With the Olympics shunted into the future, Sportsmail sets off on a long look at its storied past.
In the fourth and penultimate part of our series of the 50 most stunning Olympic moments, RIATH AL-SAMARRAI looks at Derek Redmond’s despair and why Sir Steve Redgrave wanted shooting!
A lot gets spouted by blazers about the Olympic spirit. And none of it stands comparison against the two or so minutes of footage that followed the moment a man in a British vest grabbed the back of his right leg in 1992.
That Derek Redmond finished a distant last in his 400m semi-final in Barcelona made rather a mockery of the assumption that winners are best remembered. By Sportsmail’s count there have been 4,490 gold medals handed out in the summer Olympics since 1896 and how many stirred feelings like that guy?
The drama is recorded as commencing around 250metres into Redmond’s race, but really it started well before then. His had been a sorry tale of injuries, from the achilles problem that forced him to pull out of the 400m at Seoul 88 less than two minutes before his heat, to the eight surgeries he required ahead of Barcelona. As a former British record holder and part of the relay team that won the 4x400m at the worlds a year earlier, it is reasonable to wonder what Redmond might have achieved in individual races without so many interruptions.
Nothing in all that would have stung like Barcelona, though. Partly because it had been his light for four hard years; partly because he had been going so well once he got there, as the fastest runner of the heats and a winner of his quarter-final.
What happened next, as he crossed the back straight in his semi-final, was the unmistakeable stab of a torn hamstring. In those instances, common wisdom has it that adrenaline will delay the real pain and clarity of consequence until some later time. In Redmond’s case, it was maybe 30 seconds.
He was still keeping it together when he finally took his head from his hands and climbed off the floor, resolved to finish his race. Indeed, when you watch the replays he is still just about composed when an older chap in blue shorts and a white Nike t-shirt enters the frame. At first, for a split second, Redmond doesn’t seem to recognise him. When he does, when it dawns that it’s his father Jim, the tears of a wrecked dream come pouring out onto Jim’s shoulder.
Together, they staggered to the line, Jim at first being gentle with the jobsworths who wanted them off the track, and eventually yelling for them to clear off and not touch his son. It isn’t easy to find beauty in misery but they managed it in a perfect distillation of what the Olympics mean to people.
Emile Zatopek was known as the ‘Czech Lokomotive’, which flatters trains everywhere. What he achieved at the 1952 Olympics still defies logic, given he won the 5,000m and 10,000m four days apart and then, three days after the second of those, he set himself apart by attempting his first marathon. And he won that too, achieving a treble that has never been equalled.
The ‘Flying Finn’ Paavo Nurmi won five golds at the 1924 Olympics spanning the 1500m, the cross country discipline and the 5,000m, but it is hard to compare anything to the sheer range of distances conquered by Zatopek.
The terror attack at the Munich Games of 1972 remains one of the most startling and devastating episodes in the history of sport.
Eleven members of the Israeli Olympic team and staff, as well as a German police officer, were killed after being taken hostage by terrorists from the Palestinian group Black September.
In an irrevocable shame, the Games went on only 34 hours later.
An equal claim could be made by both Teófilo Stevenson and his fellow Cuban Felix Savon in any Olympic list. These two great fighters share the distinction of three Olympic gold medals apiece and there is a very strong argument that they would have won more if Cuba had not boycotted the Games of 84 and 88.
The balance tips fractionally in favour of Stevenson, who theoretically would have had a shout at five gold medals after his heavyweight wins in 1972, 1976 and 1980, given he was still winning world titles as far on as 1986. His defining moment perhaps came in winning in 1980, having recently turned down $5million to leave Cuba for a fight with Muhammad Ali, saying: ‘What is one million dollars compared to the love of eight million Cubans?’
Hard to believe, there was once a moment of doubt within Mark Spitz, an American who occasionally gave the impression he could walk on water if he wasn’t swimming in it.
The point of doubt came at the 1972 Olympics where he built his legend. His plan had been to contest six events owing to his reservations about how he would do in the 100m freestyle, which he explained to a poolside reporter: ‘I know I say I don’t want to swim before every event, but this time I’m serious. If I swim six and win six, I’ll be a hero. If I swim seven and win six, I’ll be a failure.’
Having convinced himself to take on the 100m freestyle, he won and broke the world record. Just as he won and broke the world record in each of the 200m freestyle, 100m butterfly, 200m butterfly, 4×100m freestyle relay, 4×200m freestyle relay, and 4×100m medley relay.
His haul of seven golds in a single Games was not bettered until Michael Phelps rocked up in Beijing in 2008.
It was arguably the most contentious final ever fought at an Olympic Games. The context to the 1972 basketball showdown between the USA and the USSR was the Cold War and the further fact that the Americans were on one of the greatest streaks in sporting history.
Even without their NBA stars owing to amateurism, they held an Olympic record of 63 matches, 63 wins, seven gold medals. Incredible. And then in a match that was already super-charged with political undertones, they somehow lost in the most ludicrously controversial of ways, having led 50-49 with three seconds to play after two free throws.
Anarchy, recrimination and prolonged allegations of corruption would follow for years over what happened in the remaining slither of time in that final.
It started with the USSR attempting a rapid break to save the game. But then it was stopped with a second remaining, as the Russian coaches, angered that they had not been granted a timeout between those free throws, were remonstrating. For reasons still unclear, the clock was reset to three seconds and the Russians attempted the restart with a pass the length of the court to Alexander Belov, which missed. Again, the Americans thought they had won only to learn the Russians launched the play while the clock was being reset.
It went to three seconds again and this time the heave to Belov worked and the USSR had the gold. The Americans would later refuse to accept their silver medals.
Sir Steve Redgrave had quite famously followed his fourth Olympic gold medal in 1996 with the invitation to gunmen to shoot him if he went near a boat again. With no assignation forthcoming, he broke his word and new ground by winning a fifth Olympic title at Sydney 2000.
His remarkable run stretched two full decades from 1980 and the last in the coxless four was the most impressive of the bunch, not only for the longevity of achievement in a sport as demanding as rowing, but also because Redgrave won while battling colitis, diabetes, back pains and serious fatigue.
He is arguably Britain’s greatest ever Olympian.
Florence Griffith Joyner. Flo Jo. An athlete who passed away in her sleep aged 38, but whose world records will always live on. For the same reason, many folk will forever question their legitimacy.
The American has a bizarre story. Unbelievable, actually, and it arguably peaked with the 200m at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, if you had to isolate one outlier in a brief sample of extraordinary statistics from that summer.
It is necessary at this point to go back to 1986. Griffith Joyner, the Olympic 200m silver medallist and a woman with no great interest in the 100m, gave up on athletics. She spent most of the next year working as a bank clerk and hair dresser before returning a stone overweight in April 1987. Somehow that provided the launchpad for a series of performances in the next 15 months that still defy logic.
The true breakthrough came at the US Olympic trials in 1988, when Griffith Joyner, with a 10.96sec 100m personal best that was five years old, ran a 10.49sec in the largely inconsequential surrounds of the quarter-finals. She took 0.27sec off the world record that day and her time remains a full 0.15sec quicker than the next fastest woman in history.
She would go on to win the Olympic 100m gold at a canter in a wind-assisted 10.54sec, but the performance in the 200m in Seoul was more staggering. In the semi-finals she beat a world record held by an East German by 0.15sec, and two hours later she shaved off a further 0.22sec. Her time was 21.34sec.
For a little perspective, the next quickest in history is a 21.62sec by the disgraced drugs cheat Marion Jones. Even Ben Johnson raised an eyebrow.
It is an accepted wisdom that the Atlanta Games of 1996 were a stinker. Rotten from the bidding process that won them, to the shambolic transport system that brought the show to regular and lengthy halts once they started.
But if there was a high point – and certainly it was never going to come from the Brits in the final Games before those lottery-funded gold rushes – it was Michael Johnson. That straight back, those furious legs, those shining spikes.
Indeed, there was once a conversation, before Usain Bolt came and went, which pondered how athletics might survive once Michael Johnson had left. That was the impact he made on his sport and it was never greater than in his performances at a home Olympics.
Quite aside from the fact he became the only man in history to win the 200m and 400m at the same Games, it is the nature of his win in the 200m that deserves most attention. By crossing in 19.32sec, he cut an enormous three tenths of a second the world record he had set on the same track in the US trials a month earlier. It was a feat that deserves comparison with Bob Beamon’s record-crushing long jump in the 1968 Olympics.
Seb Coe versus Steve Ovett. Two Brits and the best middle-distance runners of their time. Even without the laboured point of a class divide, they came together at the Moscow Games of 1980 for one of the most compelling narratives that the Olympics has known. What helped make it special was that while they took turns to break each other’s world records, they were so rarely set loose on one another – only six times across their careers.
Two of those came in Moscow. After botching his tactics in his stronger 800m, Coe was silver behind Ovett and told by Peter Coe, his father and coach: ‘You ran like a ****’. Coe is known to share the assessment.
Six days later, in the final of the 1500m, at which Ovett was unbeaten for three years and 45 races, Coe had gold and revenge. His great rival took bronze.
Athletics has spent much of the subsequent 40 years waiting and hoping for a similar storyline to come along.