“That was close,” Lewis Hamilton gasped, with possibly the world’s greatest understatement. With over 300km raced, the six-time Formula One World Champion was almost 30 seconds ahead of the pack when his front-left tyre exploded and the Silverstone pit lane went ballistic.
Max Verstappen of Red Bull smelled blood. “Can I win this?” he asked his crew as he closed in on Hamilton’s Mercedes. “If you get on with it,” came the straightforward reply. He couldn’t. Turning round Club Corner Lewis Hamilton, now flying on a combination of three wheels and fiery sparks, crossed the line in one of the most dramatic F1 racing wins in recent history.
Which got us thinking here at The Sportsman. What about the other sports? Where else have we witnessed triumph over adversity? Here are five of the most astonishing moments in sports, pulling through the pain and overcoming the most unexpected obstacles.
Michael Jordan’s ‘Flu Game’
Jordan’s Game Six performance of 1997 was so infamous that it had to be further immortalised in a Jay-Z song. But before his Chicago Bulls could clinch yet another dynasty-defining Championship, against the Utah Jazz, the Illinois outfit had to regain composure in Salt Lake City. It didn’t help that the Jazz were a perfect 10-0 at home in the postseason, and a third consecutive win would give them the series lead. Then came the news: the superhuman Jordan was human.
Tuesday, June 11, 1997. 2.a.m. MJ wakes up, shivering, shaking, vomiting, unable to move properly. His personal trainer is shocked. There’s no way that His Airness will be able to play in perhaps the most decisive game. Michael Jordan, the Bulls’ key man, had been pizza-poisoned.
Tuesday, June 11, 1997, 7p.m. The Delta Center. With the spotlight on the court, Michael Jordan walks out. How he would manage to play would become a subservient question to how did he manage to play so well?
Jordan, though visibly unwell, scored 38 points in total, including 15 points in the fourth quarter, and brought his final action as the decisive three-pointer to give the Bulls an 88–85 lead with 25 seconds remaining in the game An hour before tip-off he had been asleep. Thirty minutes earlier he had been throwing up profusely in a dark room. The Bulls won Game Five, then Game Six, then the Championship.
Bert Trautmann For Manchester City, 1956
Yes, Manchester City certainly had their legends even before the astonishing success that has come in recent years. And in the upper echelons lies Bert Trautmann, the great goalkeeper who cemented himself in Citizens’ hearts and the wider public admiration thanks to a mind-boggling man-mountain performance in the 1956 FA Cup Final. The year earlier they had also reached Wembley’s show-piece event, losing 3–1 defeat to Newcastle United, with Trautmann a runners-up medal and the accolade of being the first German ever to play in the event.
Now they were up against Birmingham City. What was to follow was one of the most incredible physical feats ever seen in football. The recently anointed FWA Footballer of the Year Award - a literal anomaly for a goalkeeper - produced the definitive FA Cup Final for a shot-stopper in the history of the tournament.
City, certainly redeeming their disappointment of the previous campaign, had taken a 3–1 lead, but the scoreline would ultimately be less memorable. In the 75th minute, Trautmann was sparked out cold in a nasty clash when his head collided with Peter Murphy’s knee.
What would be today be treated with the utmost seriousness, if in ‘56 Trautmann had decided to exit the field, City would be left without a goalkeeper: no substitutes allowed.
Trautmann continued to make save after save after save, but when he finally went to collect his winner’s medal, he was received with a question.
"Why is your head crooked?", asked the inquisitive Prince Philip.
“Stiff neck,” he responded.
As it turned out, Trautmann had dislocated five vertebrae in his neck, the second of which was cracked in two. He had finished the game millimetres away from death. Trautmann, reflective of his brilliant character, humbly downplayed his efforts: "People talk about bravery,” he later said, “But if I'd known my neck was broken I'd have been off like a shot!”
Kerri Strug At The 1996 Olympics
“The Olympics is about more than gold medals. It’s about human spirit, the heart and the drive that a lot of athletes have and human beings have in general.” Kerri Strug epitomised that spirit more than anyone, adhering to her own words when she produced perhaps the finest moment of athleticism on home turf at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
That one-upmanship between Russia and the USA will likely never dissipate. Russia had been dominant in the all-round women’s event for years, with the stars and stripes Magnificent Seven arriving to try and grab the crown. Heading into the final, Strug, an almost peerless vault specialist, virtually needed a flawless landing to seal gold for the USA.
Then, CRACK. Having fallen awkwardly, to the shock of the arena, the commentators, her anguished parents in the crowd, and Strug herself, fate had intervened and decided to produce a curveball for an apparently sure-fire conclusion a little. Strug had agonisingly broken her ankle.
But there was no other option. Strug had one final chance for glory.
“You can do it!” screamed her coach, Bela Karolyi. The team needed a perfect vault to earn Team U.S.A. the gold medal. Strug had to bring a score of at least 9.493 back.
Strug performed typically beautifully, but the dismount was needed. In almost unimaginable pain, Strug lifted, careened through the air, and landed, balancing her wait on her one good leg.
The seconds ticked away. The judges scores came in: 9.712, Strug and her broken ankle had just won gold for the USA.
Tony Bellew & David Haye, 2017
The two Brit brawlers not only wanted to outdo each other in the ring, but apparently also in the manly stakes. Prepare to wince. Haye may not have been the victor of this 2017 bout, but received a great deal of respect after experiencing one of most severe injuries he could have possibly sustained, and which decided the result all by itself. Haye completely ripped open his Achilles tendon.
Haye said in the aftermath, “It felt like my leg went into a bear trap. The floor opened up and it just bit me. I looked at my foot and I couldn't control it.
“When they opened up my Achilles it was like spaghetti, it was a mess. “
Haye refused to blame his injury continuing on when the fight was virtually lost from the moment that tendon ripped. Tony Bellew eventually stopped Haye in the eleventh. With his injury sustained in the sixth, Haye had persevered for five long, gritty rounds with the terribly torn tendon.
Bellew, not one to be outdone meanwhile, later claimed he too had battled through the bout with a broken hand, which had shattered in either the second or third round. The testosterone is palpable!
Rei Iida's Marathon Relay, 2018
Perhaps the most vivid and literal example of dragging yourself across the finish line when extenuating circumstances are directly placing obstacles in your path, it’s perhaps fitting that it takes place in one of most historic events in athletics.
In October 2018, towards the end of a 2.2 mile contribution to a 26-mile relay marathon, 19-year-old runner Rei Iida tragically fell to the ground and her leg instantly fractured. No one could credibly blame Iida should she have decided to retreat and admit defeat, blaming a devastating injury that would have put many a stellar sport star out of action. Instead, in some of the most awe-inspiring images in recent sports events, she got herself together, gritted her death through the pain, and crawled the final 700 feet of her section of the race, leaving streaks of blood from her injured hands and knees. After crossing the line to the admiration of her team and the watching world, Iida even apologised to her manager for her performance. No apology needed.