The Olympics’ Greatest Underdog Stories

greatest olympic underdog stories

2016 has been the year of the underdog, so far we’ve had…

  • Leicester winning the Premier League
  • Iceland beating England in the Euros
  • Sam Querrey beating Novak Djokovic
  • Wales reaching Euro 2016’s semi-finals
  • Marcus Willis vs Roger Federer at Wimbledon

But this magnificent summer of sport is far from over and just around the corner is the Rio 2016 Olympics. So in anticipation of even more “against all odds” victories, Teams on Tour have done the research to find the Olympic Games’ greatest underdog stories.


American athletes love to represent the US of A but none did their country so proud as gymnast Kerri Strug in Atlanta’s summer games. The plucky upstart won her team the USA’s first women’s gold medal in the all-around team competition and she did it with an injured ankle. Kerri had to be carried to the podium to collect her medal, not just by coach Bela Karolyi, but by the pride of a nation.


Nobody knew Abebe Bikila’s name when Rome’s 1960 Olympics began, but by the closing ceremony he was the highlight of the games. Not only did this unknown endurance runner win the marathon event this summer, but he did it barefoot… And he even broke a world record while doing it, making history as the first East African to win an Olympic gold medal.


If you ever challenge somebody to a fencing duel, check first that they aren’t Hungarian, Italian or French! These three nations ruled the event for over 100 years winning over half of the 600 medals won in fencing since 1896’s first modern Olympics.
But Mariel Zagunis shocked the world in 2004 when she became the first American to win fencing gold in over a century. An even more incredible achievement considering it was the first time in history women had been allowed to compete in sabre fencing. “Who runs the world…?!?”


Otherwise known as “The Flying Housewife”, Dutchwoman Fanny Blankers-Koen faced every obstacle there was to face. WW2 was still raging, she was accused of abandoning her children and worst of all “too old to make the grade”. So it must have been a sweet victory indeed when she claimed gold in not one, not two, but four events.


To fully understand why American country boy Rulon Gardner is a worthy underdog, you have to take a look at his opponent in Sydney 2000’s Greco-Roman Wrestling final. Aleksandr Karelin, or as his mates call him “The Russian Bear” was a dominant figure in the event having taken the gold for three consecutive games. Still hailed as the greatest Greco-Roman wrestler in history, Karelin’s hands slipped for the first time in his career giving away a single point which saw his then perfect record tumble before his eyes, to Gardner’s absolute elation.


WWE fans will be more than familiar with pro-wrestler Kurt Angle but before you start the “you suck” chants you should probably remember that this man won Olympic gold… With a broken neck. Yep, during the trials for a place on the USA’s wrestling team, Kurt suffered two vertebrae fractures, two herniated discs and four muscle pulls. It didn’t stop him though and with a lot of painkillers, Angle went on to steal the show.


Not only did this Czechoslovakian iron man win an unprecedented triple of the men’s 5000m, 10000m and marathon gold, but he also entered 1952’s marathon only moments before the race began. He had never run a marathon before, so he asked his closest rival, Britain’s Jim Peters for advice. Peters jokingly told him his pace was too slow, so Zatopek sped up and left him in the dust, finishing more than 2 and a half minutes ahead of the silver medallist.


Billy Mills wasn’t supposed to take the spotlight at Tokyo’s summer games. He wasn’t even meant to be at the front of the pack. But in the 10,000 metre race, Billy came out of nowhere to shock then world-record holder Ron Clarke by beating him in the final 100 meters of the race. In the true Olympic spirit, Billy said that he managed this incredible feat because of “that one fleeting moment you know that you’re the very best in the world”.


In the late 80’s, Olympic swimming was still dominated by white men from wealthy countries. Enter Anthony Nesty, a virtually unknown swimmer from the even lesser known nation of Suriname. Nesty competed against the best in the world in Seoul’s 100m butterfly, but in the final moments of the race, he managed to steal the victory by only 1/100th of a second. It was Nesty’s only Olympic medal, but more importantly it was the first time an African swimmer had won one.


Kristy Coventry is a well-established Olympic swimmer, but for Zimbabwe’s golden girl it all started in Athens. During 2004’s games, with exceptionally poor training conditions and no government support to lean on Kristy come out of nowhere and claim the gold. So when she won the top prize again in Beijing 2008, it was clear that Kristy was here to stay. The rest, as they say, is Olympic history.