9 Inspiring Winter Olympic Moments From The '90s
The 2018 Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea are set to begin on Feb. 9, so now seems like a terrific time to look back on a few competitions past — and for many millennials and Gen X-ers, nothing beats the Games we grew up with. The ‘90s were full of inspiring Winter Olympic moments, from records that were set to what might best be described as triumphs of the human spirit. When the Olympics were revived in 1896, their purpose was to promote unity and peace between all the participating countries — so it’s fitting that so many feel-good moments have emerged from the decades of competitions since.
The Winter Olympics occurred three times in the ‘90s: In 1992 at Albertville, France; in 1994 at Lillehammer, Norway; and in 1998 at Nagano, Japan. Notably, the 1992 Games were the last Winter Olympics to occur during the same year as the Summer Olympics — hence the shorter length of time between the first and second Winter Games during the decade. Previously, the Winter Games were always celebrated every four years during the same year as the Summer Games; however, after 1992, the rule was changed, leading the next Winter Games to take place in 1994 and the next Summer Games to occur in 1996.
Given, then, that there were three winter competitions during the ‘90s, rather than the slightly more typical two, there are plenty of inspirational moments to look back on as we prepare for the 2018 Games. Here are nine of my personal favorites — although the reare plenty more where these came from if you know where to look.
1. Kristi Yamaguchi & Midori Ito’s Historic Firsts
Competition was fierce during the women’s singles figure skating competition at the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville, France; the teams were full of skaters at the tops of their games. Among them were Kristi Yamaguchi, skating for the United States, and Midori Ito, skating for Japan — and, of course, these two athletes ended up taking the top medals: Gold for Yamaguchi and silver for Ito.
Ito landed a triple axel during her long program (she missed it at the beginning of the program, but completed it when she attempted itagain at the end), which was thought to be the deciding factor in who would win the gold; however, Yamaguchi’s free skate — which, as historian Sean Munger described it, “[emphasized] polish and steady skill rather than spectacular stunts” — ended up trumping the competition’s, including Ito’s, leading her to the gold.
Ito’s triple axel? That was the first triple axel ever landed by a woman during an Olympic competition. And Yamaguchi became the first Asian American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in history. Both of these firsts are as extraordinary as the women who executed them.
2. Dan Jansen’s Lillehammer Gold
At the Calgary Olympics in 1988, American speed skater Dan Jansen, fresh off his win for the title of World Spring Champion, was the favorite for both the 500- and 1,000-meter races in speed skating. But the morning of Feb.14, Jansen received news that his sister, Jane Marie Beres, was dying of leukemia. He talked to her briefly on the phone, although she didn’t respond; a few hours later, she passed away.
The 500-meter race was later that day.
Jansen fell early in the race, and then fell again several days later during the 1,000-meter race.
He hadn’t medaled at his previous Olympics, the 1984 Winter Games in Sarajevo, and he didn’t medal in 1992 in the Games at Albertville, France, either. But in 1994 — although he did slip during his first race in the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer — he took the gold in the 1,000-meter race, setting a new world record in the process (he clocked in at 1:12.43). His story remains one of the most inspirational in Olympic history. Shortly following his Olympic win, Jansen established the Dan Jansen Foundation, which works towards fighting leukemia.
3. Hermann Maier’s Spectacular Crash — And His Remarkable Comeback
Austrian ski racer Hermann Maier was the favorite to win the men’s downhill event during the 1998 Winter Olympics at Nagano — but during the race, which took place on Feb. 13, he lost control rounding a turn, flew 30 feet in the air, landed on his helmet, and crashed through not one, but two safety fences. It’s known as one of the most dramatic crashes in skiing history — but astonishingly, Maier didn’t suffer any major injuries during it. Indeed, he was able to get up and walk away on his own speed. You can watch the crash here — it’s at about the 22-second mark — although if you’re squeamish, you may want to skip it. (There’s no blood or anything, but it’s the kind of thing that will make your shoulders come up around your ears.)
But the story gets even more incredible, too: Just a few days later, he took the gold medals for both the giant slalom and the super G. There’s a reason he’s known as “The Hermannator.”
4. Remembering Sarajevo
The 1994 Winter Olympics marked a somber anniversary: It had been 10 years since the 1984 Games had been held in Sarajevo — and during that time, the Bosnian War had raged and Sarajevo itself had fallen under siege. By the time the war ended in 1995, an estimated 100,000 people lost their lives; the siege, which went until 1996, was responsible for nearly 14,000. The Zetra Olympic Hall — which had played host to the speed skating events during the '84 Games — was turned into a morgue, with the wooden seats being used to build coffins.
The 1994 Games kept this anniversary in mind. The city of Lillehammer planned a day of solidarity, which was held the day before the Olympics opened; the opening ceremony was dedicated the citizens of Sarajevo; a moment of silence was held during the closing ceremony; and, perhaps most importantly, the Bosnian bobsleigh team competed.
The four-man team — Zoran Sokolović, Izet Haračić, Nizar Zaciragić, and Igor Boras —contained a Croat, a Serb, and two Muslims; they didn’t win, but that didn’t matter. What mattered, as Boras told reporters at the time, was this: “In our small bobsled, we try to symbolize our country and show the world that we can and we must live together.” Or, as Jim Caple wrote for ESPN in 2014, “They finished last, but the important thing is they were there.”
5. Nancy Kerrigan’s Attack, Recovery, And Medal
The figure skating saga of Nancy Kerrigan, Tonya Harding, Jeff Gillooly, Shane Stant, and Shawn Eckhardt has been back in the news again recently due to the release of the film I, Tonya, so you probably don’t need much of a refresher on the backstory for this one —but just to cover our bases, the short version is this: On Jan. 6, 1994, Kerrigan was attacked by a man later identified as Shane Stant at Detroit’s Cobo Arena after a practice session; he clubbed her on the leg, an injury which forced her to withdraw from the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
However, Kerrigan's fellow skaters all agreed that she should have a spot on the U.S. Olympic figure skating team that year despite not having been able to compete — a decision the U.S. Figure Skating Association supported. Kerrigan and Harding went to the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer to compete in women’s singles, with Michelle Kwan going as an alternate.
Kerrigan — who made a full recovery in time for the Games —skated some of her best performances ever at the Olympics that year. Oksana Baiul of Ukraine took home the gold, but Kerrigan’s silver medal was well-earned all the same.
6. The Jamaica National Bobsleigh Team’s 1994 Placement
Yes, a huge part of the Jamaican bobsleigh team’s story takes place in the ‘80s, rather than the ‘90s; however, the ‘90s held a big moment for them, too.
The 1993 film Cool Runnings heavily fictionalized much of the beginning of the story, but it is true that during their debut at the 1988 Calgary Games, the Jamaican bobsleigh team became a great favorite; a team from a tropical climate competing in the Winter Olympics sounded improbable, but they gave it their all. They ultimately didn’t place that year, due to losing control and crashing during the qualifiers; they also didn’t perform well at the 1992 Olympics. But in 1994, they were back — and during the Lillehammer Games, they placed 14th, defeating not only expectations, but also the American, Russian, Australian, and French teams.
The moral of the story: You don’t have to win a medal to be inspiring.
7. Tara Lipinski’s Record-Setting Free Skate
During the 1998 Nagano Olympics, Tara Lipinski was 15 years old. She and Michelle Kwan, 17, were both considered favorites for the women’s singles portion of the figuring skating events — and, as it had been several years before during the 1992 Games, competition was fierce: Kwan had beaten Lipinski twice during the competitive season leading up to the Olympics, and although Lipinski was known for her energy and her jumps, Kwan’s artistry was considered unmatched.
Lipinski placed second to Kwan during the short program, but her free skate ultimately clinched the victory: Like Kwan, Lipinski landed seven clean triple jumps; however, she also included two triple-triple combinations. The level of technical difficulty of her routine and her virtually flawless execution of it won her the gold — making her the youngest gold medalist of an individual figure skating event in the history of the Olympics. She still holds this record today.
8. Johann Olav Koss’ Humanitarian Mission
Norwegian speed skater Johann Olav Koss’ performance at the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer was astonishing: He won gold medals in the 1,500-meter, 5,000-meter, and 10,000-meter races — and he set several world records, to boot.
But that’s not the best part of this story. The best part is this:
Prior to competing in the Lillehammer Games, Koss had taken a trip to Eritrea with the humanitarian organization Olympic Aid, which worked to aid countries suffering from war. Koss later told ESPN in 2014 that the trip “gave [him] a purpose to skate for something” — it helped put his own position in perspective, and he vowed to help those who needed it in any way that he could. “I brought that experience to the Olympics, and it helped me become a better athlete and a better person,” he said.
Koss won his first medal of the 1994 Games (although certainly not his first Olympic medal ever — he had previously taken home botha gold and a silver during the 1992 Games in Albertville) on Feb. 13, 1994. Following this win, he made a decision: If he medaled in his next race — the 1,500-meter, which was scheduled for Feb. 16 — he’d donate the bonus money to charity. He hadn’t yet decided which charity to which he would donate, however — but the morning of the race, he received a letter that inspired his final choice.
The letter was from a 14-year-old speed skater who was under siege in Sarajevo. “Can you help me? I’m sitting in a bunker. I can’t train. I can’t play. I can’t be active. I would just love to have the opportunity to skate again,” the letter read.
Koss went on to win the gold in the 1,500-meter race — and afterwards, he announced in a news conference that he would be donating his Olympic bonus money to Olympic Aid. On the suggestion of someone who oversaw the news conference, he also asked the people of Norway if they would each donate a small amount of money for every gold medal won by a Norwegian athlete during the Games.
“And then the journalists in front of me started giving money,” Koss told ESPN’s Jim Caple in 2014. “And it was like, ‘OK, something big is happening here.’” Norway won 26 medals at Lillehammer, 10 of which were gold, and Olympic Aid ended up receiving $18 million in donations from the country’s citizens as a result. Koss has gone on to work with humanitarian and charitable for many years, and in 2000, he formed Right To Play, which uses sports and games to educate children in need.
9. Oksana Baiul’s Gold Medal-Winning Long Program
Figure skater Oksana Baiul was born in Dnipropetrovsk, USSR — now independent Ukraine — in 1977. Her father deserted her family when she was two; her grandparents passed away when she was 10; and her mother died of ovarian cancer when she was 13. Orphaned, she bounced around for a time, living at one point with her skating coach’s wife after he left for a job with a skating club in Toronto, then with friends, and finally with her new coach, Galina Zmievskaya, in Odessa. One of Zmievskaya’s skaters — Viktor Petrenko, who would go on to take home the gold in the 1992 Winter Olympics and later married one of Zmievskaya’s daughters — convinced her to take Baiul in, saying, “She is only one girl. How much can she cost?”
Unlike many of the top skaters of the era, Baiul’s training conditions were nowhere near comfortable — conditions that was exacerbated by the collapse of the USSR in 1991. “You have no idea how this girl prepared to be Olympic champion,” Zmievskaya said according to the Chicago Tribune in 1994. “We had no Zamboni in the rink. I hosed down the ice myself. No Olympic champion ever had such bad conditions to prepare in.”
But an Olympic champion is exactly what she became: At the 1994 Games in Lillehammer, when Baiul was 16, she skated a long program that landed her the gold medal, despite having been injured in a collision with another skater during practice the day before. She was the first athlete representing independent Ukraine to have won a gold medal at the Winter Games — and she remains as the only one to have done so today.
The opening ceremony for the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang kicks off on Feb. 9 — and you can be sure that there will be plenty of inspirational moments this year, too. The Games run through Feb. 25.