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Remarkable Olympic moments born through courage, sacrifice in past Games

Beyond the medals and all the pomp and ceremony of an Olympic gathering there is something which becomes much more compelling.

It’s the stories of the characters that combine to write each narrative of the Games, leaving an indelible mark and a lasting impression of the world’s largest, recurring spectacle.

This week’s edition of Olympic Games Replay focuses on the remarkable moments that have occurred which might properly be referred to as the human element of this gigantic sporting summit.

These are the tales of sacrifice, determination, courage, and frailty which become the universal language of the Olympic dialogue.

In short, they are the instances of ordinary people who prove capable of creating extraordinary memories and happenings which endure to become iconic.

One such example is the tale of Canadian sailor Lawrence Lemieux, who grew up chasing the wind at Lake Wabumun, Alta., which is 65 km west of Edmonton.

While racing in the Finn class at the 1988 Olympics in South Korea, the seas got dangerously high off the coast of Busan. Lemieux was firmly in medal position and yet changed course in order to come to the aid of a capsized boat belonging to athletes from Singapore.

WATCH | Lawrence Lemieux, 1988 Summer Olympics:

The Canadian managed to rescue Joseph Chan, who had become separated from his craft, before a coast guard patrol boat arrived to take the sailors from Singapore safely to shore.

Lemieux then rejoined the heat only to finish way back and see his medal chances in the overall series of races evaporate. In finishing 11th, he missed the podium but was awarded the Pierre de Coubertin medal which is rarely bestowed upon an athlete at the Games.

Inaugurated in 1964, the de Coubertin medal, named after one of the founders of the modern Olympics, exemplifies the spirit of sportsmanship. The International Olympic Committee calls it “one of the noblest honours that can be bestowed on an Olympic athlete.”

Lawrence Lemieux is the only Canadian athlete to be awarded the Pierre de Coubertin medal and the late IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch had this to say when he made the presentation to Lemieux in Seoul.

“By your sportsmanship, self-sacrifice, and courage you embody all that is right with the Olympic ideal.”

WATCH | Lawrence Lemieux discusses training Olympians:

Years later, Lemieux reflected on the rare honour in an understated way.

“There’s no question that faced with the same situation, that I would do it all over again,” he said via email from his home in Seba Beach, Alta., where he still sails to this day.

“I never expected to win any award. I just saw a boat in trouble and knew they needed help. I was surprised when I received the Pierre de Coubertin medal. It was, and still is, a great honour. In sport the goal is to win, but there are some things which are more important than that.”

Eddie the Eagle achieves his dream

Previously at the 1988 Olympic Winter Games in Calgary, a neophyte ski jumper representing Great Britain became a beloved figure in Games’ history by finishing dead last.

Michael “Eddie” Edwards was a plasterer by trade and a frustrated alpine skier. With minimal funding, little support, and not much else besides his gregarious nature, the bespectacled Edwards soared into people’s hearts, gained notoriety as “Eddie the Eagle,” and became a sort of cult figure for decades to come.

WATCH | Eddie the Eagles takes flight in 1988 Winter Games:

British ski jumper Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards may not have won the Olympics, but he sure won over the fans. 0:42

“People associated with me and could respond to the fact I was just a normal guy and not a top athlete,” the effervescent Edwards said in a Zoom interview from his home in Stroud, England.

“I hope when they think of me, ‘Eddie the Eagle,’ at the Calgary Olympics, they’ll think about resilience, tenacity, and never giving up. I had to go through so many things, over and around so many things, but I still managed to achieve my dream of getting to the Olympic Games.”

Four mothers from Saskatchewan

Ten years later in Nagano, Japan, the sport of curling gained full-medal status in Olympic competition. Canada is acknowledged to be curling’s powerhouse nation and came to those Games as overwhelming favourites to win gold in both men’s and women’s play.

While the Mike Harris rink from Ontario claimed silver, a group of four young mothers from small-town Saskatchewan, led by the late skip Sandra Schmirler, captured the first women’s curling championship at the Olympics.

They became instant celebrities in their home province, across Canada, and even internationally because Schmirler and her foursome came to symbolize average women who had within themselves the capability to become Olympic champions.

WATCH | Schmirler rink wins unprecedented Olympic gold:

“I think her legacy is that it’s OK to be ordinary,” marvelled Joan McCusker, who was a key member of the Schmirler gold medal team.

“It’s OK to be really competitive and to love to win and play sports. It’s OK to be who you are and to look the way you look. You don’t have to change anything to have this wonderful, successful, life.

“In the 22 years since we won that gold medal I have had thousands and thousands of women come up to me and tell me that they could identify with us because we were best friends. They knew how hard it was for us to leave the house and our little kids at home. They felt that they could do anything because we had done this.”

A selfless substitution

Moments of sacrifice are a common theme in Olympic lore and one that comes to mind involves long track speed skating at the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia.

One of the favourites in the men’s 1000m race prior to the Games was Canadian Denny Morrison of Fort St. John, B.C. But at the Olympic trials in Calgary mere weeks before travelling overseas, Morrison fell in the 1000m and failed to qualify for that event.

A winner of two previous medals, Morrison did, however, qualify for the 1500m, but the 1000m was his best chance at another podium finish in Russia.

Prior to the race, another Canadian speed skater, Gilmore Junio, who had also competed at the 500m distance, gave his spot in the 1000m to his more accomplished teammate Morrison.

WATCH | Morrison, Junio share story of belief, teamwork:

It was one of the best stories of the Olympics, and now the speed skaters are home to share it. 5:33

Then cheering from the grandstand, Junio witnessed Morrison win a silver medal and narrowly miss gold. The selfless substitution had paid sweet dividends for the Canadian team.

“It was so magical,” Junio beamed in a Zoom interview from Calgary as Denny Morrison listened in.

“I thought I was in a Disney movie to be honest. This just doesn’t happen in real life. It was a special, special, moment. It shows who we are as Canadians. We want the best for our friends and our families.

“I’ve always said I’m going to cut that medal in half and give one half to Gilmore,” said the now retired Morrison, who at the time felt strengthened by his teammate’s act of generosity.

“It took away the memory of my fall in the trials. Gilmore’s gesture empowered me to believe in myself. This guy believes in me at this level. This is extreme. And if someone else sees that I am skating that well it gives me such confidence. It was the most magical, special, moment of my speed skating career.”

Magic is the key word in this edition of Olympic Games Replay.

In an era where so much of what happens in sport is governed by quantifiable science with the outcome often predictable, these are the rare occasions that create not only a sense of wonder but also amazement while taking on a life of their own.

Quite simply, they embody much of the Olympic legend.

Remarkable Olympic Moments will be streamed live at and broadcast across the CBC television network Saturday, July 18, 2020 at 3 p.m. Check local listings in your area.

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