I don’t know if you’ve noticed but the Olympics are happening at the moment. There may not be any fans in the stadiums but I, and I’m sure plenty of other spectators, are getting a bellyful of brilliant sporting action at home. And I’m bloody loving all of it.
So far, I’ve been enthralled by the badminton, BMX racing, gymnastics, archery, and skateboarding. I’ve also dabbled in watching some swimming, athletics, triathlon, mountain biking, and table tennis. I think some tennis and trampolining has slipped into my field of vision at some point as well.
The day this post goes live, the men will be fighting it out for the first Olympic gold medal in sport climbing, which is why I’m not replying to messages today! I’ll be reviewing climbing’s Olympic debut in next week’s post.
This week, I thought I’d take a time travelling trip back to some of my most vivid memories of watching sport. The majority of these are memorable for good reasons but there’s the odd heartbreaker in there too.
I could have easily filled this post with moments from climbing competitions (I will do a separate post on this subject in the future) but I’ve decided to limit myself to one for the sake of balance. Apologies for the fact I haven’t managed the same thing with football. These are my memories and it turns out I’ve watched a lot of football in my life.
Without further ado, here are my top eight sporting memories in chronological order.
1. American Women's Gymnastics Team wins Gold at the Atlanta Olympic Games (1996)
I was only six years old when this happened but I feel confident in saying it’s the first big sporting achievement that I remember witnessing. Although I also remember re-watching it over and over again via the technological gem that was recording live TV onto VHS tapes.
The American gymnasts were gunning for their first Olympic team gold medal and looked set to take it as they finished their competition on the vault. Dominique Moceanu was their penultimate gymnast and she failed to land either of her two vaults, ending up sat on her bum at the end of them both.
Moceanu was under immense pressure at just 14 years-of-age. I remember her looking very young but when I rewatched the footage for this post (on YouTube, no idea where the old VHS tape is now!) she looked even more baby-faced than I remembered. I struggle to recall what my greatest concern was when I was fourteen but it certainly wasn’t landing a vault at a home Olympics.
Moceanu’s result left Kerri Strug with it all to do. But apparently lightening can strike once, twice, three times an Olympic nightmare. Strug performed the same vault as Moceanu and also landed on her bum. In a truly ridiculous example of ‘anything you can do I can do better’, Strug also injured her ankle in the process and limped back towards the start of the vault runway, clearly in considerable pain.
Unsure whether the current vault scores would be enough to take the gold, Strug went for her second vault on a partially knackered ankle. She stuck the vault, landing briefly (but long enough) on both feet before quickly transferring her weight to her uninjured leg. She saluted the judges on one foot then crawled away from the apparatus before eventually being carried back to her teammates and finally onto the top of the podium.
It may have cost her some ankle ligaments but I imagine Kerri Strug would say winning the Olympic gold medal, having a phone call with the president, and becoming an international sporting legend was worth the pain.
2. England Lose to Argentina on Penalties in the round of 16 in the World Cup in France (1998)
France 1998 was the first World Cup I remember caring about the result of. I was eight years old and grew up in a football watching family. I was starting to understand what a national football team meant and, as an England fan, how much your team’s performance can hurt.
After doing a little digging, I discovered that there are aspects of this match that have completely slipped my mind. Two penalties, one for each team, within the first ten minutes, all the details of Argentina’s second goal, and every presumably excruciating minute of extra time have fallen out of my head.
But the memory of eighteen-year-old Michael Owen picking up the ball near the halfway line, taking off towards the goal at lightning speed, dodging two Argentinian players, and smashing the ball into the top left corner of the net is tattooed on my memory.
Eight-year-old JoJo adored Michael Owen. So much so that I bought the carboard cut out of him that had hung amongst his two-dimensional teammates at our local Sainsbury’s during the World Cup at a charity auction after the competition finished. My cardboard hero took pride of place in my bedroom until my more gothy teenage years came along and I decided that footballers didn’t fit with my new aesthetic.
I’m slightly gutted that I eventually decided to consign cardboard Owen to the recycling bin. He’d make an excellent vintage piece of decoration in 2021.
Unfortunately, the rest of my memories from this game are less rosy. David Beckham decided that the most appropriate response to a bad tackle from Diego Simeone was to give him a gentle kicking, resulting in a red card at the start of the second half, shortly after Argentina scored a second goal and leveled the score. After extra time, the game went to penalties and we all know what happens when England get involved in penalty shootouts. Paul Ince and David Batty missed their spot kicks and I got my first taste of what being an England fan is so often like. So near, yet so far.
Thank goodness Gareth Southgate has been able to lead the team to better results in the last two big international tournaments.
3. Manchester United beat Bayern Munich in the Champions League Final to Win the Treble (1998-99)
Manchester United were winning stuff in the 1990s. I’m sure that’s why my eight-year-old self decided to become a Manchester United fan despite having no connections to Manchester whatsoever. What a little glory hunter.
They’d already won the Premier League title and beaten Newcastle United to win the FA Cup. Manchester United took on Bayern Munich in the Champions League final in Barcelona, hoping to win an historic treble of trophies.
My family watched the match at our friends’ house because they had a bigger TV than us.
Bayern scored from a freekick after 5 minutes and as time ticked down it looked less and less likely that United would win the match and complete the treble.
Enter Teddy Sheringham on 67 minutes and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on 87 minutes. The original super-substitutes (in my mind at least).
Bayern Munich ribbons were already on the trophy and I’d resigned myself to my team having to experience losing for a change when Sheringham equalised from a chaotic corner in the first minute of stoppage time. This was also the first time I remember seeing a team sending their goalkeeper into the opposition's penalty area in sheer desperation.
Hope was still alive but with only 3 minutes of stoppage time signaled, surely the game would now go to extra time.
That’s when Solskjaer decided he had better things to do with his evening than play an extra half an hour of football. He won another corner. Beckham delivered the ball into the penalty area. Sheringham headed it vaguely towards the goal and Solskjaer stabbed a foot at it sending the ball into the top right-hand corner, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.
I am no longer a Manchester United fan but this game is still my favourite memory from the world of football. Although I appreciate the talent and skill you get to witness at the elite level, the unpredictability and opportunity for unexpected drama is what appeals to me most about watching sport.
This should never have happened. Bayern Munich, by all the sensible rules of the universe, should have won this game. Anyone in their right mind would have bet the farm on them getting their hands on the trophy after 90 minutes. But they didn’t.
Because sport doesn’t follow the sensible laws of the universe.
No matter what the bookies have said, how people have performed in the past, or what happened in the previous 90 minutes, one moment of good fortune or epic skill can produce a result that nobody expected. That’s why nine-year-old JoJo enjoyed this match so much and why thirty-one-year-old JoJo remembers it so fondly and keeps coming back for more and more live sport.
4. Paula Radcliffe comes 4th in the 10,000m at the World Championships in Edmonton (2001)
I wish to issue a formal apology to Paula Radcliffe, who is definitely reading this, for choosing one of her heartbreaking moments rather than one of her moments of glory, of which there are many to choose from. She held the world record for the marathon for over a decade, her medals cabinet is bursting with all the gold, silver and bronze, she’s been a fierce anti-doping activist and she won Sports Personality of year. An all around high achiever and good egg.
But she also had some rough moments. I blame Steve Cram for the fact that this particular rough moment is my most prominent memory of Radcliffe’s career.
Occasionally it’s the commentary that sticks in your head as much as the event itself.
“They think it’s all over . . . It is now!”
“It’s Sergio Agueroooooooooooo!”
“He didn’t quite manage to get his leg over.”
That kind of thing.
As Radcliffe crossed the finish line in fourth position behind three Ethiopian runners (Derartu Tulu, Berhane Adere, and Gete Wami), Steve Cram sorrowfully asked the question:
“How many more agonies do we have to go through with Paula?”
Good question, Mr Cram, good question.
For every victor there must also be those that don’t quite make the grade. Cram’s heartfelt question summarised the so-near-yet-so-far nature of Radcliffe’s career. She never quite managed to win a medal at the Olympics and for every first, second, or third position she achieved she had a similar number of DNFs or finishing positions just outside the medals.
For me, this moment captures the deepest of deep lows that come when all the years of training don’t work out the way they were meant to.
5. Nadal Beats Federer in the Men’s Wimbledon Final (2008)
Sometimes simply watching sport is a feat of endurance.
This match was an epic 4 hours and 48 minutes. While Federer and Nadal spent that time knocking seven bells out of each other on centre court, my friends and I crawled between various bars in Kavos getting steadily drunker as the match went on. Due to the amount of alcohol I consumed, the exact details of the evening are a little lost on me. I know about half our party wanted Nadal to win and half (including me) wanted Federer to win.
After Nadal took the first two sets, it looked like it would be a relatively quick match. However, this was pre-roof on centre court. Lengthy rain delays and Federer’s absolute refusal to give in without a fight meant the match eventually finished at 9:15pm, making it the only Wimbledon final I can remember that finished almost in the dark.
Federer won the third and fourth sets, both on tiebreaks, taking the match to a fifth and final set. Even the last set went overtime, eventually finishing 9-7 in Nadal’s favour.
For me, these two players and this match perfectly illustrate another joy of following sport: great rivalries. Dominant performances are undoubtedly impressive to watch. But I’d far rather watch two closely matched competitors at the top of their game fight it out for death or glory any day of the week.
When these two stepped onto a tennis court, you knew there would be fireworks. Their contrasting styles, attitudes, and approach to the game made the equation of who would win even harder to calculate. This match epitomizes the thrill of great sporting rivalries and shows that even champions of the same sport can come in very different packages.
I’d love to watch the whole thing again with less vodka in my system so I could revel in the moment with a little more clarity!
6. Mo Farah Wins the 10,000m and 5,000m at the London Olympic Games (2012)
Some people don’t care about sport and that’s absolutely fine. They’re saving themselves a lot of time and heartache.
But when people care about sport, they care with all their soul. I particularly enjoy it when people in professional positions let, or possibly more accurately, fail to stop, their passion come out in the moment.
When Mo Farrar crossed the line as winner of the 5,000m, just a week after winning gold in the 10,000m, he achieved something phenomenal and the whole of London lost their shit. But nobody lost their shit more than Denise Lewis and Colin Jackson.
Footage of these greats of British athletics screaming themselves hoarse encouraging Farrah all the way to the line and hysterically jumping around in celebration at the moment of his victory is beautifully pure and infectiously joyful.
In sporting moments such as these it feels like nothing else in the world matters. You become unable to look away. Everything rests on what happens in those few minutes. You escape the mundanity of the everyday and lose yourself in the extraordinary.
Unsurprisingly, I’m quite a rowdy spectator. There’s a lot of yelling, swearing, and crying. Abandoning usual levels of decorum and allowing yourself to be swept away by the adrenaline and the sense of achievement is a fabulous natural high and this moment of athletic brilliance sums this feeling up perfectly.
7. Leicester City win the Premier League (2015-16)
We Brits love an underdog and they don’t get more under or dogged than Leicester City in the 2015-16 Premier League season.
Having fought hard to avoid relegation the previous season, the idea that Leicester would win the Premier League twelve months later was absurd. Despite their extraordinary consistency during the start and middle of the season it was unthinkable that they’d carry their form on until the end and win the league.
Even ex-Leicester player and lifelong fan of the club Gary Lineker tweeted that he’d present Match of the Day in his pants if Leicester won the league.
Their victory eventually came down to the result of a match that Leicester weren’t involved in. If Tottenham Hotspur failed to beat Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, then Leicester would be crowned Premier League champions.
Husband and I were having dinner with my parents, who are from Leicester, on the night in question and were keeping a casual eye on the score as we scarfed down some top-notch steak and chips. When Tottenham went two goals up in the first half it looked like we’d have to wait another week or two to see if Leicester’s absurd dream could become a reality. But, as we moved onto pudding, Chelsea scored a goal and made the situation more interesting.
We left the restaurant about the same time as Chelsea scored their second goal, leveling the score and leaving Leicester minutes away from becoming Premier league champions. My parents and I ran up the hill to the nearest pub I could think of that would be showing the match, while Husband, who doesn’t give a toss about football, gently strolled along behind us. Upon arrival at the Isaac Newton pub, my Dad thrust a fiver into Husband’s hand and told him to order whatever the hell he wanted from the bar as he, my Mum and I locked our eyes on the TV screen.
Husband ordered himself a large whiskey and pretended he was somewhere else.
The final whistle blew and the impossible was achieved. My parents and I joined the rest of pub patrons (apart from those supporting Tottenham) in a delirious celebration and Gary Lineker started picking out his most flattering pair of knickers. I still find it difficult to believe to this day. Leicester City, who had been given odds of 5,000 to 1 at the beginning of the season, had won the Premier League.
This wasn’t just a victory for Leicester City. Their achievement was celebrated by neutrals and fans of other teams. It was a welcome change from the previous twenty years of the same few teams fighting it out for the top spot in English football. It was proof that teams with bigger bank balances could be beaten by strong teamwork, canny tactics, and a lot of self-belief.
Put simply, it’s my favourite underdog story of all time.
8. Alannah Yip Wins the Pan-American Championships and Qualifies for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games (2020)
The world may have been on the verge of a global pandemic in February 2020, but the participants of the Pan-American Championships had more important things on their minds. The winner of this event would not only win a shiny gold medal but also qualify for the (ultimately postponed) Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
Most people’s money was on Alannah Yip of Canada.
Alannah is a well-known talent in the competition climbing scene, especially in her favoured discipline of bouldering. She came 18th in the first Olympic qualification event in Hachioji (Japan) in August 2019, leaving her ten places short of qualifying for the games. She then came even closer to getting a ticket to Tokyo when she placed 13th, just five places short of the mark, in the second Olympic qualification event in Toulouse (France) a couple of months later.
The Pan-American Championships were her last chance. She’d compete in the combined format of speed, bouldering, and lead climbing, and she’d need to win to qualify for Tokyo 2020.
Alannah was 5th after the speed climbing. To have a good chance of winning the whole competition she needed to win the bouldering round, which, as the only climber to top all three boulders, she did in emphatic fashion.
When she stepped out to take on the lead climbing portion of the competition, everyone in the venue, apart from Alannah, knew exactly which hold she had to reach to beat the current leader, Alejandra Contreras, and secure her place in Tokyo. She had a little wobble lower down on the route but regained her composure and climbed just past Alejandra’s high point, winning the competition and securing a place at climbing’s Olympic debut.
Other climbers have been far more successful than Alannah. She hasn’t won many major national competitions and I’d be surprised if she got a medal at the Olympics. But of the dozens of moments I could have chosen as my top moment in climbing competitions, I picked this one because the emotion of it all hit hard for everyone involved.
The crowd becomes distinctly louder as Alannah reaches the crucial hold. When she’s lowered to the ground her compatriot, Rebecca Frangos, is there to tell her the good news and they both burst into tears. You can hear the voice of commentator, Charlie Boscoe, slightly breaking as he utters the words “everyone’s getting a little emotional in here”. Boscoe commentated on climbing competitions for five years and reflected in a recent interview that this was the only time the emotions got the better of him, forcing him to briefly turn the microphone off and recompose himself.
I cry every time I watch this competition and see the relief on her face when she learns that her years of hard work have finally paid off. Maybe it’s so emotional because of the immense pressure of the situation. Maybe it’s the knowledge of the two unsuccessful qualification attempts that have gone before. Maybe it’s because Alannah is lovely in that classically Canadian way. Whatever the reason, you feel every hold and every move with her and it’s definitely one of my favourite moments in the history of competition climbing.
We’ve made it through my life in sporting moments. Did you agree with any of my choices? What are you favourite sporting moments from your lifetime? Do you think I’m ridiculous for getting so wrapped up in ultimately pointless activities involving balls, nets, fake rocks, and putting one foot in front of the other very quickly? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
I’ll see you next week after I’ve screamed, sworn, and cried my way through four days of climbing at the Olympics!