Tokyo Olympics: Ten tear-jerking moments from the Olympics past

Derek Redmond. Gemma Gibbons and Cathy Freeman

It isn’t always the big names and blue-riband events.

At an Olympic Games, with the eyes of the world watching, small moments and unknown backstories can suddenly resonate far further.

BBC Sport has pulled together 10 times when the Olympics has shown that courage, love and compassion don’t stop when the starting gun fires.

1. Chris Hoy bows out with gold

The London velodrome was where Great Britain hit the richest seam of gold in 2012.

In total, seven golds arrived on the velodrome’s pine boards, nearly double any other venue.

And maybe the best came last. Thirty-six-year-old Chris Hoy, who had already announced he would not compete at a fifth Games, won the keirin to become Britain’s most successful Olympian with six golds.

“I was picking out people’s faces when I was on the podium,” he said looking back in 2014.external-link

“There were team-mates, coaches, support staff, family, other riders from other countries, you caught people’s eyes and realised that it was the end of the most incredible journey.”

2. Strug lands miracle vault

The United States women’s gymnastics team arrived at Atlanta 1996 as the Magnificent Seven – a stellar group who could finally challenge the Russian team who, in different guises, had won the last two all-around titles.

Coming to the final rotation, it seemed that the Americans had it won with a comfortable 0.897 point lead over their rivals.

However a streak of slips and falls on the vault meant the gold could slip away.

Eighteen-year-old Kerri Strug was the last American to vault. She landed awkwardly on her first attempt, ending up on her backside, twisting her ankle in the process.

With pain etched across her face, she knew she had to vault again, and land it, if her country was to win gold.

She did. Hopping in pain as she acknowledged the judges, she then crawled off the mat and had to be carried to the medal podium.

“The Olympics is about more than gold medals,” she said in 2012.external-link

“It’s about human spirit, the heart and the drive that a lot of athletes have and human beings have in general.”

3. ‘Emotions, emotions, Goodness me’

Across many years of broadcasting, John Inverdale had seen it all.

But the veteran broadcaster was struggling before he even started interviewing Mark Hunter and Zac Purchase.

The pair had to be helped up the steps from the pontoon to the media area such was the effort they had put into a courageous but unsuccessful attempt to hold off their Danish rivals in the lightweight double sculls final at London 2012.

“I’m just sorry to everyone we’ve let down,” said Hunter into the microphone.

“You’ve let nobody down,” interjected Inverdale, his voice clearly wobbling.

4. A father’s love

Derek Redmond felt in good shape in the 400m semi-finals at Barcelona 1992, so he decided to push a little harder to secure a better lane draw for the final.

His hamstring failed him however, leaving him sprawled on the track.

His father Jim, watching in the stadium, leapt down from the stands to console his son, only to find Derek was determined to finish.

Various officials tried to stop the pair as they slowly made their way to the line, Derek hobbling and crying more and more. Jim gave them short shrift.

“I’d never heard my dad using four-letter words,” Derek said.external-link “I learned a few new ones.”

5. Freeman flies the flag

Cathy Freeman’s win at Sydney 2000 was not for one nation, but two.

Her grandmother was one of the ‘Stolen Generations’, one of more than 100,000 Aboriginal children taken from their parents in a government programme of forced assimilation.

After winning gold at the 1994 Commonwealth Games, she carried both the Australia and Aboriginal flags on her victory laps. The team’s chef de mission told her she would be sent home if she repeated her celebration.

By the time the 2000 came round she was the face of of the Games, her image wrapped around skyscraper and blazing from television screens.

She carried the pressure to win gold and celebrated once more with the Australian and Aboriginal flags together.

6. Ali returns to the Olympic stage

Thirty-six years before Muhammad Ali had transfixed an Olympic crowd with his balletic agility and blurring hand speed, winning gold in Rome in 1960.

At the Atlanta 1996 opening ceremony, Ali beset by Parkinson’s Disease, face fixed, hands trembling, lit the Olympic flame.

Between the two moments, Ali had emerged as one of the most important cultural figures of the age, advocating for civil rights and peace.

7. ‘I love you Mum’

Gemma Gibbons only really realised that she had made her gesture when a scrum of reporters started asking her about it.

It was only a second. It could easily have been missed. The camera nearly did.

After beating world champion Audrey Tcheumeo in the -78kg semi-final at London 2012, the British judoka, tears in her eyes, looked up to the ceiling and mouthed ‘I love Mum’.

Gibbons’ mother Jeanette had died eight years before, when Gemma was 17, from leukaemia.

“I don’t why I did it, it just came out with all those emotions,” she said in 2020.external-link

“My mum played a massive part in me becoming the judo player that I did, she sacrificed a lot and I just was, and still am, so thankful for that.”

8. Steiner pays podium tribute

Germany’s Matthias Steiner was in bronze medal position when he stepped up to on to the stage in the men’s +105kg class, with a considerable 10kg deficit to make up on the leader.

He could easily have not been there at all.

The previous year, his wife had died when a speeding driver hit her car head on.

“I had to make a decision, whether to just stop or to carry on weightlifting,” he said in 2014.

“I realised that even if I stopped, what had happened was not going to change.”

He carried on, stepped up to that final lift and hoisted it high above his head to snatch gold.

On the podium, he posed with his medal in one hand and photo of his wife Susann in the other.

“I just wanted to show the world that I didn’t want to be standing up there alone,” he said.

9. Love on the Olympic podium

For some, it was a beautiful moment of young love.

China’s He Zi had won silver in the three-metre springboard and was just heading off the platform after the medal ceremony when she turned to find her boyfriend Qin Kai alongside her.

Clutching a diamond ring and a glass-encased rose and holding back tears, he got down on one knee to propose.

Zi welling up, nodded her acceptance to cheers from the crowd.

Others viewers, however were not moved in the same way with some accusing Qin of gate-crashing his fiancee’s moment of individual glory.

10. Tears on the streets of Athens

Britain’s Paula Radcliffe arrived in the Greek capital as the world record holder and hot favourite in the marathon.

Unfortunately the conditions were similarly warm.

The course began in the village that gives the event its name, before climbing in incline and temperature.

Radcliffe never made it to the finish at Panathinaiko Stadium, instead stopping three miles short, slumped on a pavement kerb and in tears.

“The worst thing that could have happened to her had happened,” wrote Radcliffe’s coach and husband Gary Lough

“I put my arms around her but there was nothing I could say. She was numb. It was like part of us had died, or at least a part of our lives had gone.”

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