24 Mar 2021
From getting up in the middle of the night to catch all the action to repeating heroic feats in the playground, and even being moved to tears by the sheer scale and size of the Games, this selection of major medal threats for Beijing 2022 will never forget the first time they saw the Olympic rings.
Havard Lorentzen may be the reigning Olympic men’s 500m speed skating champion – and a firm favourite to defend his title in 2022 – but it was another set of athletes clad in Lycra who first filled the young Norwegian’s mind with dreams of glory.
“I got up at 3 a.m. to watch the time trial at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney: I was a huge cycling fan,” Lorentzen said. “I was just seven years old though, and I think fell as asleep before the finish.”
Canada’s two-time Olympic gold medal-winning curler John Morris is equally tickled by his first recollections of the Games. A fierce, if young, patriot, he was a little disheartened by his home team’s efforts before coming up with a perfectly sensible solution.
“I remember watching the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. I was eight years old. I remember Canada didn’t do so well at those Games – we won just a few medals – so I decided to adopt some other countries,” said the man who would go on to claim gold in Canada’s next Olympic Games, held in Vancouver in 2010.
“For some reason I chose to cheer on Norway and the Netherlands. I was watching the speed skating and those sports, just cheering them on because I thought they looked cool.”
The power of the Olympic Games is such that the hooks which ensnare fans seem to come in all shapes and sizes and for all sorts of reasons. Patrick Hager, a linchpin of the German men’s ice hockey team who so joyously seized silver at PyeongChang 2018, grew up loving biathlon simply because his grandmother was a big fan and she controlled the TV remote.
It is unlikely to surprise anyone that the extraordinary Usain Bolt caught the eye of several future Olympic stars. Josie Baff, who won Australia’s first-ever Winter Youth Olympic Games (YOG) gold at Lausanne 2020, may not have followed Jamaica’s peerless sprinter on to the track, but like all of us the memory of Bolt powering to a triple-double keeps the snowboard cross star smiling.
Both Baff and Hager did eventually make it to their chosen sport. Hager became obsessed with the colourful Czech Republic men’s ice hockey team of the 1990s, who in 1998 added a longed-for Olympic gold to the world championship crown they had won in 1996. Meanwhile, the still-youthful Baff could not believe her eyes when she saw fellow Australian snowboarder Torah Bright win women’s halfpipe gold at Vancouver 2010.
“That was so crazy because my dad used to instruct her and we knew her well,” the 18-year-old said. “So that was an eye-opening experience, seeing that on TV. I knew I’d idolise her for the rest of my life.”
There is no doubt a personal connection helps, showing young minds that the, at times, unthinkable is achievable. France’s Quentin Fillon Maillet was already a prodigiously talented biathlete by the time he went as a 13-year-old to watch the Turin 2006 Olympic Winter Games, but to see athletes from his region competing on the biggest sporting stage of them all was, of course, “a huge inspiration”.
But, whether you know them or not, it is often enough just to see someone in your national colours triumph.
“The first thing in my head is Sochi , when Dominque [Gisin] won the [women’s Alpine skiing downhill gold] medal. That was the big thing. I was watching at home. It was the tears from Dominque. This moment inspired me a lot,” revealed Corinne Suter, who in 2020 became the first Swiss winner of the overall season-long women’s World Cup downhill title in 29 years.
Suter’s fellow Beijing 2022 gold medal hopeful Iivo Niskanen knows exactly what the Swiss flier is talking about.
“The first memories for me are the Finnish cross-country skiers in 1998 [at the Nagano Olympic Winter Games]. We watched with my family, everyone around the TV. Cross-country skiing was extremely popular in Finland in those years,” said the Finn Niskanen, who claimed team sprint gold at Sochi 2014 and the 50km mass start classic crown at PyeongChang 2018.
“We had Mika Myllyla [who won gold at Nagano in the 30km men’s classic and bronze in the 10km classic – two of six Olympic medals he won across three Olympic Games], who was one of the biggest athletes in Finland – everyone in Finland was supporting him.”
Not that it is always quite as simple as you might expect. You Young, another Lausanne 2020 YOG champion, is hoping to follow in the footsteps of her long-time mentor, Kim Yuna, by claiming the Republic of Korea’s second Olympic women’s figure skating gold medal. But the emotions You felt when watching Kim float her way to glory at Vancouver 2010 were complicated.
“I thought the Olympics were such a big thing and [wondered] how skaters could do well there, because at that time I felt really nervous in all the small competitions and thought that in the Olympics I would be more and more nervous. I wondered how could Yuna do so well in her programmes,” You said, with a big laugh.
“I didn’t really understand why a lot of skaters cried after their competition either… at that time when I watched the TV I was like, ‘Why are they crying?’.”
Whatever the experience, it seems one thing is certain: the first memories of the Olympic Games all kickstarted a love affair that has never dimmed.
“It was the biggest topic in the playground,” Germany’s four-time medal-winning Nordic combined athlete Fabian Riessle said of his, the Nordic combined at the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympic Winter Games.