The Olympic Games: a celebration of human physical achievement; the biggest stage for the world’s most accomplished, finely-tuned athletes; a chance for the best to battle against to best. This is why we love the Olympics - we sit at home and become enraptured as supremely talented beings do things with their bodies we could only dream of. It’s a display to marvel at, to take in like a stunning piece of art.
There’s undoubtedly something truly special about watching sport of the highest level. It’s why the top football teams are always on TV, why the Super Bowl consistently smashes viewing records year on year, and why the world stops in place during the final of the Olympic 100m sprint.
But there’s also the other side of sport that we love: the underdog story; the tale of an unlikely hero; the victory we can actually relate to, even sometimes imagine ourselves in.
And there’s nothing better than an Olympic underdog story - a mind-blowing upset on the biggest stage of them all. At the Olympics, the underdog doesn’t even have to win to be adored - hit movies have been made about Eddie the Eagle and the Jamaican bobsleigh team - but it makes it even better when they do.
It’s 2002; the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah. Enter Steven Bradbury, an Australian short-track speed skater who has lucked his way into the 1,000m gold-medal race after defending champion Kim Dong-sung of South Korea fell three bends from home in his semi-final, and two other rivals collided, allowing Bradbury to squeeze his way into the big race.
In the final, with just two laps to go, Bradbury sits fifth - dead last. What more could he really have expected? Australia had never won a Winter Olympic medal in history - of any colour, in any sport - just him being there was a miracle to be proud of.
One lap to go. Bradbury falls further behind. Half a lap. Still dead last, but at least he’s getting round in one piece. He’ll go out on his feet, head held high, standing among the very best the sport has to offer. Suddenly…
China’s Li Jiajun and South Korea’s Ahn Hyun-soo go down. So does Canadian Mathieu Turcotte and even American hero Apolo Anton Ohno - the man the crowd has turned up to crown. They are left nothing more than a pile of sprawling bodies, as Bradbury sweeps round the final bend and over the line to claim his country’s first ever Winter Olympic medal. Gold.
“I just decided I’d hang at the back and hope a couple fell so I could nick a bronze,” Bradbury said after the race. “Then I saw them all go down.
“Maybe I’m not the most deserving guy, but I got the gold and I’m stoked about it. God smiles on you some days and this is my day.”
If a movie had been made about Bradbury’s triumph, it would’ve been deemed too ridiculous. Too unrealistic. A farce. There are sporting underdog movie tropes, and then there’s this.
But that’s exactly what makes sport so brilliant - its greatest moments have more thrilling scripts than even the best films. Yes, we love watching the cream of the crop; the global superstars and the one-man brands. But those people are untouchable. Unearthly being who exist on another level to us, with our shoddy landlords and our Pret coffees and our supermarket sandwiches ripped open at our desks. When the underdog wins, we all feel like we win. That could be me, you believe - entirely falsely - for just a short, fanciful minute. But you do believe it, and that’s enough.
Watch the full race here:
(Main image: YouTube)