By Mike Rowbottom |
The date of February 14 is particularly significant in Olympic history given its quadrennial associations with deeds achieved at the Winter Games.
It was on Valentine’s Day 1984, for instance, that Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean consummated their love-in with the British media by winning the Olympic ice dance title in Sarajevo, performing to Ravel’s Bolero.
When they returned to Sarajevo for a 30th anniversary gala in 2014, they once again wore purple as they reprised their Bolero performance – although this time they were revisiting their former glories on February 13 due to the staging of the event.
Torvill and Dean’s performance in 1984 made them the highest-scoring figure skaters of all time for a single programme, as they received 12 perfect 6.0s and six 5.9s, which included artistic impression scores of 6.0 from every judge.
Was this the outstanding Valentine’s Day gift to the Olympic Games? Well, maybe.
But skip forward a decade to the Lillehammer Winter Games, and February 14 marked the second of three consecutive Olympic luge titles for Germany’s extraordinary Georg Hackl.
Extraordinary precisely because he seemed to be so ordinary, and yet he managed to defeat his larger, stronger and, frankly, more aggressive opponents whenever the big occasion arose.
After Hackl had come from behind to successfully defend his title at the 1994 Olympics – winning by a margin of 100th of a second after his final run – the reported reaction of Austria’s robustly athletic silver medallist Markus Prock was: “Again Hackl! He is always lucky!”
But how does someone manage always to be lucky? “His mental strength is phenomenal,” Thomas Schwab, the then German coach, said. “It borders on virtuosity.”
The American Adam Heidt, who would finish ninth when Hackl won his third title at the Nagano Olympics of 1998, reflected: “It’s like a poker game. You don’t show anything you have, you just keep smiling.
“Hackl is good at that. He’s the best.”
The same smile was on the German’s face in Nagano, where, when asked how he had managed to win despite each of his four starts being slower than that of his perennial Italian rival Armin Zoggeler, he replied: “I don’t know this myself, frankly.”
Hackl’s hackles rose rarely. Indeed, the only obvious occasion was his reported issuing of a writ to prevent his local paper referring to him as the “speeding white sausage” – the aerodynamic apparel of lugers having given rise over the years to numerous jokes concerning safe sex and flying sausages.
By-the-by, I was among various media types who accompanied Hackl to a little clubhouse the Germans had set-up near the Nagano competition venue as he dropped in before his scheduled medal ceremony in the town centre.
He eventually emerged, to ringing cheers, with a German sausage sandwich in his hand. You fancied the irony did not escape him. Here was a man entirely comfortable in his own skin.
Torvill and Dean have a British Winter Olympic rival in the Valentine’s Day stakes in the form of skeleton racer Lizzy Yarnold.
Not only did the 25-year-old former heptathlete produce four superbly controlled runs down the course at the Sochi 2014 Games to earn gold – she also remembered to pack a Valentine’s Day card in her bag for her then fiancé, team technician James Roche.
Four years later, Yarnold did it all over again. Winning Olympic gold, that is, not delivering a Valentine’s card. That would have made little sense as the Pyeongchang 2018 women’s skeleton final was held on February 17. Unless, of course, she had forgotten to give her husband a card three days earlier.
Anyway. Hark. Another Valentine’s Day contender emerges in the Olympic stakes. On that particular day in 1988, Finland’s Matti Nykänen, who died earlier this month aged 55, won the men’s normal hill individual ski jump title in Calgary – with Britain’s Eddie Edwards at the other end of the list.
It was an opening victory but also a statement of continuing intent from the athlete who had won gold and silver at the Sarajevo Winter Olympics four years earlier.
From that launchpad, he went on to become the first competitor to win individual gold medals on both normal and large hills at the Winter Games and left Canada with a third gold thanks to Finland’s victory in the team event.
Nykänen is regarded by many as the greatest ski jumper ever. And in figure skating circles, some hold Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu – who confirmed his status as a national love object on February 14, 2014 – in the same esteem.
Everyone knew Hanyu was a talent – after all, he had won the world junior title in 2010. But few would have envisaged him reaching the heights of the sport in such an emphatic fashion four years later, with the high point being his Valentine’s Day performance in Sochi.
In the previous day’s short programme, Hanyu had broken his own world record, becoming the first skater to score more than 100 points with a total of 101.45.
Victory in the free skating saw the 19-year-old finish almost five points clear of silver medallist Patrick Chan of Canada. In sporting terms, it was a Valentine’s Day Massacre. (I’m sorry, but that phrase had to appear at least once in this piece as I am sure you will understand).
He thus became the first Asian skater to win the Olympic men’s title and the youngest since Dick Button of the United States in 1948.
That special day in Sochi served as a prelude to years of further brilliance. Hanyu ended 2014 as world champion too, and four years later he successfully defended his Olympic title in Pyeongchang.
Hanyu was the only Japanese competitor to win gold in Sochi, and upon his return home he was welcomed in a parade attended by an estimated 92,000 people.
All of whom would no doubt be happy to vote for their boy as the outstanding Valentine’s Day Olympian, should such a poll ever be set up.
I will keep you posted.
Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz.