Vancouver Olympics pushed emotional spectrum

In the fourth instalment of's year-end retrospective, we look back at the triumphs, heartaches and tragedy that defined the XXI Winter Games in Vancouver.

Triumphs, heartaches and tragedy defined the XXI Winter Games

Freestyle skier Alexandre Bilodeau became the first Canadian to win Olympic gold on home soil. ((Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images))

The tragedy left everyone numb.

From IOC president Jacques Rogge to Vancouver's Organizing Committee CEO John Furlong, and the entire nation of Georgia, the death of luger Nodar Kumaritashvili hours before the start of the opening ceremony horrified millions.

Canada's Queen

The Canadian Olympic Committee made the wise choice when it selected Clara Hughes as flagbearer for the start of the Vancouver Games. Hughes is one of Canada's most decorated Olympians.

Even before the competition, Hughes remained the only athlete to win multiple medals in both the Winter and Summer Games (two bronze in cycling; gold, silver and bronze in speedskating). Hughes provided one more highlight to the Canadian fans, winning a bronze medal in the gruelling 5,000 metres.

The medal in Vancouver gave Hughes six for her career, equalling teammate Cindy Klassen as the most ever by a Canadian athlete. There may be more. At age 38, Hughes announced she would be returning to cycling for the 2012 London Games.

Training at the slick Whistler Sliding Centre, the 21-year-old lost control in the final turn, shot off course and crashed into an unprotected steel support pole while travelling at nearly 145 km/h.

Within seconds of the accident, medics tried frantically to resuscitate Kumaritashvili, but the young Georgian died from his injuries after he was airlifted to a Whistler hospital.

It was a devastating beginning to the XXI Winter Games, yet as the days ensued grief gave way to unforgettable performances, demoralizing defeats and even bizarre occurrences — all elements that will remain part of Vancouver's unique place in Olympic history.

Indelible moments

Alexandre Bilodeau — Freestyle Skiing

Why not begin with the man who jumpstarted Canada's record-breaking 14 gold medals. For the last 22 years, Canada has been the butt of numerous punch lines for its ineptness on home soil. Prior to Vancouver, Canada was the only nation never to win gold at home twice, a dubious distinction that took place at the 1976 Montreal Summer Games, and the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary.

There was never any question that Canada would walk away with gold medals this time around. The mystery, instead, centred on which athlete would make history. The revelation came on Day 3 of competition. With older brother Frédéric, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at a young age, there to cheer him on, Bilodeau delivered. Sitting in second place after the qualification run, Bilodeau nailed two spectacular jumps on his way to the finish line.

As if to tease an entire country, the judges didn't release the marks immediately. Once the scores were revealed, thunderous cheers erupted as Bilodeau was crowned the new men's moguls Olympic champion.

Canadian men's hockey team

Sidney Crosby joined a select few in Canadian sports lore after scoring the goal that returned Canada to Olympic hockey supremacy. ((Chris O'Meara/Associated Press))
The feeling among many Canadians heading into the men's hockey final between Canada and the U.S., was that the combined 13 gold medals won during the previous 15 days would prove meaningless if the boys didn't put away the Americans. The road to glory wasn't easy. During round-robin play, Canada dropped a 5-3 decision to the U.S., and was forced to compete in an extra qualifying game.

Undeterred, Canada first disposed of Germany, and then Russia in the quarter-finals, but barely survived Slovakia in the semifinal. Nevertheless the stage was set for an epic clash with Team U.S.A. The game had everything: speed, dazzling passing and big-time hitting. It appeared the Canadians were going to reclaim the gold medal they relinquished at the 2006 Torino Games, holding on to a slim 2-1 lead with the seconds ticking away. But U.S. sniper Zach Parise scored with only 25 seconds left in regulation, sending millions of disbelieving Maple Leaf fans into full-blown panic mode.

The suspense ended 7:40 into overtime. Sidney Crosby picked the perfect time to break out of his Olympic slump, taking a Jarome Iginla pass and slipping the puck behind American goaltender Ryan Miller. Crosby's golden goal allowed a nation to exhale while also placing him along side Paul Henderson and Mario Lemieux in Canadian lore.

Golden Canadians

  • Alexandre Bilodeau (Freestyle skiing)
  • Kevin Martin (Curling)
  • Jasey Jay Anderson (Snowboard)
  • Charles Hamelin (500m, Short-track)
  • Kaillie Humphries & Heather Moyse (Bobsleigh)
  • Ashleigh McIvor (Skicross)
  • Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir (Figure skating)
  • Jon Montgomery (Skeleton)
  • Christine Nesbitt (1,000m, Speedskating)
  • Maelle Ricker (Snowboard cross)
  • Men's hockey
  • Women's hockey
  • Men's team pursuit (Speedskating)
  • Men's 5,000m relay (Short-track)

Joannie Rochette — Figure Skating

"We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey," Japanese poet, Kenji Miyazawa.

For the Quebec native, the journey would be more agonizing than she could ever imagine. A fringe medal contender, Rochette was devastated to learn that her mother Therese died of a heart attack shortly after arriving in Vancouver. Her death came two days before daughter Joannie was to perform her short program. Choosing to honour her mother by competing, Rochette captivated an inspired crowd with a memorable short program. She then capped off her emotional draining Olympics with a bronze medal two days later.

America's big haul

With 37 medals the Americans easily outdistanced Germany (30) and Canada (27) for the most hardware. Day 6 would prove to be the catalyst. The U.S. won six medals — three of them gold. Alpine Skier Lindsey Vonn began the flurry by capturing the ladies downhill. Speedskater Shani Davis then repeated as champion in the men's 1,000 metres. As night set in the time came for charismatic snowboarder Shaun White to perform his magic. Having already clinched the gold medal on his first run in the men's halfpipe, the multimillionaire boarder businessman decided to have some fun. With the crowd expecting something special, White landed a full 3½ twists while doing two full rotations in what has become known as a Double McTwist.

Jon Montgomery — Skeleton

John Furlong knew the Russell, Man., native would take home the gold when he spoke to the supremely confident driver a mere days before the opening ceremony. Montgomery began the competition slow, but picked up significant time on leader Martins Dukurs of Latvian between the second and third runs. By the fourth and final heat Montgomery gained all the time he needed, beating Dukurs by 0.07 seconds. In true Canadian form, the 31-year-old proceeded to march through a throng of fans on the street, singing O Canada and chugging a pitcher of beer.

Simon Ammann — Ski Jumping

The 28-year-old lanky Swiss ski jumper used an unorthodox path to greatness. After winning two gold medals in both the normal and large hill events at the 2002 Salt Lake Games, Ammann endured a miserable time in Torino four years later, failing to get a whiff of the podium. Vancouver would be different as Ammann mirrored his Salt Lake success, becoming the first ski jumper to win four individual Olympic gold medals.

Kevin Martin — Curling

One could only imagine the thoughts running through Martin at the start of the curling tournament. The 44-year-old Albertan had basically done it all in his sport — four Brier crowns and one world championship — yet Martin was looking for more than gold in Vancouver. Martin had gold within his grasp at the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics. All the Canadian needed was to draw against Norwegian Pal Trulsen's rock, but his stone slid through the house. Eight years later, Martin's redemption would come with no drama. He ripped through the round-robin and semifinal phase before sinking Norway's Thomas Ulsrud 6-3 in the final to finish a perfect 11-0.

Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir — Figure Skating

Canadian Olympic bronze medallist and CBC Sports analyst Tracy Wilson called Virtue and Moir the most innovative ice dancing duo since the great 1980s British duo Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean. The Canadians proved it with two breathtaking programs — featuring their inventive hands-free lift dubbed "The Goose" - to become first North American pair to win the Olympic ice dance gold. In the free dance they received four marks of 10.00, an accomplishment never achieved before their arrival. A world title would soon follow, completing the magical season.

Andre Lange — Bobsleigh

Nicknamed "Little Bear," Lange is revered in the world of bobsleigh. And why not? After piloting the Germany-1 sled to victory with brakeman Kevin Kukse, Lange stood as the first driver in Olympic history to win four gold medals.

Disappointments and heartache

Mellisa Hollingsworth — Skeleton

An Olympic bronze medallist four years ago, Hollingsworth was primed to have her crowning achievement in Vancouver. The defending World Cup champion was second to Britain's Amy Williams following the first three runs. However, despite a personal best start, Hollingsworth committed costs errors in her final run, dropping her to fifth. Shocked at the turn of event, a heartbroken Hollingsworth gave a tearful apology to all Canadians moments after the event.

Lindsey Vonn — Alpine Skiing

You would normally not see a gold medallist on this list, but Vonn is not your typical athlete. She didn't come to Vancouver simply to win one event. The dominant American was eying a clean sweep of the ladies downhill, super-combined and Super G competitions. Vonn won the downhill event, but crashed in the slalom portion of the super-combined race. She then had to settle for bronze in the Super G event.

Cheryl Bernard — Curling

Canadian skip Cheryl Bernard lost a heartbreaking gold-medal final against defending Olympic champion Anette Norberg of Sweden. ((Nathan Denette/Canadian Press))
She had it in the bag — twice. In a winner-take-all final against defending Olympic champion Anette Norberg, Bernard had two glorious chances to bury the Swede, only to let it slip away both times. In the 10th end, the Canadian only needed to take out the Swedish rock, but didn't get enough of the stone. This allowed Norberg to hit and stick for two points and square the match. Bernard faced a trickier shot in the extra end, requiring a double take out while keeping her rock in play to seal the gold medal. Alas, the Calgary skip could only remove the one rock, giving Norberg a second straight Olympic title.

Chris Del Bosco — Skicross

The American-born racer was given a second chance by the Canadian ski team after battling substance and alcohol abuse. In return, Del Bosco wanted desperately to reward with his adopted country with the only medal that mattered to him. In a solid position to earn a bronze medal, Del Bosco dismissed the idea of a third-place finish and went for broke. Unfortunately, he fell shortly before crossing the finish line and missed the podium altogether.

Dale Begg-Smith — Freestyle Skiing

This Canadian-turned-Aussie was the defending Olympic moguls champion and was a heavy favourite to repeat. However, Begg-Smith wasn't planning on Canada's Alexandre Bilodeau delivering the performance of a lifetime. After receiving his silver medal, members of his coaching staff attributed biased judging as a reason for the upset.

Wacky times

Who's running this show?

A national treasure in his native Netherlands, Sven Kramer was looking to sweep speedskating's long distance events. With the 5,000 already won, Kramer continued his assault by demolishing his rivals in the 10,000. There was only one problem: his coach, Gerard Kemkers, mistakenly directed him to the incorrect lane, thus disqualifying Kramer from the event.

Wrong way Feldman

Belarus cross-country skier Leanid Karneyenka must be a fan of Bugs Bunny. More specifically, Karneyenka must really take Bugs's famous "I knew I shoulda taken that left turn at Albuquerque," line to heart. In could help explain his blunder in the team sprint event. Leading the semifinal portion, Karneyenka inexplicably made a sharp left turn, thinking he was home free. Regrettably for the Belarusian, the opposing skiers using the straightaway passed the bewildered athlete, who got his entire team disqualified.

Failure to launch

The strategy was simple enough. During the opening ceremony, organizers planned for the Olympic cauldron to be lit by some of Canada's most famous athletes: hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, Alpine skiing great Nancy Green, Olympic speedskating champion Catriona Le May Doan, along with two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash. But Doan's cauldron malfunctioned and failed to rise from beneath BC Stadium, leaving the Saskatoon native stranded in front of a confused worldwide audience.