9 Wild Moments from Winter Olympics History
With the Pyeongchang Olympics nearing their final weekend in South Korea, we thought we'd take a look back at some of the wildest and most unpredictable moments of Winter Games past.
1. AUSTRALIA WINS ITS FIRST WINTER GOLD MEDAL WHEN SPEED SKATER WAITS FOR HIS COMPETITORS TO FALL DOWN
Knowing he was overmatched by his fellow athletes during the 1000 Meter Short Track Speed Skating competition at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, Australian Steven Bradbury devised a strategy of waiting in the back of the pack on the off chance that his competitors might trip up. Amazingly, the strategy worked when a disqualification in the quarterfinals got him through to the semis and a crash sent him to the finals.
In the final, favorite Apollo Anton Ohno and the three other competing skaters collided in an epic crash; the trailing Bradbury was close enough to the pack to cross the finish line before any of the fallen skaters, becoming Australia's first gold medalist in the Winter Olympics.
2. ALPINE SKIER HERMANN MAIER FLIES OFF THE COURSE AT 70 MPH, GETS UP AND WALKS AWAY
In downhill alpine skiing, skiers travel at extremely high velocities (typically 60 to 85 miles per hour) down courses that closely follow the mountain's fall line.
In 1998, Nagano Olympics race officials were worried about the downhill course—specifically, a steep angle between the 6th and 7th gates. They altered this portion but the section still posed a danger.
Austrian Hermann Maier finished first in the World Cup standings before the Olympics but had a reputation for recklessness within the skiing circuit—in fact, according to Olympic historian David Wallechinsky, “caution was not a word in Maier's vocabulary." Maier didn't slow down before the aforementioned dangerous turn in Nagano and went flying off the course at 70 miles per hour, tumbling to a halt some 50 meters away. In a sport where injuries—and even deaths—aren't unheard of, Maier shocked TV audiences by getting up and walking away with nothing more than a bruised shoulder.
Benefiting from a 24-hour weather delay on his next event, the Super-G, Maier used the extra rest to get back in full form and took home the gold. He also came in first in the Giant Slalom three days later.
3. WOMEN CHEAT BY HEATING UP THEIR SLEDS
There have been a limited number of cases of cheating in the Winter Olympics (far fewer than in the Summer Olympics), but that doesn't mean it’s an impossibility. Just ask Ortrun Enderlein.
Enderlein, the defending luge champion, and her two East German teammates aroused suspicion by showing up just before their runs and leaving the scene hastily after. Enderlein won gold and her teammates placed 3rd and 4th, but upon closer inspection, it was discovered that their sleds had been heated immediately before the races, which reduced friction with the ice and resulted in faster times. The three were disqualified and the East German Olympic Committee blamed the affair on a "capitalist revanchist plot.”
4. SKI JUMPER RALLIES NATIONAL PRIDE BY FINISHING LAST
English plasterer Michael Edwards traveled to Lake Placid, New York two years before the 1988 Calgary Olympics to fulfill his dream of making the event as a downhill skier. When money ran short, he decided to switch to ski jumping because it was significantly cheaper and there would be no competition at the national trials. Edwards became the first Olympic ski jumper in British history, but was far below the standards of the rest of the field.
Edwards crashed at the World Championships the year before the '88 Games and was ridiculed by the international press, who dubbed him “Mr. Magoo” due to his thick-rimmed glasses and heavy frame.
To the British, however, Edwards became a great source of fascination, which turned into a full-fledged national craze as he became the first Olympic ski jumper in the country's history and successfully landed his attempt at the Calgary Games. Although he didn't even score half the total points of any other competitor, he earned admiration worldwide and was given the nickname "Eddie the Eagle" by the President of the International Olympic Committee during the closing ceremony.
Sadly, many others in the Olympic community did not take him seriously, and they raised the qualifying standards to prevent Edwards from participating in the future. This didn't stop him from trying, but he failed to qualify on three successive occasions. Today, Edwards still plasters for a living and estimates that 70 percent of his income comes from speaking engagements.
In 2016, Eddie the Eagle, a biopic about Edwards’s life featuring Hugh Jackman (not playing Edwards), was released in theaters.
5. GOLD MEDALIST IN OLYMPICS' INAUGURAL SNOWBOARDING COMPETITION GETS BUSTED FOR MARIJUANA
At the 1998 Nagano Games, snowboarding was introduced in an effort to make the Olympics more appealing to a younger audience. Still, there was some trepidation about the perceived rambunctious lifestyle of the snowboarding community and how it would fit in with the formality of the Olympics.
Nothing better illustrated this clash of values than when Canadian Ross Rebagliati became the inaugural winner in the Parallel Giant Slalom and was promptly stripped of his medal three days after the event for testing positive for marijuana.
Rebagliati claimed to have ingested it second-hand at a party and the Canadian Olympic delegation successfully appealed the IOC's decision on the basis that marijuana isn't a performance-enhancing drug. He got his medal back before the Games ended.
Today, 20 years after the controversy, Rebagliati has moved on from his snowboarding past and is trying his hand at entrepreneurism: he’s the founder of Ross’ Gold, a cannabis business.
6. NANCY KERRIGAN VS. TONYA HARDING
Tonya Harding was an ice skating prodigy from a broken home who ascended to the world stage in the early '90s. As her financial security and world ranking started to decline in the months leading up to the Olympics, Harding became frustrated and directed her anger at fellow American Nancy Kerrigan, who was ascending in the world standings and landing lucrative commercial endorsements.
Harding's on-again-off-again husband Jeff Gillooly conspired with two other men to attack and injure Kerrigan before the 1994 Olympics. They carried out the hit after Kerrigan's practice skate before the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit. Shane Stant, Gillooly's hired man, hit Kerrigan on the knee with a police baton as she was talking to a reporter in a stadium hallway. He escaped by diving through a plexiglass door before running to a getaway car.
The attack resulted in a bruise, but because there was no bone or ligament damage, Kerrigan was able to perform and was selected (along with Harding, who was under investigation for the attack) for the U.S. Olympic team. At the Lillehammer Games, Kerrigan famously skated to a silver medal after terrific back-to-back performances while Harding, disgraced, finished in eighth place. Harding's life, and the scandal surrounding her competition with Kerrigan, has been turned into the Oscar-nominated film, I, Tonya.
According to Olympic Historian David Wallechinsky, when CBS executives thanked their staff in Norway for the great ratings (the figure skating finals were the one of the most watched events in television history at the time), a CBS employee wrote back: "Don't thank us. Thank Tonya."
7. TWO AMERICAN HOCKEY TEAMS ARE SENT TO THE OLYMPICS, BOTH ARE DISQUALIFIED
Controversy erupted before the 1948 Olympic Games in St. Moritz over whether the American Hockey Association or the Amateur Athletic Union was the chief governing authority for hockey in the United States. American Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage refused to sanction the AHA because of their commercial sponsorships, but the International Ice Hockey Federation officially ruled that the AAU was to be replaced by the AHA.
Amid the confusion, both teams made their way to St. Moritz to compete. Before they were set to march in the Opening Ceremony, the Swiss Olympic Organizing Committee banned the AAU. Because they were favored by Brundage, though, the AAU team got the honor of representing the U.S. in the opening ceremony, while the AHA team—which was actually allowed to compete by the organizing committee—had to sit in the stands.
8. LUGE TRACK WITH A HISTORY OF FATAL ACCIDENTS SELECTED AS SITE OF INAUGURAL LUGE COMPETITION
Luge racers regularly hit speeds of over 95 miles per hour, meaning that even the smallest shift in body position can easily result in catastrophe. This was evident before the 2010 Vancouver Games, when Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili careened off the track during a training run and died of his injuries.
It was an eerie replay of the luge's first-ever appearance at the Olympic Games. Two weeks before the Innsbruck Games in 1964, Kazimierz Kay-Skrzypecki, a British RAF pilot who was inexperienced in the sport, flew off the track and died during a training run. Additionally, a German doubles luge team was injured on the track in a separate accident. The track had had several fatal accidents when it opened decades before, and although it was modified thereafter, Olympic participants had to lobby for further safety precautions to reduce some of the danger.
9. FRENCH JUDGE CONFESSES TO THROWING THE COMPETITION
The pairs figure skating competition at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics resulted in a massive scandal that gave wind to the long-standing notion that figure skating judges can be swayed. Russian competitors Yelena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze made noticeable errors in their long program, while Canadians Jamie Salé and David Pelletier performed a flawless routine that had the crowd chanting "Six! Six! Six!"
When the judges ruled 5-4 in favor of the Russians and loud boos rang from the arena, the Canadian Olympic officials filed a protest. Protests filed by the losing party have become relatively common in the Olympics and the exercise is often a symbolic and ultimately fruitless gesture. But in this case, some dirt actually turned up.
In the subsequent investigation, it was revealed that the swing vote, French judge Marie-Rene Le Gougne, was up for a seat on the International Skating Union's powerful technical committee, and reports surfaced that she confided to a British referee a few days earlier that she had been pressured by her own national committee to throw her vote for the Russian pairs.
Le Gougne changed her story a few days later in an effort to save face, but her contradictory statements only exacerbated the coverage into a full-blown media frenzy dubbed “skate-gate.” In the end, Le Gougne was suspended for three years, the Canadians were awarded a second pair of gold medals, and the sport underwent reform with judges' scores being kept secret and chosen at random.