6 Of The Biggest Upsets In Olympic History - Men's Health Magazine Australia

6 Of The Biggest Upsets In Olympic History

Because we all love an underdog story.

The Olympic Games are many things, but when it comes to sporting competitions, anything can happen. As the world’s top athletes test themselves against the best on sport’s biggest international stage, audiences around the world can only tune in with bated breath. Sure, there are those athletes we always want to win and will support through anything, but there’s also the underdog – the person everyone thought wouldn’t make, the story that’s as surprising as it is heartwarming, the tale of challenges and overcoming obstacles simply to make it to the very starting line. 

If sports are a theatre of triumph and celebration, they are also one of heartbreak and searing loss. It’s what makes it all so human. There, be it on track, field, or in the swimming pool and arena, we see the human spirit in all its glory. For the athletes, nothing is ever guaranteed and as we’ve seen over the years, across a range of sporting disciplines and events, upsets can always threaten to steal victory from the “safe bet”. 

From team events to individual competition, athletes have come from unbelievable circumstances to clinch victory in upsets that have become as iconic as they are memorable. As the Tokyo 2020 Games gets underway in coming days, we’re looking back at some of those moments that left the world stunned and shocked into silence, those scenes where the underdog triumphed, where the upset came to rewrite the Olympic narrative.

These are six of the biggest upsets in Olympic history. 

Steve Bradbury

It’s the tale of the last man standing. The Aussie legend shocked the world at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake. In the short track 1000m, he chose a different strategy to his competitors. Deciding to wait for a mistake, he cruised behind his faster and younger opponents. A few metres before the finish line, a mass crash left his competitors sprawling around on the ice as Bradbury managed to cruise through and claim victory. 


Emil Zatopek

At the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, Zatopek became the only person to win the 5,000m, 10,000m and marathon races in the same Olympics. More astonishing though, was that Zatopek entered the marathon on a whim. He arrived at the event minutes before it was scheduled to start and decided that his strategy to compete in his first ever marathon would simply be to keep up with Jim Peters, the man who held the record. As Zatopek continued to accelerate and push the pace, he came away with victory. 


Rulon Gardner

One of the greatest underdog triumphs belongs to Rulon Gardner who entered the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games as a complete unknown Greco-Roman American wrestler, but managed to make it to the final. There, he met Aleksandr Karelin, a three-time gold medallist who had been undefeated for 13 years. No one believe in Gardner, but he proved his doubters wrong and did the unthinkable, shocking Karelin to win gold.


Im Dong-Hyun

If ever there’s an underdog, the face of Im Dong-Hyun belongs next to the title. The Korean archer won team gold medals in Athens and Beijing, as well as a second place in the 2012 London Olympic Games. While that alone is cause for celebration, what’s more remarkable is that Im is legally blind, with vision of 20/100 in his right eye and 20/200 in his left. 


Argentina’s Basketball team

Since basketball was introduced at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, the sport had been dominated by the United States team. However the days of the Dream Team came to an end at the 2004 Athens Games when American lost to Puerto Rico in its opening match. Somehow, the US team mangled to make it to the semifinals where they met an Argentina team led by Manu Ginobili, the San Antonio Spurs star who made 29 points and four of his six three-point attempts. The loss was so devastating for the US that it completely overhauled their Olympic basketball program. 


The Miracle on Ice

Hauled as the greatest upset in sports history, the 1980 Winter Olympics in New York saw the Society Union considered the favourite team tow in gold in the men’s ice hockey. Having taken home gold in five of the previous six Olympics, it was almost written off as a sure thing. That is until a young American team managed to hold their own against the Soviets. With just ten minutes remaining, Mike Eruzione managed to score against the U.S.S.R. and put the Americans in the lead. With seven seconds to go, the U.S. team managed to clear the zone as sportscaster Al Michael’s declared, “Do you believe in miracles?”


By Jessica Campbell

Jess is a storyteller committed to sharing the human stories that lie at the heart of sport.

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