At Salt Lake City in 2002, speed-skater Steven Bradbury won what television commentators in his native Australia called “perhaps the most incredible gold medal in Olympic history.” He was Australia’s first-ever Winter Olympics champion and, of course, the nation was celebrating. Others, however, were somewhat angry.
By his own admission, Bradbury was lucky, winning his medal after his opponents (including the favorite, America’s Apolo Anton Ohno) had crashed in a heap in front of him. When he accepted the medal, he was booed by the mostly American crowd. Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan, echoing much of the US media, moaned that “the wrong person” had won. NBC commentators called it a farce, demanding a re-skate. Even foul play was suggested, as the umpire happened to be Australian.
But why bother holding the race if everyone already knew that Ohno was the “right man”? The object of the game was to reach the finish line first – and Bradbury he did so, without cheating. Sport is just not about speed and strength, but about strategy and luck. Bradbury claimed that he had won a strategic victory; he knew he couldn’t skate faster than his opponents, but he also knew that he could gamble on a crash. Whatever the case, he won. Sometimes sport is like that.
So often, a worthy champion falls due to bad luck or a freak accident – and Australia itself has not been immune to such disasters. When they celebrated Bradbury’s victory, Aussies were relieved that, finally, dumb luck was on their side.
Compare the crowds at Salt Lake City with those at Sydney during the 2000 Olympics. As always, local favorites were knocked from their perches. But one athlete seemed particularly unlucky. Race-walker Jane Saville, easily in front in the 20-kilometre race-walk, was disqualified at the stadium tunnel, minutes from victory. Her crime: having both legs off the ground at once – three times. In tears, she was asked whether she needed anything. “A gun to shoot myself,” she replied.
Watching this, the Sydney crowd was stunned, but still managed to applaud when China’s Wang Liping, well behind Saville, walked to the finish line. Though many were angry at the race-walking rules, there was no booing when Wang was presented with her medal. That’s the game.
The next year, at the 2001 World Swimming Championships at Fukuoka, Australia’s 4×200-metre women’s medley relay team fell foul of an even more obscure rule. Having swum the fastest drug-free time in history, they dived back in the pool to splash around in joyous celebration – unaware that they could not re-enter the pool until the race was over.
The Italian team was still finishing, so the Australians were shocked to discover that they had been disqualified. This time, the Australian media – which had been sympathetic to Saville – were less forgiving of these women for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. One newspaper columnist called them “four silly girls” – which was unfair, as the final swimmer had done nothing wrong, and the others insisted that they were unaware of that rule. When you’re busy training, it’s not really on your mind.
For Australia’s Winter Olympics team, Bradbury’s improbable victory at Salt Lake City was a consolation after one of of his compatriots, world champion ski-jumper Jacqui Cooper, had been injured in a freak training accident only days before. While Bradbury was winning gold, she was flying home for medical assistance. Cooper was the favourite, but she was no stranger to freak mishaps at the Winter Games. At Nagano in 1998 (where she had also been the favourite), she had landed head-first and suffered concussion.
Freak accidents often happen in sports, and sometimes fate seems to smile on “the wrong person”. Ohno still won a medal (albeit silver) and was gracious in defeat. Meanwhile, Bradbury proves his true value to Australians: he reversed the sporting jinx. Finally, a freak accident was going their way. Since that remarkable day, Australia has had its most successful Olympic Games ever (in terms of both gold and overall medals), made it to the football World Cup (for the first time in 32 years), and continued to shine in sports ranging from cricket to lawn bowls. For now, the losing streak seems to be over.