The 15 Biggest Tear-Jerking Moments in Winter Olympic History

James McMahonContributor IFebruary 3, 2014

The 15 Biggest Tear-Jerking Moments in Winter Olympic History

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    Steve Powell/Getty Images

    Almost without fail, the Winter Olympics deliver moments of great accomplishment or painful failure that move grown men and women to tears of joy, pride and agony.

    That theatre is sometimes gripping and powerful enough that it does the same to the spectators watching live or the millions following the events on television.

    Arguably, no other competition is filled with such pressure and emotion as the Olympics. Athletes are not only competing for themselves and teammates but for a country that pins national pride on the performances they've worked toward for years.

    Sometimes it lifts the competitors to heights they never before imagined or may reach again. Other times it tears them down under the weight of disappointment and failure.

    It’s what makes the Winter Olympics so engaging. It’s why we root for athletes we didn't even know, and in some cases, in competitions we really don’t understand.

    Here is the list of 15 biggest tear-jerking moments in Winter Olympics history, and the athletes that made them happen.

The Jamaican Bobsled Team's Incredible Journey to the 1988 Calgary Olympics

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    A real life event can’t be turned into a Disney movie unless tears and an inspiring lesson is involved; so we give you the Jamaican bobsled team from the 1988 Calgary Olympics.

    Although the engaging and charismatic bobsledders failed to even come close to medaling, they captured the hearts and affection of people around the world as the first-ever Winter Olympians in Jamaica’s history. The bobsledders—Dudley Stokes, Devon Harris, Nelson Stokes and Michael White—crashed during one of their four runs, and did not officially place in the event.

    Still, their Olympic quest became the subject of the 1993 Disney movie Cool Runnings, and while it took a few liberties with the facts, the film only added to the legend of the bobsledders.

Dorothy Hamill's Emotional Skate to Gold at 1976 Innsbruck Olympics

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    Anonymous/Associated Press

    Just before Dorothy Hamill took the ice for her free skate in the 1976 Innsbruck Olympics, she was shaken to tears by a sign that read “Which of the West? Dorothy?” The young American mistook the sign as spectators in Austria calling her a witch.

    In reality, they were supporting Hamill as the skater from the Western Hemisphere that would defeat East Germany’s Christine Errath at the height of the Cold War. After realizing she had the support of the crowd, the emotional skater put forth the performance of her life and captured the gold medal. Later, on the medal podium, she would cry again, but this time from the joy of claiming gold for her country.

    With that performance, Hamill became America’s Sweetheart and remains one of the most popular and inspiring skaters in U.S. Olympic history.

Hermann Maier Overcomes Devastating Crash to Win Two Gold Medals in Nagano

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    Austrian skier Hermann Maier entered the 1998 Nagano Olympics as an overwhelming favorite to win multiple gold medals, only to suffer a horrific crash in the downhill competition that seemed to doom his Olympic ambitions.

    Only days later, however, the “Hermann-ator” amazingly dusted himself off and delivered a pair of inspiring performances that remain among the most acclaimed in recent Winter Olympic Games.

    Hermann captured gold medals in the super-G and giant slalom, shocking those that saw him flying down the mountain and crashing through several gates during the downhill race. 

    Following those Games, the Austrian would overcome a life-threatening motorcycle crash that required extensive reconstructive surgery to compete in the 2006 Turin Olympics, where he won silver and bronze medals.

Georgian Olympians Mourn, Honor Fallen Teammate at 2010 Vancouver Games

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Plenty of great accomplishments highlight the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. But no one should ever forget the performance and resilience of the small Georgian Olympic team that bravely competed following the death of teammate Nodar Kumaritashvili at the outset of the Games.

    In a terrible accident mourned around the world, the 21-year-old luger tragically died in a practice run just hours before the opening ceremonies were to start. Yet with heavy hearts, and certainly shaken by the events, the Georgian team pressed on, determined to represent their country and at the same time honor their fallen countryman.

    The seven remaining athletes marched in those opening ceremonies, wearing black armbands and scarves with their country’s flag draped in a black ribbon in front of them. Spectators, competitors and Olympic officials stood and saluted them with applause in a scene that will not soon be forgotten.

U.S. Women Vanquish Rival Canada to Win Olympic Gold at 1998 Nagano Games

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    DENIS PAQUIN/Associated Press

    The U.S. Women’s Olympic hockey team didn't just win the gold medal in the sport’s Olympic debut in the 1998 Nagano Games; they helped restore a measure of dignity to the U.S. delegation in Japan.

    In the wake of the U.S. men’s poor performance on the ice and destructive behavior off of it, the women defeated reigning world champion and bitter rival Canada in an emotional Olympic final.

    The triumph overshadowed the behavior of several of the U.S. men’s hockey team, who reportedly busted up a dorm room in the Olympic Village after failing to qualify for the medal round.

    While the men were disappointing, the women were dominant in Nagano, outscoring their competition 36-8 and defeating Canada twice in four days. The second of those victories set off a spirited and well-earned gold-medal celebration for the ages.

Torvill and Dean Own Valentine’s Day at the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics

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    Getty Images/Getty Images

    While not necessarily known for delivering emotional and memorable Olympic moments, ice dancing did just that in the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics, courtesy of an amazing performance by Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean.

    The British duo didn't just skate wonderfully, they were absolutely dynamic, gliding together to perfect scores from every judge and, of course, the gold medal.

    Appropriately competing on Valentine’s Day, the duo hit every daring move in the performance, and was as technically sound as any pair in the competition’s Olympic history.

    Now three decades later, it remains one of the best figure skating performances in the history of the Olympics regardless of discipline, and the names Torvill and Dean are synonymous with ice dancing.

World Trade Center Flag Carried into Salt Lake City Opening Ceremonies

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    Donald Miralle/Getty Images

    Just a little more than a year after the deadly 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, the tattered and torn flag recovered from the buildings’ rubble was carried into the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.

    In a demonstration of patriotism and unity, the flag was carried by U.S. athletes and New York City firefighters and Port Authority police as the United States delegation marched into Rice-Eccles Stadium.

    The International Olympic Committee initially balked at the idea of the flag being included in the ceremony, wanting it to instead fly as the official U.S. flag during the Games. After much criticism, the IOC reversed itself and allowed the unforgettable moment to happen in a smart and well-received move.

    The battered flag was an emotional reminder of what the country had been through so recently, and also of the power of sports to bring people together in the wake of tragedy and disaster.

Boitano and Orser Stage Classic “Battle of the Brians” at 1988 Calgary Olympics

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    Jack Smith/Associated Press

    In perhaps the greatest faceoff for gold in the history of Olympic men’s figure skating, American Brian Boitano and Canadian Brian Orser put on an unforgettable performance at the 1998 Calgary Games that was immediately dubbed the “Battle of the Brians.”

    Friends off the ice, the two skaters performed so brilliantly the crowd would have preferred both to win judging by the applause and praise they received. In the end, however, it was Boitano that was slightly the better man in the free skate, in which he became the first American ever to land a triple axel in competition.

    The move separated the two from gold and silver, but the dignity, grace and sportsmanship they showed in the tight battle has forever linked them.

    It’s a showing that should be considered the standard for Olympic competition, and one that lifted the spirits and emotions of everyone in attendance that night in Calgary, as well as the millions watching on television.

Bonnie Blair Celebrates Olympic History with Family and Friends at 1994 Games

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    Ed Reinke/Associated Press

    American speedskater Bonnie Blair certainly enjoyed her fair share of memorable moments in the Olympics, but celebrating her most historic accomplishment in front of family and friends at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympic Games ranks at the top of the list.

    Blair captured two gold medals in those Games, including a record third straight in the 500 meters, and became the most decorated American female Olympian with five gold medals and one bronze for good measure.

    Yet what made Lillehammer truly special and memorable was the 60 family members and friends who made the trip all the way to Norway to see the fastest-ever woman on ice make history. The supporters cheered in unison for the American while wearing the same white sweaters with a picture of the skater on the front.

    The interaction between Blair and those closest to her is something that will always be remembered as they shared her amazing accomplishments. They followed her through three Olympics and were rewarded with one last feat of greatness in Lillehammer.

Women Bobsledders Vonetta Flowers and Jill Bakken Make History in Salt Lake City

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    Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

    American pair Vonetta Flowers and Jill Bakken staged one of the biggest upsets of the Salt Lake City Games, winning the gold medal in the inaugural Olympic women’s bobsled competition. But it’s what the triumph meant, and the reaction it received, that makes it so meaningful.

    Flowers and Bakken, who weren't even considered the top American team, much less contenders for a medal, delivered the United States its first gold in Olympic bobsled in 46 years, and rose to instant Salt Lake stardom in the process.

    As importantly, Flowers became the first black athlete to win gold in the Winter Olympics, and in a stirring scene was the unexpected flag bearer in the closing ceremonies along with Bakken.

    Just years earlier, Flowers was a collegiate track star and wasn't even thinking about bobsled. Then knee and ankle surgeries ended her running career, and when a call came to try out for the American bobsled team, she answered it.

    It’s one of those out-of-nowhere stories the Olympics delivers almost every time, and it’s a big part of what makes the international competition so special.

Mahre Twins Win Gold and Silver Medals at Sarajevo Olympics

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    Jack Smith/Associated Press

    On the final day of the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics, there wasn't just one American named Mahre on the downhill skiing medal stand, but two.

    In a poignant family moment they’ll certainly never forget, twin brothers Phil and Steve Mahre won gold and silver, respectively, in the men’s slalom. The performances ended a down season for the two accomplished skiers and helped to close the Games on a high and stirring note for the United States team.

    Call it icing on the cake: Phil Mahre, who some consider the top downhill skier in U.S. history, was told as he was heading to the medal ceremony that his wife, Holly, had given birth to a son back in Scottsdale at roughly the same time he was claiming his Olympic gold medal.

    Few things can bring tears of joy like the birth of a child, but winning an Olympic medal alongside your twin brother has to be a close second.

Jimmy Shea Wins Skeleton Gold in Salt Lake City

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    DAVID J. PHILLIP/Associated Press

    Jimmy Shea wasn't just racing for himself when he claimed gold in the skeleton at the Salt Lake City Games, but also for his grandfather who died just two weeks before the Olympics began.

    The third Olympian in his storied family, Shea raced brilliantly, becoming the first U.S. man ever to win gold in the competition. But it was his emotional reaction to the triumph that everyone will remember as an explosion of grief mixed with pride and exhilaration poured out for all to see.

    Seconds after winning the gold, Shea held a small picture of his grandfather, Jack Shea, in his right hand as he screamed toward the heavens in one of the signature moments of the 2002 Winter Olympics.

    There’s no doubt that Jack Shea, who was a 1932 gold medalist in Olympic speedskating, was looking down upon his grandson and cheering right back at him.

Lindsey Vonn Overcomes Injury to Win Gold in 2010 Vancouver Games

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    Francis Bompard/Agence Zoom/Getty Images

    Battling injury and soaring expectations, Lindsey Vonn finally captured the Olympic glory so many had predicted for her in the 2010 Olympics. In the process, she made a little bit of history as well.

    The superstar skier captured the women’s downhill in Vancouver to become the first American to ever win the competition. The victory was especially satisfying to Vonn, who labored under great expectations as a two-time World Cup champion.

    Vonn, who is missing the 2014 Olympics due to a knee injury, also proved to the world just how tough a champion she was, battling through the pain of a shin injury that actually kept her off the slopes in the couple of weeks leading up to the Winter Games.

    That layoff left many to question whether gold, or any medal, was in the cards for the American. The accomplished skier, however, had the skill and confidence to get it done.

    The emotions from the injury, expectations and pressure spilled out of the champion as she captured the gold by only 0.56 seconds ahead of American silver medalist Julia Mancuso.

Dan Jansen Finally Wins Gold in Final Race at Lillehammer Olympics

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    JOHN GAPS III/Associated Press

    Facing the final chance to capture an Olympic medal, American Dan Jansen was determined not to let his last grasp at glory escape him in the 1994 Lillehammer Games.

    Seven previous times in four Olympics the world champion speedskater had missed out on the gold medal he seemed destined for, much less a medal of any kind. Disappointment, agony and setbacks are all he had to show before that last 1,000-meter race in Lillehammer.

    Yet a little more than one minute and 12 seconds later, everything changed. Jansen delivered the race of his life, setting a new world record and winning the gold medal he so long coveted but had been brutally denied. The pain from previous failures in Sarajevo, Calgary and Albertville disappeared, finally replaced by the joy of Olympic accomplishment.

    The American followed with a fitting victory lap around the ice with his daughter, Jane, along for the ride. 

The Miracle on Ice

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    Do you believe in miracles? The 1980 U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team sure did.

    In a game dubbed the Miracle on Ice, the U.S. hockey team shocked the world at Lake Placid by beating the mighty Soviet Union in a thrilling semifinal that wasn't even broadcast to a live audience.

    The U.S. team, comprised completely of amateurs, went on to win the gold medal by beating Finland two days later, but it’s the Yanks inspiring triumph over the Soviets that most defines the historic 1980 Olympics. The Americans were overwhelming underdogs to their Cold War adversaries and no one, outside of determined U.S. coach Herb Brooks and his collegiate players, gave the team much of a chance in the contest.

    The upset victory, which inspired the nation during a challenging time in U.S. history, was made into a movie—Miracle—years later, and stories from that game continue to be retold every time the Winter Games come back around.

    With professionals now competing in the Olympics, we may never have another story like the Miracle on Ice, but thanks to one night in Lake Placid, it is among the greatest ever told in Winter Olympic history.