Revisiting the fiercest rivalries in Winter Olympics' history

Written by Tom | Published on 8th February 2022

    Rivalries have played a role in sport since ancient times and are a part of what makes watching it such an engrossing spectacle. The Winter Olympics represents the very best of the world’s winter sports and its athletes, which makes it a prime stage for high stakes and high drama. We spoke with our Sports Memorabilia expert Marc Jans to revisit some of the Winter Olympics’ fiercest rivalries and the times when more than just the prospect of a medal got under a competitor’s skin.

    Tonya Harding vs. Nancy Kerrigan in women’s figure skating

    Few rivalries have hit the cinematic heights of that which existed between American ice skaters Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. “Tonya Harding is of course an eccentric athlete within the figure skating world, partly because of her behavior on and off the ice floor” explains Marc Jans. Such was the notoriety of their feud that a film was produced decades after both had stopped competing.

    Ahead of the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Harding and Kerrigan were neck-and-neck as competitors. Harding was already a World Silver medalist and American skate champion, having edged out Kerrigan in both, while Kerrigan was an Olympic bronze medalist, having beaten Harding to the podium in the latter. Harding also held the record as only the second woman ever to land the notorious triple axel jump and the first American to land one in a competition. With the two skaters under pressure to succeed, things reached breaking point. 

    Kerrigan was attacked with a metal baton while at skating practice, in an attempt to break her leg ahead of the National Championships (which Harding then won) and only weeks before the 1994 Winter Olympics. The media attention was fierce and later revealed that the person who planned the attack on Kerrigan was none other than Harding’s former bodyguard and ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly. In a twist of fate, Kerrigan recovered in time for the Winter Olympics, managing to secure a second-place spot. 

    Harding, who had initially denied all involvement, pleaded guilty of knowledge of the attack on her return from the Winter Olympics. This led to her being banned from all US figure skating competitions, effectively ending her career.

    Olympic Games - Large medal “VI. Olympic Winter Games 1936 in Garmisch-Partenkirchen “

    Canada vs USA in women’s ice hockey

    According to Marc, ice hockey is by nature an explosive and therefore aggressive sport not only because of its dynamics but it is also partly due to the rivalry between the "ruling" countries in this sport like Canada and the United States.

    Women’s ice hockey became an Olympic sport during the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, and the USA and Canada met in the final, with the Americans triumphing 3-1 over the Canadians. Since then, the USA and Canada have met in the final of every Games except in 2006, when Canada faced off against Sweden and won, while the USA beat Finland to third place. In fact, Canada maintained an unbeaten Olympic run from 2002-2014, until 2018 when a dramatic shootout ended in a 3-2 win for the resurgent Americans. 

    The outright dominance of the two teams has in some circles even called into question the worthiness of continuing women’s ice hockey as a sport; a claim most pundits refute as an example of poor sportsmanship and sexism. A more accurate take would be that the Canadian and American rivalry is one of the Olympics’ great crunch matches and an example why rivalries can sometimes bring out the best in a sport. 

    Norway vs Italy in men’s cross-country skiing

    Far from the pastoral scenery and meditative exercise many people associate with cross country-skiing, the Olympic version has always been a riveting and tightly contested affair. Just ask the Norwegians and the Italians, in which the winner was often determined by a matter of centimetres and milliseconds. The two nations had their fiercest competition in the nineties and early 2000s, yet their last-gasp wins over miles of snowy settings made for some of the sport’s most gripping moments.

    The Norwegians were long the dominant nation in cross-country skiing, alongside their Nordic neighbours, Sweden and Finland, as well as the Soviet Union. Up until the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, virtually no other nation came close to these four, who rotated on the podium every four years. However, in 1992, the Italians secured silver in three races and bronze in two, each time just behind the Norwegians who took gold in all of the men’s events. It marked the beginning of the Italians' attempt on Norway’s previously impenetrable throne. 

    The fruits of the Italians' endeavours all came to fruition in poetic fashion, when Italy and Norway met in the Winter Olympics in 1994 in Lillehammer, where Norway was the home nation. For men’s cross country, the 4x10km relay is considered to be the Olympic sport’s main event and this was where all eyes were focused. Up until this race, the Norwegians had swept the board as expected, led by their star athlete Bjørn Dæhlie who had won two golds while his compatriot Thomas Alsgaard beat him to gold in the 30km freestyle. 

    Yet the men’s relay had a shock in store. The Norwegians led for much of the race until the final quarter where a staggering display of rejuvenation from the Italians in Silvio Fauner allowed him to overtake Norway’s Dæhlie. They were neck-and-neck until the very end and in front of tens of thousands of Norwegian fans, Fauner inched over the line in 0.4 of a second ahead of Dæhlie. It was a shock and marked the beginning of what would become a staple rivalry in the sport. Four years later, it was the Norwegians who edged out the Italians in the relay by milliseconds, in an even closer call than the previous race.

    Dan Jansen and Bode Miller - Photograph

    Grishuk/Platov vs. Usova/Zhulin in mixed ice dance

    The on-rink/off-rink saga between Russian ice dancers Oksana Grishuk and Sasha Platov, and married skating pair Maia Usova and Aleksandr Zhulin, was a fiery affair in the most literal of senses. 

    Grishuk, Platov, Usova and Zhulin were in close proximity to each other often, as they were trained under the same coach, Natalia Dubova. Ahead of the 1994 Olympics, both Russian pairs were favourites for the podium. However, in the build-up to the games, it was revealed that Grishuk and Zhulin were having an affair. Zhulin is alleged to have given Grishuk his wedding ring, which she later wore to a practice on a chain around her neck. 

    When the 1994 Olympics arrived, the predictions were correct: Grishuk and Platov took gold with their dance to ‘Rock Around the Clock’ while Usova and Zhulin took second. Yet the real drama was to come. Usova allegedly spotted Zhulin’s wedding ring on Grishuk prior to the competition. During a post-games skating tour, Grishuk was dining at Spago restaurant in Hollywood when Usova walked in and spotted her. Usova allegedly approached Grishup from behind—while the latter was sipping on a margarita—grabbed her hair and smashed her head into the bar. The story goes that Usova turned up at Grishuk’s hotel room the next door begging for forgiveness and quickly sought a divorce from Zhulin. 

    To this day, Grishuk claims Zhulin used their affair and his proposal as a means to sabotage her performance in the Olympics, having never intended to marry her. Regardless of the degree of truth to each side, the saga remains one of skating’s most melodramatic moments.

    Switzerland vs Germany in men’s bobsleigh

    While bobsleigh may not be the first sport that comes to mind when you think of heated rivalries, the competition between the Swiss and German’s men's teams dominated three decades of the sport. 

    Bobsledding originated in Switzerland in the late 1800s when the town of St Moritz introduced a bobsleigh club. As the home of bobsledding, Switzerland was the dominant force in the early years of the competition, alongside the United States and Germany. However, from the 70s, Germany became a real contender to the Swiss.

    Germany was split into West and East Germany at the time, and both teams excelled across the four-man and two-man bobsleigh races. In 1972 Sapporo and 1976 Innsbruck, West Germany secured first and second in the former, while East Germany took gold in the latter, and the Swiss placed third in both tournaments. For the Swiss, the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics was a brief comeback, securing gold, however, this would be their last medal until the 90s, as the Germans dominated 80s bobsledding. 

    Come the 90s, the Swiss finally broke through the German frontier—right when Germany united as a whole—taking gold in both the 1992 and 1994 Winter Olympics. This period also saw the emergence of new rivals, such as Italy and Canada. The Swiss hold the record of the most medals won by a country at 31, yet the Germans (not including East Germany) have won the most gold medals at 13.


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