Fans expect sportspersons to be invincible and indomitable, but not all of them are able to cope with the stress encompassed with the loud cheers. There are endless reasons to dissect a failure or a descent in a player’s career. People end up making comebacks from the dark pitfalls of their careers, but there have also been plenty of cases depicting the best in the business losing the psychological battles. Some try to hide with a hideous excuse of under performance, while others simply try to laud the opponent in order hide their mental frailties- All in all, no matter what they come up with, sportspersons in front of a huge set of dedicated fans and a scrutinizing bunch of media, on the biggest of occasions, just cannot avoid the fact that they choked.
Here are some of the defining moments in the world of sports, when even the most formidable sports icons crumbled under the fear of failure.
The Lakers of the 2003-04 season boasted a host of superstars. Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’ Neal, Karl Malone and Gary Payton – four futures Hall of Famers, were tipped to overpower Detroit Pistons with an attacking outlay. In fact, it was Malone and Payton who moved to LA Lakers to get the first taste of a championship victory which added a whole lot of drama to this final.
What happened afterwards wasn’t something one would place a bet on – Lakers losing the championship finals comprehensively in the space of 5 games. Detroit ended up celebrating one of their most famous wins, their first championship victory since 1990.
The dreams of the Boston fans were finally shaping into reality. The Red Sox were leading 5-3 in the bottom tenth innings, just one out away from their first World Series title in 68 years.
It was Gary Carter who had the opportunity to seal the game against the crumbling Mets side as he pitched to claim the third strike. Instead, it was Ray Knight from Mets who held his nerves to scrap a single – there went the first chance to win for the Reds!
Next, it was Bob Stanley’s 2-2 pitch to Mookie Wilson which was horribly wide, gifting another single to the Mets to tie things up. Another chance of a victory gone straight out of the window!
Wilson, facing a full count, fouled off a couple of pitches before hitting a slow roller that surprisingly went through the legs of first baseman Bill Buckner. Another run for Mets, Boston was stunned.
Buckner became the butt of all jokes when it came to choking on the biggest stage in baseball. However, when you recall the incident now, Red Sox should have wrapped it up well before that horrendous error from Buckner.
February 23, 1980, Lake Placid, NY- A 20-feet wrist flick from US captain Mike Eruzione whistles past the Soviet keeper and the crowd erupts as the US side achieved the impossible. This Soviet side were deemed to be the best unit one can ever built to play the game – a winning streak of 21 matches, undefeated in the Olympics from 1968, add a gold medal in every games from 1960 and you’re talking about undisputed champions of the sport. But they lost, lost against the minnows, seeded seventh in a twelve team tournament.
On one hand, the US side looked to play for pride as they never felt themselves to be good enough to achieve the impossible; the Soviet Union was expected to be as rampant as ever. But as it turned out to, the favorites would only convert 3 out of their 39 shots. With the US surging in late to tie it up at 3-3, the Soviets froze defensively in the late moments of the game to concede in the dying moments.
When Eruzione was later asked to describe the win, he said, “It’s a human emotion that indescribable.”
“Was it ecstacy?” he was asked.
”That’s not strong enough,” he said. “We beat the Russians. We beat the Russians.”
Football fans around the world would rather have this game etched in their memory forever.
AC Milan, the overwhelming favourites kicked off in resounding fashion with a goal from Paolo Maldini in the very first minute. With the game still looking poised for a close finish, Milan increased the gap with another goal from Crespo in the last few minutes of the first half. Another goal from Crespo in the closing stages of the first half, as Milan opened up a 3-0 lead, a winning margin any other day – sadly, not enough on that night.
Maybe the possibility of being so close to winning the trophy made things increasingly difficult for the Italian club in the second half. Milan fans were left in disbelief as the Liverpool side led by Steven Gerrard clawed back to score three goals in a ten-minute span. The match went into extra-time for the 13th time ever in the competition history but it wasn’t enough to separate the two sides. It finally came down to penalties shootout – always tipped as a battle of nerves. With Seedorf, Pirlo and Shevchenko missing from the spot, Liverpool did achieve the impossible. Milan, after coming so close to Cup glory had to wait for another year.
If it’s about the greatest sporting chokes, Greg Norman is definitely worth an inclusion. He’s known for so many incidents where his nerves would lead him to squander even the best of chances to win a major tournament.
This was still pretty special, even by Norman’s standards it would need a ridiculously poor round of golf to let go a six-stroke lead on the final day. Nick Faldo, second on the leaderboard wasn’t playing that well as they approached the 9th hole on the final day. Norman, the world No. 1 then, was paired with Faldo, and the two hit their first shots well. Then they faced the green. In front of the pin, there was a steep slope, so that any ball hit short would come rolling back down the hill into oblivion. Faldo shot first, and the ball landed safely long, well past the cup. Norman was next. He stood over the ball. “The one thing you guard against here is short,” the announcer said, stating the obvious. Norman swung and then froze, his club in midair, following the ball in flight. It was short. Norman watched, stone-faced, as the ball rolled thirty yards back down the hill, and with that error something inside of him broke. Norman just never backed himself after that shot to approach the 9th hole, as he shot a poor 78 in the final round. His hands were trembling even on a 3 and a half foot putt at the 12th hole. His game which was the best as it can get until the other day looked nothing more than a labored effort at that point as he stacked up consecutive bogeys in the last few holes. Who saw that coming!
Faldo, without being challenged, had a 4-stroke lead into the 18th hole and when it was all over, Faldo wrapped Norman around his arms, as the two men began to cry.
Hope you enjoyed the first part of the series. Stay tuned for more!