Sometimes the stars just align for Olympians. It happened for Canadian curling legend John Morris at Vancouver 2010: having just won the gold medal in perhaps his country’s second-favourite sport, he went to watch his compatriots become Olympic champions in its most beloved.
“After we won, we went to watch the men’s hockey final,” Morris said. “We were 10 rows up, we had incredible seats. We were so happy anyway, and now we were watching this match. It doesn’t get any better. Everyone wanted to get a picture, and every time we got up, someone would hand us a drink. And then we got to see Sidney Crosby score the golden goal for Canada. It was one of the most magical moments in Canadian sports history, and we celebrated with the team afterwards, until the wee hours. It simply doesn’t get much better than that.”
The Olympic Games certainly bring out patriotism – especially when you can cheer on compatriots that you have become friends with. “The best Olympic moment for me was ski cross in Sochi,” France’s champion biathlete Quentin Fillon Maillet said. “I was at the finish line and I watched the final, with three French guys getting on the podium. I could feel the emotion of the coach and the whole team. In ski cross you never know what can happen. They could have fallen at the first corner, so it was incredible to share that moment.”
USA short track speed skater Maame Biney was also a fascinated spectator. “My favourite Olympic moment to date was watching the US women’s hockey team take gold at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang,” she said. “A few teammates and I were at the game and it was so intense. It was such a cool moment to be a part of, and I can’t wait to watch them again in 2022.”
Inspiring spectator snapshots can also be what propelled Olympians down their own unique sporting paths, too. That was certainly true for cross-country skier Iivo Niskanen of Finland. “I remember at Salt Lake City 2002, in the Nordic combined, Samppa Lajunen won three gold medals, and it was really exciting,” he said. “I wanted to be an Olympic athlete after that. And in Sochi we had a day where we won the team sprint, and on the same day the Finnish ice hockey team beat Russia, who were favourites, and knocked them out. That was a huge moment for our country.”
Australian snowboard cross racer Josie Baff was similarly inspired. “For me, seeing snowboarders like Scotty James and Torah Bright compete on TV made a real difference,” she said. “Watching the Olympics at school, seeing people from your country doing a rare sport for Australians, was inspiring. You can’t believe it is happening, but it shows you it is possible.
They were also great moments because those athletes have such good attitudes. They really have fun, doing what they love. You can tell they love doing it. There is no negativity, they aren’t rude or arrogant, they’re so down to earth. They’re normal people, doing amazing things.Josie Baff
Fabian Riessle, the German Nordic combined competitor, also gets patriotic. “The most impressive moment for me was at Beijing 2008, when German weightlifter Matthias Steiner won the gold medal, a couple of years after his wife had died,” he said. “I was watching back in Germany and it was pretty impressive and emotional.”
But standout moments can cross national boundaries. “It has to be Steven Bradbury’s short track gold at the 2002 Olympics, for me,” Havard Lorentzen, the Norwegian speed skater, said of the Australian’s unlikely victory. “It is just amazing how everything went perfectly for him. He wasn’t supposed to be the one winning at that Olympics, it was just coincidence and that’s fascinating. It’s usually the best guys winning.”
And all Olympic heroes develop heroes of their own, too. “I am a big fan of Serena Williams – she’s a queen,” Biney said. “She truly knows how to dominate on and off the tennis court, and that’s something that I aspire to.”
Lorentzen has got to know his hero pretty well. “I really looked up to Shani Davis, Jeremy Wotherspoon and Ådne Søndrål,” he said. “And now Jeremy is my coach. I haven’t mentioned that I used to idolise him, but I used to study how he skated and try to imitate him. You can see some of it in my skating, but still I am not as smooth a skater as he was. I am still working on it.”
John Morris has also got to know someone he admires greatly. “I think my favourite Olympian has to be the Canadian swimmer, Mark Tewksbury,” he said. “He’s a really positive role model here in Canada. I’ve met him a few times and he is a wonderful fellow. I love how he doesn’t try to put on a façade or a show for anyone.”
Fillon Maillet also had an idol – “I had a poster of [Norway’s eight-time Olympic gold medallist] Ole Einar Bjørndalen in my room from Salt Lake City” – but it was another athlete who really inspired him. “Michael Phelps,” he said. “It’s incredible to win so many races in an Olympic Games and to break world records. When you watch something like that you say, ‘I really want to do this.’ If I could do just one gold medal it’s incredible, but eight in one Olympics?”
Incredible indeed: and all these athletes have got plenty more Olympic memories to come.