The 15 Biggest Tear-Jerking Moments in Summer Olympic History
Unlike baseball, there is all sorts of crying in the Olympics.
Athletes crying, spectators crying, coaches crying, even world leaders crying. Waterworks galore.
Now if we allow ourselves to be cynical, we can easily identify the elements of Olympic media coverage designed to exploit our emotions: the soaring orchestral anthems, the nationalist undertones, the deification of athletic struggle and so on.
But damn if it doesn't work.
The deep attachment so many of us feel to Olympic competition lives in these moments—triumphs and tragedies alike. Here are 15 of those moments that cracked even the most hardened cynic.
Note: This list is limited to moments that took place on the field of play or in official Olympic ceremonies.
15. Paula Radcliffe Fails to Finish in Athens (2004)
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Paula Radcliffe, perhaps the greatest women's marathoner ever and easily the best produced by Great Britain, entered the 2004 Athens marathon as a pre-race favorite.
She left in tears.
Slowed by a leg injury and beaten into submission by the Athens heat, Radcliffe withdrew from the race about three miles from the finish.
After standing for a few stunned moments in the middle of the course, Radcliffe retreated to an embankment, sat down on the grass and cried.
She recovered to win the world championships the year after, but still has yet to win an Olympic medal.
Now 38, she will make one final attempt this summer in London.
14. Hugh McCutcheon Gets Gold Amid Heartbreak (2008)
At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, an underdog U.S. men's volleyball team won its first gold medal in 20 years and didn't lose a single match despite several showdowns against higher-rated foes.
If that wasn't remarkable enough, consider that the entire gold-medal run came just days after head coach Hugh McCutcheon's father-in-law, Todd Bachman, was killed by a knife-wielding stranger at a popular Beijing tourist attraction.
With heavy hearts and Bachman's initials etched onto the backs of their sneakers, the Americans honored his memory with an unlikely triumph.
13. Lawrence Lemieux Rescues 2 Competitors (1988)
Canadian sailor Lawrence Lemieux was cruising towards a sure medal in the 1988 mixed one-person dinghy event when he spotted a two-person Singaporean boat, racing in another competition, under duress.
Lemieux cut over to the capsized vessel and rescued both athletes, sacrificing his Olympic dream but earning worldwide adulation for his selflessness.
International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Saramanch later awarded Lemieux an honorary medal for his heroics.
12. Liu Xiang Cannot Go On (2008)
Although the Chinese won 51 gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics—more than any other nation—perhaps none of those triumphs resonated as much as the one medal they didn't win.
Sprinter Liu Xiang, a national sporting icon ever since his 2004 victory in the 110-meter hurdles, abandoned his gold-medal defense in one of the most dramatic race withdrawals ever seen at an Olympic Games.
Right before the start of his first-round heat, a dejected Liu, who had been battling the ill effects of chronic Achilles inflammation, simply walked off the track.
To see it in real time was devastating. In an instant, the most hyped athlete in China's deep stable of talent had disappeared from the Olympic stage.
As he limped into the stadium corridor, a noticeable portion of the stunned home crowd began to cry.
It wasn't simply that China had lost a potential medalist. Liu was a token of Chinese pride—proof that the hosts could triumph even in traditionally weak disciplines.
To lose him in so public a manner was more heartbreak than many of his countrymen could handle.
11. The Koreas March in Together (2000)
When North and South Korea marched together under one flag during the 2000 Parade of Nations, observers hoped that it would portend a lasting peace.
Echoing the sentiment of the day, North Korean diver Choe Myong Hwa told the Los Angeles Times, “My heart is exhilarated. I never thought this would be a reality. This will bring us closer to reunification.”
If anything, the decade since has produced growing discord between communist North and capitalist South.
So, can we separate the soaring symbolism of that moment from the unfulfilled promise that followed?
No, not entirely.
But let's also acknowledge that this was a near perfect expression of the Olympian notion that nations can, and should, set aside rivalry in the name of sport.
Though larger changes may not always result, the attempt itself still has merit.*
*East and West Germany actually pioneered this idea at the 1956 Melbourne Games when they too marched under a single flag. As in the case of the Koreas, diplomatic relations would worsen in the years following.
10. Matthias Steiner Wins One for His Wife (2008)
One year after he lost his wife in a car accident, German weightlifter Matthias Steiner stood on the precipice of his first career Olympic gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Games.
In order to secure first place, he would need to exceed his previous career best by 10 kilograms on his final attempt. And he did.
Here is where I let you interject your own notions of destiny, drive or divine intervention.
I'll simply say that it was a remarkable sight, and his reaction was one of the most heart-wrenching sequences ever put to television.
Steiner collapsed, jumped, hugged, kissed, cried—and all in such short order it was impossible to separate one expression from another. This was the spectrum of human emotion, contained in one man and one incredible feat.
9. John Stephen Akhwari Limps Through Marathon (1968)
Mexico City's thin air wreaked havoc on the endurance competitions of the 1968 Olympics, the worst being the marathon, which saw 18 of its 75 entrants withdraw mid-race.
Tanzania's John Stephen Akhwari was not about to be one of them.
Though he had fallen and dislocated his knee earlier in the competition, a bandaged Akhwari pressed on. More than an hour after the race had been decided, Akhwari entered the Estadio Olimpico Universitario to sparse applause from the few remaining spectators.
At the time, it did not seem like an especially historic occasion.
But to those who would later watch the moment unfold on tape—most notably in an installment of Bud Greenspan's acclaimed Olympic documentaries—it was a seminal moment of athletic perseverance.
Asked afterwards by Greenspan why he had continued in the face of such obvious defeat, Akhwari famously replied:
"My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start the race; they sent me 5,000 miles to finish it.
8. Derartu Tulu and Elana Meyer Take Victory Lap Together (1992)
After the suspension of apartheid, South Africa was allowed back into the Olympics for the first time in 32 years at the 1992 Barcelona Games.
Though the road towards international re-engagement was just under way for this once-shunned African state, one particular moment from the Olympic Games elucidated what was possible.
After finishing second to Ethiopia's Derartu Tulu in the 10,000-meter run, white South African Elana Meyer joined her continental rival on the traditional victory lap.
The display of sportsmanship was spontaneous, joyous and powerful. As the athletes ran hand-in-hand, each draped in her country's respective flag, spectators saw the humanizing power of sport and caught a glimpse of what might someday emerge from South Africa's painful political exorcism.
7. Jeff Blatnick Breaks Down in Post-Match Interview (1984)
After overcoming cancer (twice!) and winning America's second ever gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling, Jeff Blatnick couldn't muster much in the way of a post-match Q&A.
Interrupted by tears and trembling with emotion, Blatnick gathered himself just long enough to deliver four of the most famous words in Olympic interview history:
"I'm a happy dude."
It was an endearing bit of bro-ish sincerity, followed by, of course, more tears.
But it wasn't just that Blatnick sobbed during his ABC close-up—we've seen that dozens of times. It was that Blatnick was so clearly trying not to cry. He even apologized to the interlocutor on one occasion for his inability to speak coherently.
But he couldn't. He couldn't plug the emotions. He couldn't talk about where he'd been without being overwhelmed by it.
His feelings were so transparent and tears so genuine, one couldn't help but cry right along with him.
6. Mary Decker's Dream Nipped in the Budd (1984)
Held from the 1976 Olympics because of injury and barred from the 1980 Games because of Team USA's political boycott, legendary middle distance runner Mary Decker was set to receive her long-awaited Olympic coronation at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympiad.
Decker's victory in the 3,000-meter final, held exactly a week after her 26th birthday, was all but assured.
Until it wasn't.
Depending on which account you prefer, Decker either stumbled over South African native Zola Budd or Budd maneuvered too close to Decker during an ill-advised pass attempt.
Either way, the outcome was the same.
Decker fell. Decker lost.
As home partisans rained down their disapproval—most of it directed at Budd—the glamor girl of American running was left crying on the infield.
Despite subsequent comeback attempts, Decker never earned an Olympic medal.
5. Luz Long Embraces Jesse Owens in Front of Hitler (1936)
At face, it was a simple gesture.
After Jesse Owens won the 1936 long jump gold medal, German rival Luz Long walked over to his African-American competitor and hugged him. Nothing long or overwrought—just a quick embrace and a heartfelt congratulations.
But in that moment, with German dictator Adolf Hitler watching from the grandstand, it was one of the most courageous acts of empathy and friendship ever witnessed in an Olympic arena.
Hitler had intended the '36 Games as a showcase for his notions of Aryan supremacy. Owens' victory—the third of his four gold medals—was a stiff rebuke of that ideology.
Perhaps stiffer still was Long's willingness to embrace the American champion in plain sight of the Fuhrer.
Owens would later say:
"You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn't be a plating on the 24-karat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment. Hitler must have gone crazy watching us embrace. The sad part of the story is I never saw Long again. He was killed in World War II."
The two would, however, continue to correspond up until Long's death. In one of his last letters to Owens, Long wrote:
"Someday find my son ... tell him about how things can be between men on this Earth."
4. Baby Hiroshima Kicks Off the Tokyo Games (1964)
Less than 20 years after facing near annihilation in World War II, Japan was eager to show the world its post-war progress at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
Yoshinori Sakai, a 19-year-old amateur runner born in Hiroshima on the same day his hometown was flattened by an atomic bomb, was the living, breathing emblem of that progress.
Nicknamed "Baby Hiroshima," Sakai was selected to light the Olympic cauldron in what would become one of the most gripping opening ceremonies in modern Olympic history.
As he ascended toward the top of National Olympic Stadium, it was hard to imagine how something so full of life could emerge from such total destruction.
For country on the rise, the parallels were obvious.
For a world still racked by the ghosts of war, there was hope that some good might prevail.
3. Cathy Freeman Delivers in Sydney (2000)
From a host country perspective, few races in Olympic history have matched the hype that preceded Cathy Freeman's 400-meter run in Sydney.
Freeman, an Aboriginal Australian and the 1996 silver medalist, was already a well known figure in her homeland before the 2000 Summer Games, so much so that she'd been assigned to light the Olympic flame at that year's Opening Ceremony.
With her first-place finish in the 400 meters in front of 112,000 hollering fans, Freeman's legend rose higher still.
With it she had delivered one of the greatest sports moments in Australian history, provided a cathartic victory for the island's long-subjugated Aboriginal peoples and given the Olympics an iconic, feel-good triumphs.
For those foreigners that couldn't quite grasp the magnitude of Freeman's victory, the post-race images did a fine job translating.
There was Freeman on the ground in near tears, Freeman carrying both the Australian and Aboriginal flags during a raucous victory lap and finally, Freeman jumping up and down atop the podium in perhaps the best approximation of pure, unfiltered joy you'll ever see inside a sporting arena.
2. Derek Redmond Limps Across Finish Line with Dad in Tow (1992)
While running a 400-meter semifinal heat at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, British sprinter Derek Redmond pulled up lame with about 250 meters remaining.
Determined to complete the race, Redmond waved off medical attention and began hopping towards the finish line on his one good leg.
What was a stirring moment of perseverance turned into a full-on sob fest when Redmond's father, Jim, bounded down from the stands and helped carry his son down the home stretch.
Such a universal display of parental devotion needed no commentary.
Perhaps because we've all been that kid at some point: helpless, trampled-upon, up against forces too large to corral.
And perhaps because we can each remember what it was like to have a parent come along, take up our challenge as his or her own, and say, "OK, let's do this together."
1. Muhammad Ali Lights the Olympic Flame (1996)
Let's first concede that the greatest tear-jerker moment in Olympic history was something of an emotional booby trap.
When Muhammad Ali emerged from the shadows of Centennial Stadium to light the 1996 Olympic cauldron, most Americans reacted just as the Games' organizers thought we would.
So what if the ploy was contrived, exploitative and a tad bit mawkish? Damn thing worked—and for good reason.
At one point in his career, Ali was the fullest expression of what an athlete can be, both as a physical specimen and a global icon. And as he held the flame aloft, his body trembling with the effects of Parkinson's syndrome, the world also saw what he sacrificed in that pursuit.
The arc of Ali's indelible life was laid bear, both the reward—expressed in cascading waves of wild applause—and the price paid.
No shame in shedding a tear or two over that.
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