To my mind, in order to qualify as great, a sporting moment must be experienced in real time by as many people as possible.
You can read about things that happened a century ago, but that will never be as visceral as something you experienced together in an arena, your living room or a bar as it was happening. That necessarily limits this list of Olympics highlights to those moments that happened after blanket TV coverage of the Games became commonplace in the 1970s.
So what follows is done with apologies to all the remarkable Canadian Olympians who came before.
For anyone of a certain age, a few news events lead the visual highlight reel of your life – the Space Shuttle disaster, 9/11, and Ben Johnson beating Carl Lewis in the 100-metre final in Seoul.
Their rivalry went back years, but really kicked up at the 1987 world championships. Mr. Lewis promised a victory. Instead, Mr. Johnson set a world record.
That launched a year’s worth of bickering and headlines. For the first time, a Canadian athlete was involved in a prime-time war of words with an American and was winning.
By the time the 1988 Olympics rolled around, Mr. Johnson didn’t just represent Canada. He was Canada. He was the guy who was going to kick sand in America’s face at a time when fear of U.S. cultural encroachment was running hot.
The final was run early on a Saturday afternoon in Seoul – late on a Friday evening in most of Canada. Owing to lingering injury, Mr. Johnson’s chances were thought to be poor. Nonetheless, that evening was frenzied in my neighbourhood in the west end of Toronto. My friends and I were far too young to get into a bar, but not too young to want to be in a bar.
We lingered outside one spot and watched through the windows until the runners were in the blocks. Which is when the bouncer stopped paying attention to his job and we pushed our way in with a flood of legal-aged late arrivals.
Everyone has their own memory of that race. Most people focus on Mr. Johnson’s raised right arm. All the discussion the next day was how much more he could have taken off the world record if he’d run hard through the finish. But who could blame him? He’d hadn’t slain the American dragon. He’d turned it over and tickled its belly, which is worse. He’d put all of us, however briefly, on top of the world. It was an entirely new feeling.
My second memory of that night is screaming people pouring willy-nilly into the street to hug whoever happened to be in front of them. It was communal joy. It was a viral moment long before our lives became a tiresome procession of viral moments. It was pure and uncalculated.
And yes, it turned out badly.
If Mr. Johnson winning is burned into most Canadian brains, so is wherever they happened to be when they heard he’d been busted for performance-enhancing drugs. I was at work at a movie theatre. The girl at the cash had a radio in her booth and shouted out the news to the rest of us between shows.
But whatever the ultimate result, it cannot erase the jubilation of that moment (nor that he was, however drug-aided, the fastest man in history).
It was and is the most celebrated single event in Canadian Olympic history and, given its unlikelihood, it’s not really close.
These days, Canada churns out winners to order, which is great. But it precludes another Johnson vs. Lewis moment. There can only be one first time.
In order to complete the mythic sweep of Ben Johnson’s rise to the top and his sudden fall, there had to be a redemption. Otherwise, the story doesn’t work.
So along came Donovan Bailey (along with his colleagues on the 4x100 relay team) to provide it.
For eight years after the 1988 Olympics, Canada took it in the neck from the rest of the world. Jokes were the least of it. We turned inward on ourselves. We’d later learn that just about everyone was on PEDs around this time, but Mr. Johnson became the poster boy for a systemic problem and Canada his abettor. Mr. Bailey wasn’t the anti-Johnson. He was the next iteration of a suddenly rich vein of sprinting talent.
He came into the Olympics the favourite. But whereas Canada hoped Mr. Johnson would win, the country needed Mr. Bailey to do so. He came from well behind to set a world record in that race.
Everyone who saw it live will remember the shot of Mr. Bailey, eyes bugged out, arms swinging, running a second hundred after he’d completed the first.
As revenge wins go, Bailey & Co. overcoming a heavily preferred American relay team a week later may be even sweeter. But Mr. Bailey’s greatest service to his country was laying to rest the ghosts of ’88.
Sidney Crosby’s goal
The history of Canadian men’s hockey at the Olympics is not great. Not when you consider how we talk about hockey.
If we talked as well as we played, they’d just give us the gold before every Winter Games and then play for silver.
You can trace that attitude back to one instant on Feb. 28, 2010.
It was generally agreed before the 2010 Vancouver Olympics that two things needed to happen in order for the Games to be considered a success – nothing should blow up during the opening ceremony; and the Canadian men had to win at hockey.
How would we look back at those Games if Sidney Crosby hadn’t scored his defining goal in OT against the Americans?
We’d say they were okay. Not great, but not a total bust. Like a grad party with your parents.
Mr. Crosby’s winner allowed the entire nation off the hook. It let us all revel in what was, despite significant flaws, a marvellous Olympics.
Was there ever a moment when Canada felt more together as a country? When our regionalisms and all our other enduring problems seemed more surmountable?
For just a second, we were a beer commercial. Everything was perfect. That’s all the sports can offer – an instant of togetherness. But it’s a lot.
Jon Montgomery’s beer walk in Vancouver
Winning gold in the men’s skeleton is not exactly the sort of thing that puts the globe on notice. Most people couldn’t tell you what skeleton is. But, like everything else during the 2010 Vancouver Games, it mattered in Canada to Canadians.
After winning, Jon Montgomery – who most viewers hadn’t heard of until this moment – headed to where the partying was thickest in Whistler. A camera walked ahead of him as he picked up followers, Pied Piper-style, on a victory jaunt. A woman handed him a pitcher of beer. Without breaking stride, Mr. Montgomery began chugging from it.
“That’s gotta be the sweetest beer I’ve ever tasted and, to boot, it was free,” Mr. Montgomery said later.
Mr. Montgomery’s stroll was the sort of thing that wouldn’t have made much impression on anyone who isn’t from here.
But in this country it was an indelible image of celebration and community. It represented success where it mattered in 2010 Vancouver – on the ground, with real people.
There were many great sporting moments at that Games, but in its simple reflection of the hoser spirit, something about that one was a Bat-Signal to the home crowd.
I’m going to guess that if Canadians could pick only one athletic attribute to describe themselves, it would be “tough.”
Has any Olympian ever better epitomized that word than sculler Silken Laumann in 1992? Forget Canadians. Anyone at all.
Ten weeks before the Olympics, her boat was T-boned by a men’s doubles pair. A section of wood was driven through her leg, shattering her tibia.
Six weeks and four operations later, while she was still on crutches, Ms. Laumann announced she was going to Barcelona anyway. She was back in the boat before she resumed walking.
In the end, there were five operations, including reconstructing the bone, repairing nerve damage and a skin graft.
Just getting to the starting line was a triumph of the will. That alone was enough to make it a great Canadian moment.
But Ms. Laumann also won a bronze medal.
One of the best parts of any Olympics is knowing someone is going to come out of nowhere.
One day, you’ve never heard of them. The next day, they’re the most famous person in the country. It’s the most charming sort of celebrity. Maybe the only sort.
No Canadian athlete has jumped further – anonymous to ubiquitous – in less time than Penny Oleksiak.
Coming into the 2016 Rio Games, she was best known as a member of Canada’s not exactly powerhouse freestyle relay team.
Nobody put her on any Ones to Watch lists. Nobody in swimming seemed to know who she was.
But over the course of six days in the pool, Ms. Oleksiak became the most successful Canadian Summer Games athlete in history. The capper was a tie for gold in the sport’s premier event, the 100-metre free.
After she’d won, Ms. Oleksiak had no clue what to do. She didn’t know when to get up on the podium, or who to hug, or where to turn, or that you bite down on gold when they take your picture.
Ms. Oleksiak’s out-of-nowhere emergence combined with her naiveté made her a sensation.
In our fantasies, we are the greatest all of the time. But in our dreams, which are more realistic, we are at our best when it counts most. Few of us reach that goal, and fewer still when people are watching. Only a handful get to do it on the day that, looking back over their lives, was the one they would have picked.
Coming into the 1992 Albertville Olympics, Kerrin Lee-Gartner was a journeyman skier. She was precocious, but injuries and major surgeries marred her career.
Over nine World Cup seasons, she never won a race. But just before Albertville, she put together a little run of form. Then on the day of the downhill final, she put together something better. For the first and only time in her career, Ms. Gartner completely dominated the field.
When she came off the course, the American correspondent was so taken aback she said, “Can you explain just how in the world you did that?”
There are no flukes in the Olympics. It takes far too much to get there.
But there are days when everything just turns right, when the outcome seems fated. Ms. Gartner had the most memorable one of those in Canadian history.
Ski pole pass at Sochi
During a cross-country sprint at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Russia’s Anton Gafarov fell. His ski split. A thin layer of P-Tex came loose and wrapped itself around his ankle.
Mr. Gafarov was no longer able to ski. He could only drag himself across the snow.
Hundreds lined the course as he struggled over a rise toward the finish line. Only one of them acted.
Canadian ski coach Justin Wadsworth ran out onto the course with a spare ski he’d brought along for one of his own racers. Mr. Gafarov stopped. Wadsworth knelt beside him and switched out his skis. Neither man said anything to the other. Mr. Gafarov set off again toward his last-place finish.
“I wanted him to have dignity as he crossed the finish line,” Mr. Wadsworth said later.
It was an image played around the world, one that captured the totality of the Olympic spirit far more than any athletic feat. It was generosity. It was kindness. It was the very best of Canada.
There wasn’t much to recommend the 1976 Montreal Olympics. It’s the boondoggle that nearly killed the Olympic business model, before Los Angeles 1984 steroidally set it off on the opposite, perhaps-not-much-better path.
For the second Summer Games in a row, Canada won no golds. It wasn’t exactly a wild national party. But one remarkable thing did happen there – Nadia Comaneci’s perfect 10.
That moment is best remembered as a technical failure. After putting up the first perfect performance in Olympic gymnastics history, the scoreboard was not equipped to display the number 10. Instead, it read 1.00.
Ms. Comaneci had six more perfect 10s in that competition, won three golds and five medals over all. There’s an argument to be made that it is the single greatest Olympic performance.
It’s not a Canadian memory in the same sense as the others. But it is a peerless Olympic moment that happened to take place in Canada.
You can’t get much better than a crooked French judge, a Russian conspiracy and two thwarted Canadian heroes, all played out in front of the backdrop of figure skating.
What is it about this sport that makes people do such looney things?
The fix at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games (temporarily) robbed Jamie Salé and David Pelletier of gold.
But it did give Canada one of its infrequent chances to stand arm-in-arm and rage about the unfairness of the world.
Nobody ever feels sorry for Canada, and no one should. We’ve got it pretty good.
But it is cathartic to play the global victim every once in a while, preferably for minimal stakes (like upgrading your silver to gold).
SkateGate gave Canada that chance, and then it turned out fair and square in the end. Even when we lose, we win.
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