silver four years earlier in Atlanta, and she was now determined to prove her status as the “Queen of the Track.” And Freeman did not disappoint. In taking her victory lap after clinching gold, Freeman draped the Aboriginal and Australian flags around her neck to the delight of her countrymen. Her commitment to her country, her heritage, and her sport has enabled fans to appreciate all that drives athletes.

7. Lawrence Lemieux, Seoul, 1988
Not many know the story of Lawrence Lemieux, a Canadian rower competing in the Finn (dinghy) class in the 1988 games in Seoul. On that fateful day Lemieux performed an incredible act of bravery. The winds had picked up, and the water became exceedingly choppy. Lemieux was in second place during his race when he saw two sailors from the Singaporean team in another race fall into the water. Lemieux rowed over and rescued the sailors, hauling them into his small boat. Though he was out of contention, he finished his race after an official boat picked up the sailors. But the Olympics committee awarded him an honorary second-place finish. IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch said, “By your sportsmanship, self-sacrifice and courage, you embody all that is right with the Olympic ideal.” Lemieux was not a big name, but his act of bravery brought honor to the Games.

6. Jesse Owens, Berlin, 1936
Jesse Owens, an African-American, grew up in poverty in Ohio, the grandson of a slave and the son of a sharecropper. He overcame racial discrimination to score a spot on the U.S. Olympic team and was the star of the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, winning four gold medals in track and field. The Games were overseen by Adolf Hitler, who had hoped that German athletes would dominate and win a lot of medals, bolstering Hitler’s theory that the Aryan race was genetically superior.

Hitler, who was told to personally greet every medalist or not greet any at all, chose the latter option rather than shake hands with Owens. But not even Hitler, who would soon lead his country into World War II, could deny that Owens was a superior athlete. As Jackie Robinson would later do in baseball, Owens helped raise the profile of African-Americans in America and throughout the world.

5. Derek Redmond, Barcelona, 1992
The story of the United Kingdom’s runner Derek Redmond has earned a memorable place in Olympics history. In 1988 in Seoul, Redmond was forced to withdraw from the 400 meters just 10 minutes before the race began due to an injured Achilles tendon. So in Barcelona in 1992, he was thirsting for a medal. As always, his father, Jim, was in the stands. They had agreed earlier that no matter what happened, Derek would finish the race. But in his semifinal heat, just as it seemed certain he would cruise to the final, Derek heard a pop in his right hamstring. He collapsed on the track in tears. But then he got up, and everyone realized he meant to finish.

As he hobbled down the track in agony, his father rushed down from the stands, put his arm around his boy, and helped him to the finish line. Just short of it, Jim pulled back and let Derek cross by himself. The crowd rose to give Derek a standing ovation. This was a shining moment of heroism, and a testament to love between father and son.

4. Kerri Strug, Atlanta, 1996
In the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, the United States women’s gymnastics team was within striking distance of their first-ever team gold medal. Coached by the legendary Bela Karolyi, a Romanian who had coached Nadia Comaneci to gold before defecting to the U.S., the team finally stood a chance against stiff competition from Russia, Romania, and China. In the end, the U.S. gold medal dreams came down to one woman — Kerri Strug, who needed a high score on the vault to cement her team’s victory. On her first attempt, Strug twisted her ankle. Undeterred, she insisted on taking her second attempt at the vault — and executed it perfectly despite landing on one leg, thus winning the gold for her team. She then collapsed in pain. At the medal ceremony, Karolyi carried her up to the podium to be with her teammates, an image that quickly became iconic.

3. U.S. Hockey Team, Lake Placid, 1980
It’s not their gold medal win against Finland that remains in our memory. It’s the prior game in Lake Placid, when a ragtag group of American collegiate and amateur hockey players defeated the Soviet powerhouse team in one of the most inspirational moments in Olympic history. Due to the Cold War, the countries were natural rivals. And in an exhibition match held before the games, the Soviet team routed the Americans 10-3.

But at the Olympics the American team found their groove with dramatic ties and stunning victories. Still, the day before the match, most thought it would take a miracle for the U.S. to win. As the seconds wound down and the scoreboard showed U.S. ahead 4-3 after they scored a last-second goal, commentator Al Michaels made his famous call: “Five seconds left in the game…. Do you believe in miracles? Yes! Unbelievable!” Later team captain Mike Eruzione stood on the podium meant only for the captains and motioned for his teammates to join him. Because, after all, it was a team that made the “miracle on ice” happen.

2. Muhammad Ali, Atlanta, 1996
Of course most inspiring moments happen during Olympic competition. But at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, one of the most touching moments came during the opening ceremony. The ceremony traditionally ends with the lighting of the Olympic flame, which remains lit throughout the entire Games. In Atlanta, celebrated former Olympians took turns carrying the torch. But at the end, swimmer Janet Evans passed it to boxing great Muhammad Ali, who had won a gold medal at the Rome Olympics in 1960. Ali, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, shook and shuddered as he lifted the torch. The world held its collective breath and watched Ali light the flame. Though his hand was shaking, his gaze never faltered, reminding everyone that an illness could not prevent him from remaining the consummate athlete he had always been.

1. Dan Jansen, Lillehammer, 1994
An editorial cartoon that ran after speed skater Dan Jansen fell in both the 500 and 1000 meters 1988 Games in Calgary showed him sitting on the ice, head in his hands. The caption had a single word: “Hero.” Jansen’s story is one of tragedy, perseverance, and ultimate victory.

In 1988, moments before the start of the 500 meters, he was told that his beloved sister Jane had succumbed to leukemia. He wanted to win for Jane, but gave in to grief and left Calgary empty-handed. In 1992 in Albertville, France, he was the favorite again. But Jansen stumbled in both races and won nothing. Lillehammer, Norway was his last chance. He stumbled again in the 500, and most thought he was done for. But in the 1000, fortune smiled upon him as he not only won gold, but also set a world record. Fans across the globe drew strength and pride from his inspirational story. And as he took his victory lap, he held his baby daughter in his arms. She was named Jane.

Article courtesy of Beliefnet.com. Beliefnet offers daily inspiration with news articles on faith, religion, politics, health, family entertainment, sustainable living and more.