The Olympics provide the biggest stage in world for the planet’s best athletes to showcase their prowess. Over the last 120 years the strongest teams and the greatest athletes have time and again stamped their class to claim the highest prize at the Games. However, once ever so often, there is an underdog who manages to go against the odds and upset the favorites. With Rio 2016, the Games of the XXXI Olympiad, coming up, we take a look at five of the biggest upsets at the Olympics:
1. Emil Zatopek wins the Marathon, Helsinki Olympic Games 1952
How can you call one of the greatest long distance runners of all time, and a winner of multiple Olympic gold medals, an underdog?
Emil Zatopek had won the 10,000m gold in the 1948 London Olympics along with the silver in the 5,000m. In the 1952 Helsinki Olympics he went one better and won both the 10,000m and 5,000m on the same day. As if that wasn’t enough, the affable Czech also decided to run the Marathon, which was happening on that same day. Not only was he competing against a strong field, which included the world record holder Jim Peters, but also, and rather more critically, Zatopek was running a Marathon for the first time in his life. The “Locomotive” as he was called, beat the field to pull of a sensational win and a running treble that has never been replicated.
2. USA loses Men’s Basketball final to USSR, Munich Olympic Games 1972
Few countries have dominated a sport as thoroughly as the US has dominated basketball. From the time the sport was introduced for the first time in the Summer Olympics in 1936, the US had won the gold in every edition of the Games till 1972. The American team was heavily favored to win their eighth consecutive gold in the event in Munich after convincingly winning all their games leading up to the final.
The gold medal encounter pitted the US against their greatest rival across sports and ideology, the USSR. The game was closely fought and with three seconds left on the clock the US team was convinced that it had won 50-49. What followed remains one of the greatest controversies of the Olympics as the Soviet team got three chances to play out the remaining three seconds on the clock. On the third inbound play, Ivan Edshenko was able to throw a long pass to Aleksandr Belov who managed to score a basket to take the USSR team to a 51-50 victory.
The Americans would resume their dominance of the sport from the 1992 Barcelona Olympics onwards, once the FIBA allowed NBA players to participate. However, the US Men’s team was destined for one more upset. In the 2004 Athens Olympics, a veritable US “Dream Team” with superstars like Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson and LeBron James lost 92-73 in the group stages to the unheralded but inspired Puerto Rico.
3. Rulon Gardner beats Alexander Karelin for the Greco-Roman wrestling gold, Sydney Olympic Games 2000
Russian wrestler Alexander Karelin is a legend of his sport. Over a 15-year period he had not lost a single international match while notching up three consecutive Olympic gold medals and seven consecutive world titles. At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, in the finals of the superheavyweight Greco-Roman wrestling match, Karelin was up against the relatively unknown American Rulon Gardner who he had beaten 5-0 the last time they’d faced off three years earlier.
Whether it was Rulon’s tenacity or his unorthodox style or the fact that Karelin might have been too tired from having already wrestled twice that day or a combination of all three, but Rulon more than held his own against the great Russian, becoming in fact the first person to score a point against him in nearly 13 years. The match continued to overtime when with five seconds to go Karelin conceded handing Rulon the gold medal in one of the biggest upsets of the Olympics.
4. Great Britain wins the Men’s 4 x 100m relay, Athens Olympic Games 2004
The men’s 4 x 100m relay is one of the highlights of the Olympics. This is another event that the US had dominated for most of the 20th century, winning the gold in 15 of the 20 Olympiads that the race was a part of. Great Britain on the other hand had enjoyed moderate success in this space after winning the gold in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics where the race made its debut.
Heading into the finals of the 4 x 100m at the 2004 Athens Olympics the American team was again the overwhelming favorite to retain the title with star sprinters like Justin Gatlin and Maurice Greene in their ranks. This was in stark contrast to the British team, which came into the Games ranked 15th in the world and with a history of slipping up on the biggest stage (baton fumbles in both the 1996 and 2000 Olympics). With no British sprinter making it to the finals of the men’s 100m or 200m at Athens it looked unlikely that the relay team would make any impact in the event.
However, things did not play out according to script. Jason Gardner gave Great Britain the perfect start by keeping pace with the American Shawn Crawford. There was then a dose of luck for the British in the second and third legs of the race when the US team had slower baton hand offs between Crawford and Gatlin and Gatlin and Coby Miller. By this time Darren Campbell and Marlon Devonish had given the British team almost a two-meter lead leaving Mark Lewis-Francis a great cushion to run the anchor leg. The race headed to a dramatic finish as the US anchor and former 100m world record holder Maurice Greene stormed through the last stretch almost catching Lewis-Frances at the finishing tape. The British sprinter though managed to hold off the challenge leading Great Britain to a 0.01 second victory.
5. Japan defeats the USA to win Softball gold, Beijing Olympic Games 2008
Softball was part of the Summer Olympics from Atlanta 1996 to Beijing 2008. During this period the game was dominated thoroughly by the US, which had won all three gold medals leading up to the 2008 Olympics. The Americans had a strong run at the Games and had already beaten their opponents twice in the tournament.
With the cards stacked against them the Japanese team rose to the occasion. Their tireless ace pitcher Yukiko Ueno, who had pitched 21 innings in two games the day before, beat the Americans with a complete-game five-hitter. The Japanese batting kept them in good stead scoring three runs (including an Eri Yamada home run in the fourth inning) against a single run scored by the Americans, a Crystl Bustos homer in the bottom of the fourth inning. In the end, on a cool and misty evening at Fengtai Softball Field, it was Japan that won softball’s gold medal, with a 3-1 upset win over the favorites.