On ice

My favourite Olympic story is the tale of Steven Bradbury, Australian speed skater.

At the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Bradbury was not a favourite. Australia had never won a gold medal in the Winter Olympics – nor had any southern hemisphere country, for that matter.

So, he’s in the heat for the 1000m men’s speed skating and he wins it. Ok, cool. But no one has money on him to go any further.

In the quarter-final he’s up against local favourite Apolo Ohno and world champ Marc Gagnon. Only the top two place-getters will advance to the semi-final. Bradbury comes third, but Gagnon is later disqualified, so skater Steve makes it to the semi-final.

Bradbury recognises that he wasn’t likely to win it, so he and his coach home up with a strategy. He’s just going to hold back and hope that if a couple of skaters crash, he’ll be able to skate into a qualifying spot. But what happened? Three of the four other competitors crash, sending Steve into second place and ensuring him a spot in the finals.

And so the finals. No one is expecting Bradbury to win. He’s lucky and should just enjoy the experience, right? And again Bradbury holds back, trailing behind his elite competitors. The five men are racking up the laps. They’re coming onto the final circuit, the finish line in sight. Then – suddenly; miraculously – all four of the other competitors crash out, skidding across the icy track. Bradbury effortlessly avoids the pile-up and glides through the finish line. He raises his arms, a gesture that’s a cross between a triumphant “I’m number one!” and a “Uh… what just happened?”

After a delay, the officials made a decision. There would be no rematch. There would be a gold medal and it would be Steve Bradbury’s. And so Australia won its first gold medal at the winter Olympics. It’s perhaps not the most expected way to win, but Steven Bradbury’s skill and technique got him all the way onto the podium.

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