Ice Network

Hamilton reflects on landmark Olympic victory

1984 gold medalist's cancer benefit show this Saturday in Cleveland
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The iconic photo of Scott Hamilton during his long program at the 1984 Olympic Winter games in Sarajevo. -Getty Images

When Scott Hamilton was competing at the 1980 Olympic Winter Games, it occurred to him that the television commentator in Lake Placid -- two-time Olympic champion Dick Button -- was doing that job 28 years after winning his last gold medal.

"Dick Button won in 1948 and 1952, and that just seemed like so long ago to me back then," Hamilton said. "But now I'm calling the Olympics this year, and it will be 30 years since I won my Olympic gold medal. I'm going to be 'that guy from long ago' to these skaters."

Sochi will indeed mark the 30th anniversary of Hamilton's Olympic victory in Sarajevo, but "that guy from long ago" still has a great impact on the sport today.

In the past 30 years, Hamilton has been a transformational figure in the sport, co-founding the Stars on Ice tour, broadcasting skating on TV and, this weekend, organizing his cancer benefit show. Saturday will mark the 14th annual "An Evening With Scott Hamilton & Friends" show, which has raised more than $13 million toward various programs and cancer research at the Cleveland Clinic, where Hamilton has been treated for cancer over the years.

His moment on top of the medal podium in Sarajevo is now three decades old, but the impact of that moment continues to be felt in the skating community today. Earlier this summer, U.S. Figure Skating invited Hamilton to be a motivational speaker when it held its annual "Champs Camp." The goal was to inspire the future stars of Sochi, and his message came through to the young crowd very clearly.

"I talked to them about the journey of getting to the Olympics," said Hamilton, who will be in Sochi as a figure skating analyst for NBC. "I told them, 'This is your year. All you can do is make sure that when you step on the ice, you make sure you don't have any would'ves, could'ves or should'ves. You can't be weird and skate 24 hours a day, but you can't put anything at risk. You want to make sure you have no regrets before you step onto the ice at the Olympics.' "

Hamilton knew all about the juggling act that comes with being an Olympic favorite. He put in a ton of training hours and also constructed a well thought-out plan for the season. Even though U.S. Figure Skating (then known as the USFSA) did not want him to compete against his top rival, Norbert Schramm of West Germany, heading into the Games, Hamilton and his coach, Don Laws, decided he would compete in every competition Schramm entered.

"Wherever Norbert went, I went," Hamilton said of facing Schramm, the 1982 and 1983 world silver medalist. "I wanted to be really motivated and compete at a high level at the beginning of the season."

They competed against each other at the Golden Spin of Zagreb in 1983; Hamilton won, while Schramm finished second. Following the competition, Hamilton and Laws took a train to Sarajevo and trained there. It proved to be an invaluable stop as Hamilton got to know the lay of the land prior to the 1984 Winter Games.

"I trained there, I saw the locker rooms, I knew exactly what the environment was going to be like," Hamilton said.

Laws, too, agreed that the time in Sarajevo was helpful, but the two of them didn't always see eye to eye in the lead-up to the Winter Games. For example, Laws did not like having a Sports Illustrated photographer at the rink for about a week.

When asked to name the biggest obstacle he faced leading up to the 1984 Winter Games, Hamilton laughed and said, "Me."

"Don was concerned there was too much going on, but I wanted the product to look great," Hamilton added. "I knew I wasn't going back to the Olympics in 1988, and I wanted to get every last drop out of that cow. It got a little stressful at times. With Don, I was on a very short leash, but by 1984, he kind of dropped it."

Leading up to Sarajevo, Hamilton had been on a steady diet of first-place finishes. Between October 1980 and February 1984, Hamilton had won every single competition he entered. That included a run of three world championships.

"The press called me a lock to win the Olympics," Hamilton said. "The press kept asking me questions like, 'Isn't there extra pressure for you?' There is all this weird sports psychology if you're going in as a heavy favorite. I loved having the momentum behind me, and I had a great season in 1983, but it did get a little stressful going into the Olympics."

Once in Sarajevo, Hamilton told members of the media that he felt good going into the competition. As he told The New York Times, "All my practices have been really positive. There's no pressure, I'm healthy, and life is wonderful. I haven't been nervous yet. I guess I've got nothing to fear but fear."

And although Hamilton knew he was the heavy favorite, he was not about to make any predictions. "I don't know who will win," he was quoted as saying in The New York Times, "But I hope I'm the first to tell you."

Hamilton won the school figures, which were worth 30 percent of the total score. He was so strong in figures that even beat Jean-Christophe Simond of France, who had led after the compulsories in the previous three world championships.

As Frank Litsky wrote in The New York Times after Hamilton's win in figures: "If the XIV Olympic Winter Games were a race track and Scott Hamilton a race horse, he would be such a strong favorite to win the men's figure skating that you would be fortunate to collect $2.10 on a $2 bet. He began the competition today, and now you would be very lucky to collect $2.05."

Hamilton knew he didn't have to win the short and long programs in Sarajevo to win the gold medal, but that didn't mean he didn't want to perform well in those portions of the competition. He finished second behind Brian Orser of Canada in the short program, and Hamilton knew he pretty much had a gold medal wrapped up by the time the long program came around.

That didn't mean Hamilton didn't feel any pressure going into the free skate, however.

When Hamilton made his Olympic debut in 1980, the Winter Games were a party. They were fun. And Hamilton, who was not expected to medal in Lake Placid, took full advantage of all of the opportunities that were there. Finishing fifth at those Games was fine by him.

By contrast, the 1984 Winter Games were all business. Hamilton knew he was there to win a gold medal. Anything less would have been a disappointment.

Wearing a costume that seemed more suited for speed skating than figure skating, Hamilton didn't have the performance in the long program in Sarajevo that he had dreamed of having. In fact, as he stepped off the ice, he had one word for his coach: "Sorry."

Button, who was a TV broadcaster during the 1984 Winter Games, tried to cheer up Hamilton by downplaying the mistakes. But Hamilton knew he made mistakes, trimming triples into doubles, and was disappointed with the performance.

"Brian Orser just destroyed me in the long program, but I had such an advantage going in that I was able to win," Hamilton said. "It would be like if you're a football team and you score 35 points in the first quarter. It's like, 'Good luck coming back from that.'"

Hamilton did indeed hang on for the victory, as judges gave him marks ranging from 5.6 to 5.9 in technical scoring and all 5.8s and 5.9s for his artistry. It was only when those marks appeared that he was able to smile a little bit.

"It was total relief for me to win that gold medal," Hamilton said. "I was at a retreat recently with my wife in British Columbia and one of the participants asked what it was like to win an Olympic gold medal, and I am not exaggerating when I say that every single emotion rushes through you -- but relief was the big one."

Although Hamilton was thrilled to win the Olympic gold medal, it took him a while before he could watch his long program. In fact, one of the main reasons he decided to compete at worlds in 1984 was so he could prove the judges chose the right man as the gold medalist. It was a bold move, especially since worlds were held in Canada, Orser's home country.

"People said, 'Don't spoil your Olympic win by going to worlds and competing against Brian Orser … in Canada," Hamilton said. "But for me it was about capping off those four years with another world title, and I told people, 'I kinda do want to go to Canada and compete again.'"

Hamilton closed his competitive skating career with a fourth world title (Orser was second), and then he joined the professional skating world.

"For 16 1/2 years, I skated and learned how to skate," Hamilton said of his competitive career. "Then I got to skate for 20 years on my own terms, all because of that moment (in Sarajevo), all because of that gold medal."

He was able to accomplish so much in the years following his victory in Sarajevo, most notably creating Stars on Ice -- a haven for professional skaters who did not have a stage to showcase their creativity in the past -- and as a skating broadcaster. He has served as a TV analyst for the past six Winter Games, dating back to Albertville in 1992, and will be in Sochi next February.

And he continues to organize "An Evening With Scott Hamilton & Friends." A survivor of testicular cancer, Hamilton will be in front and center Saturday in Cleveland. The show's musical guest is Cyndi Lauper, who reached the top of the billboard charts with hits such as "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" around the same time Hamilton reached the top of the medal podium in Sarajevo.

Hamilton went back to Sarajevo with CBS to cover the European championships, which were held there in 1987. But the city, which was so full of peace and joy in 1984, became so torn by war, and Hamilton never wanted to return.

"The Sarajevo I knew in 1984 no longer exists," he wrote in an email. "I'm sure it has healed somewhat, but it's not the same place where I competed all those years ago."

Sarajevo is no longer the same place, nor is Hamilton the same person he was back in 1984. But nearly 30 years ago, they created a moment in time in skating history.