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The Olympics: The World’s Original Reality Show

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It’s February, and while the jubilation of the holidays is now a distant memory, another season of hope and happiness is just around the corner: the Winter Olympics! For two and a half weeks, all eyes will be on Vancouver as athletes from around the world hope to make their families and nations proud.

Long before there was Real Housewives and American Idol, the Olympics were the original reality show, with all the drama, tears, athleticism, and even the trash talking to boot.  Skeptical? Take a look at these top Olympics highlights from years past:

5. Tara Lipinski Steals Figure Skating Gold, Nagano 1998

In 1998, America was in love with Michelle Kwan. The graceful seventeen-year-old was already a two-time US Figure Skating Champion and winner of the 1996 World Championships when she took the stage in Nagano. While Tara Lipinski, then just fifteen, had a National and World title of her own, it was Kwan whose experience and artistry made her the favorite for the Olympic title. However, after a solid performance by Kwan, Lipinski emerged with this exhuberant, youthful, and technically more difficult program to clinch the gold medal, becoming the youngest Winter Olympic champion ever. Jump to the 6-minute mark to see her receive her scores, and hear the scream heard ’round the world.

4. Lindsey Jacobellis Showboats to Silver, Torino 2006

Four years ago marked the debut of a new Olympic sport, snowboard cross.  Combining the dramatic elements of  downhill skiing, the collisions of short-track speedskating, and numerous jumps and turns, bordercross (as it is sometimes called) was poised to become a newsmaker by popularity alone. But in the 2006 women’s finals, American Lindsey Jacobellis sacrificed a seemingly insurmountable lead on the final jump by showboating (adding a fancy board-grabbing flourish on the incline) and falling.  In an instant, her gold turned to silver, and her magnum opus turned into a mea culpa.

3. Dan Jansen Wins Gold After Sister’s Death and Three Olympiads, Lillehammer 1994

Jansen grew up in Wisconsin, where his sister Jane inspired him to take up speedskating as a recreational activity.  By 1988, he was already the World Sprint Champion and was favored to win a medal in the 500 or 1,000 meter races at the Calgary Olympics. However, on the morning he was set to compete, he received a phone call notifying him that Jane had died of cancer. Tortured by grief, he fell in competition and broke down in tears on the ice. Four years later he tried again, and again he fell. He found a stroke of luck–and a last chance–when the International Olympic Committee elected to schedule the Winter and Summer games in alternating four-year intervals, giving him a last shot at a gold to honor his sister just two years later in 1994.  There, after falling in the 500m competition, he had only the 1000m final remaining, admittedly not his signature event. Miraculously, he surged to a gold medal and a world record, and celebrated with a victory lap holding his infant daughter, Jane.

2. Giorgio Di Centa’s Tear-Jerking Medal Ceremony, Torino 2006

The Summer Olympics have a long-held tradition, where the marathon is held on the final day of competition and the medal ceremony is staged at the closing ceremonies to end the Games. Starting in 2006, the Winter Olympics adopted a similar tradition in which the cross-country skiing equivalent of the marathon (the 50k) takes the stage. Italians are wildly enthusiastic about cross-country skiing, so imagine their awe and pride when, in 2006, native son Giorgio Di Centi won the event by just 0.8 of a second. His medal ceremony took place at the Stadio Olimpico before a crowd of thousands of cheering Italian fans. And as if that weren’t enough to define the happiest day of Di Centi’s life, his sister Manuela–a former skiier herself and an IOC member selected previously to present the medals for the 50k event–awarded him with his gold. Jump to the 5-minute mark to see the crowd’s reception and try to hold back the waterworks as the national anthem is sung.

1. USA Men’s Hockey “Miracle on Ice”, Lake Placid 1980

Perhaps the granddaddy of all sporting victories, there are several reasons why this win holds a special place in human history.  In the midst of the Cold War, the Olympic Games became a metaphorical contest between arch rivals the USSR and the USA.  The Soviet hockey team was widely considered the best in the world, while the American team was comprised of a handful of amateur college athletes who had almost no popular recognition at all.  On February 22 in Lake Placid, the USSR and the USA met in a semifinal match, where the Americans led 4-3 with 10 minutes remaining in play (centuries, in hockey terms). Astoundingly, the Americans held off the Soviets to win the game, driving the tiny crowd in Upstate New York wild. However, the USSR still remained in contention for the gold, with two games left to play in the tournament. Finally, the Americans scored another dramatic victory over Finland to clinch the gold–the ultimate demonstration of David over Goliath, the consummate example of teamwork and fraternity.

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  • COLLEGECANDY Writer
    I have a New York accent, an open mind, an obsession with running, a philosophy degree, a gluten allergy, a talent for remembering peoples' birthdays, emetophobia, a horrible sense of humor, and a collection of Olympics memorabilia.