At its best, sport may be the pinnacle of story-telling. All the key ingredients are there: larger than life heroes, egotistical villains, a grand stage, the weight of history and expectation. But it also has something fiction does not: reality. The story hasn’t been made up by some overstimulated Hollywood boffin, it has been written by real lives, crafted in sweat and blood and Deep Heat and botched press conferences and adulterous extra-curricular persuasions.
It was Leicester City’s surprise Premier League title win that brought this to my mind. Leicester City went from being almost relegated out of the Premier League last year to winning the pinnacle of professional soccer tournaments this. They had less money, fewer stars and a manager with outrageously normal hair, and yet they overcame astronomical betting odds at the start of the season to become the champs.
So, in the mood of Leicester City’s recent win, with Eddie the Eagle currently at the cinemas, and with another Olympics looming around the corner, I thought it a perfect time to take you through the four standout sporting stories of my lifetime. These are sporting stories I have been there for, that I have watched in real time, that I have felt a part of. They may not be the most amazing sporting achievements, the highest highs or the most glamorous victories, but they are certainly memorable moments, and remind us that in sport—and perhaps more so than in fiction—nothing is certain.
Keiren Perkins earns his Muriel’s Wedding plaudits (1996)
After winning—no, dominating—the 1500 metre freestyle swimming at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, the Mr Nice Guy of Australian sport Kieren Perkins was not in a good place to defend his title in Atlanta in 1996. He was so out of form he had barely qualified for the Australian Olympic team, and only just managed to squeak into the final of the event in Atlanta by less than a quarter of a second—a minuscule amount of time in a fifteen minute race.
He was given the inauspicious lane eight and no hope of winning gold. He admitted years afterward that he was so heavily burdened by the pressure to win again that he had considered not even turning up to the final, preferring to just fade away into obscurity. And he had been battling stomach cramps during the heats, an ailment that persisted into the final.
But Keiren Perkins did turn up. And he mounted the blocks like everyone else, standing at the end of the row alongside more fancied contenders. And he jumped into water like everyone else, somehow finding himself in the lead at the first tumble turn. The second turn, too, had Keiren out front, this time by a little more. So too for the third turn. The crowd began sensing the electricity of the moment, and even the voice of the Channel Seven commentator (Dennis Cometti I think it was, one of my favourites) began quavering. A quarter of an hour later Kieren Perkins was still out in the lead—had been the entire race—and touched the final wall in first place, claiming the gold and a moment in Australian sporting history.
He was the only competitor to break the fifteen minute mark in that race and had truly become the “Australian champion” the South African character in Muriel’s Wedding had trumpeted him to be.
Steven Bradbury doesn’t fall over (2002)
I’m always disappointed when people don’t know who Steven Bradbury is. He is an Australian legend who won Gold in the 1000m speed skating at the 2002 Winter Olympics.
Only he shouldn’t have.
Bradbury was a fine speed skater, but far from the best. He was one of the oldest competitors in the field at the 2002 Winter Olympics and nowhere near the skill or speed of the sport’s elite. He won his heat comfortably enough, true, but in the second round was pitted against two of the top-seeded competitors: Apolo Anton Ohno and Mar Gagnon. Unfortunately for Bradbury, only the racers who finished first and second would progress to the next round, and Bradbury came third. His Olympic dream was over.
Only it wasn’t over, because after the race Gagnon was disqualified for obstructing another racer (not Bradbury). Bradbury was gifted a berth in the semi-finals by default.
The semi-finals were an even harder proposition. Bradbury knew he could not beat his competition on sheer speed, so he and his coach concocted a plan to skate toward the back of the pack and hope everyone else fell over. Laughable, it would seem, but when Bradbury found himself in last place and three of the other competitors collided and wiped each other out, he effortlessly eased his way past and took second place. Good enough for a start in the finals.
Once again the finals found Bradbury in distant last place, far behind his competitors. This time they all kept their feet and, in a tight knot, any one of the four in front of him were a chance for gold. On the last turn, however, they all went for it, jostling and pushing to hit the last fifty metres in the lead and take the gold. A slip, a tangle, and all four competitors went down. Bradbury, clearly in shock, coasted past them all for a very unlikely Olympic victory.
He became the first person from the southern hemisphere to win a Winter Olympic event and retired immediately. I guess he believed he just couldn’t top that.
Rafael Nadal wins a set (2014)
Rafael Nadal is one of the most successful tennis players of all time. His record might have been even better if he hadn’t been injured going into the final of the 2014 Australian Open.
It was a bizarre match. With all the glitz and glamour of the showcase event, the packed out stadium and the laser lighting set to dazzle, an injured Rafael Nadal stood centre stage and couldn’t even move around the court. He could serve—at maybe half pace—but then all he could manage was to stand still and hope the return came into his vicinity. He was in obvious pain (the constant medical timeouts suggested a back complaint) but for some reason he played on.
The crowd was stunned, clapping awkwardly and not sure how to react. This was the pinnacle of a grand slam, tickets worth hundreds of dollars and the players jousting for millions. The commentators were frequently speechless, too, leaving long, odd silences as they were not sure how they should call such a preposterous event. Even Nadal’s opponent, Stanislas Wawrinka, was clearly confused. He had psyched himself up for the fight of his life against the world’s best player, only to find himself pummelling a broken vessel. His face said it all: how was he to handle this, being gifted his first grand slam title instead of truly earning it?
There was no fist pumping or shouts of come on! Wawrinka seemed to be wondering if it was disrespectful and unsportsmanlike to use his best, hardest shots against a player who could barely move. He kept glancing nervously at his coach, apologetically at the crowd. He must have felt like he was beating a kid, and he couldn’t find the right gear. His lethargic shots went wide or hit the net, mounting a ridiculous unforced error count.
It was odd to watch. Farcical. Surreal. Why didn’t Nadal just concede? Why didn’t Wawrinka just win the game? Nadal stayed in it, largely off the back of Wawrinka’s unforced errors, but still Wawrinka took the first two sets and looked ready to close out the game and put the audience and commentators out of their misery.
Then the unthinkable happened. Nadal kept playing, and he remained as immobile as ever, but he started winning some points on serve. The points added up, and he won some games. Then he broke Wawrinka’s serve. Somehow, through a combination of unforced errors and pure Nadal determination, Wawrinka lost a pivotal game, and Nadal converted that into a set win. The man couldn’t even move, but somehow he had taken a set from Wawrinka. Suddenly it looked like the unthinkable might just happen: Wawrinka could lose the unlosable game.
Sadly, the inevitable did happen. Nadal’s body couldn’t hold him aloft and Wawrinka came back to win the fourth set, and the title, in what was easily one of the most bizarre sporting spectacles I have ever seen. It was raw psychology on big screen display, and no-one had any idea what was going on, what might happen next.
But the story didn’t end there. In the aftermath the questions had to be asked: was Nadal brave for battling on, was this a show of pure sporting courage? Or was Nadal idiotic for putting his body through an ordeal it could never complete? That match, that decision, that moment, may have been the start of Nadal’s slide down the rankings. He was the world’s number two at that point and primed to challenge Roger Federer’s record number of Grand Slam wins. But after that match he took extended injury leave and has never returned to his best.
Should he have played on?
Richmond are as mercurial as ever (2014)
The Richmond Tiger’s start to the 2014 Australian Football League season was pathetic. After fourteen rounds they had won three games and lost ten (plus a bye). Everyone had written them off for the year, with only the mathematicians giving them a chance of making finals—and even then only if they won every single one of their final nine games, and even then only if a slew of other results went their way.
I remember watching the score updates on my phone each week, happy at first to have just won a game, then getting nervous when the wins kept coming, then wondering if the impossible could actually happen. Every time an opponent hit the lead in a game—and every single one of the games were close—it was a precipice. If the siren sounded with the other team in front then the season was immediately over, no take backs.
Somehow that never happened.
Eight wins later and Richmond had to play the in-form Sydney Swans in the final round. If Richmond won, they were in. If they lost, some other team would leapfrog them on the ladder and their season was finished, just like that. Richmond pulled ahead early, kicking the first five goals. Fans started to dream. But Sydney pulled back. Slowly, kick by kick, Sydney edged closer, caught up, took the lead. Richmond managed one last fling and wrestled the score line back in their favour, but Sydney were relentless. They needed just one goal to take the match, but somehow, despite their ruthless onslaught, the last five minutes were scoreless. The siren went, and Richmond had won by three points. They were in the finals.
Anticlimactically, Richmond lost the first game of the finals (and quite convincingly so) and for them the season ended right there. Maybe the whole episode was even all the more interesting because of this outcome, with Richmond well-known as a mercurial team who have turned many fans prematurely grey with their disastrous unpredictability.
But it was never about taking home the major trophy. I’ll admit to being a Richmond fan and because of this their achievement was all the more visceral for me, but it was an accomplishment that resonated with all sports supporters, all teams, across all sports. Every fan has experienced the pain of watching their player or team seemingly down and out, whether they are well behind in a game or completely adrift in a season. Like Leicester City was, last year. But still they hope, still they dream, still they cling to that mathematical possibility. What Richmond reminded everyone in 2014 is that, sometimes, even if you follow the most frustrating team in the history of sport, that tenuous and ridiculous sequence of events does, sometimes, occur.
There is always a chance. Always. Even if you barrack for Richmond.
(As at time of press Richmond are sitting on two wins and six losses this season. Lots of room to lose plenty more games before we have to start winning.)