Scott Hamilton suddenly found himself the focus of America’s gold medal hopes when Team USA’s ice hockey team was dispatched from the 1984 Winter Games. Despite the pressure of an expectant nation desperate for Olympic glory, the diminutive skater held his nerve and delivered.
Hamilton, standing 1.63m tall as the result of contracting and beating a rare childhood illness, switched from gymnastics to ice skating at the age of 10 and began to train with French Olympic pairs champion Pierre Brunet.
When the cost of his tuition became too high, American philanthropists Helen and Frank McLoraine stepped in to save Hamilton’s fledgling career. It paid off.
His breakthrough came at the age of 22, when a third place finish in the 1980 US Championships earned him a place on the Olympic team for Lake Placid. He was given the honour of being flagbearer at the Opening Ceremony, and on the ice he finished a creditable fifth.
A flawless performance at the following year’s US championships earned him a standing ovation and set him on the road to Olympic glory. By the time Sarajevo 1984 had rolled around, he had won 16 tournaments on the trot and been crowned both US and world figure skating champion three times.
American fans, enraptured by Hamilton’s artistic brilliance and technical excellence, not to mention his dry wit and humility, saw him as a certainty for gold in Yugoslavia. But the pressure took its tool on the skater as the contest began in Sarajevo’s newly constructed Zetra Ice Hall.
Hamilton shot into the lead with a commanding performance in the opening compulsory figures round. But in the short programme his execution of the required jumps and spins was judged second best to that of Canadian Brian Orser.
In the long programme, Orser again triumphed over his flamboyant American, who missed moves and made minor mistakes. He came off the ice saying “sorry” to his coach, attributing his off-par performance to burnout after months of intensive training.
But in the end the gold was Hamilton’s to lose, and his huge lead in the compulsories was enough to secure him the gold medal – America’s first in men’s figure skating since 1960.
Hamilton went on to win that year’s World Championships before turning pro. In the following years he thrilled fans with his signature backflip move.
Hamilton went on to become a TV skating commentator, and was later inducted into the US Olympic Hall of Fame. He remains a high-profile figure in his home country – not least because of his tireless charity work and high-profile battles with cancer and a brain tumour.