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The Most Memorable Upsets at the Olympics

There’s nothing like seeing the underdog win in sports. The Olympic Games are no stranger to witnessing some of the most shocking comebacks and most unpredictable victories that we can remember.

A few of our Olympics’ gurus decided to create a page that talked about 6 of the more unforgettable and momentous upsets that took place during the Summer and Winter Games.

If you are a new fan of watching the best athletes in the world compete on the world’s biggest and brightest stage, these stories might be news to you. If you are an avid fan like us, use this article as an opportunity to reminisce some of the most outrageous letdowns and triumphs at the Olympics.

When we were sifting through the dozens of happenings that were worthy of a spot in our catalog, we tried to focus on the ones that were the most remarkable. Which were the ones that are least likely to happen again?

We are going to talk about things that transpired probably before you were born, but we will also talk about some events that have happened in more recent memory. We can promise that all 6 of the occurrences we mention were equally unexpected.

Emil Zatopek Wins the Marathon in First Attempt

This one is mightily impressive. Not because Emil Zatopek wasn’t a talented runner — everyone knew he was. The Czechoslovakian runner had won the gold medal in the 10,000 meter race at the 1948 Games in London and again at the 1952 Helsinki Summer Games.

You are probably thinking,

“So why is this such an upset if he was already a heralded runner?”

That’s a fair question, and the answer is simple. Emil had won medals in the 5,000 meter and the 10,000 meter, but he had never in his life ran a marathon.

The longest race he had run was the 10,000 meter, which at just over 6 miles, is not even a quarter of the length of an Olympic marathon.

The setting was the marathon event in Helsinki in ’52. Given that he had already captured two gold medals in the shorter races, Zatopek made the decision at the last moment to enter the marathon.

The expectations were low, given that he had not prepared himself for a run of this length, nor had he ever even attempted a race of such distance.

Great Britain’s Jim Peters held the world record time in the marathon and was the heavy favorite to win. In fact, his world record time was a full five minutes faster than any other of the participants. It was thought to be a foregone conclusion that Jim would claim the gold medal.

That’s when Emil Zatopek threw his hat in the ring and left Peters in the dust. What is so memorable about Emil winning the race is that when he passed Peters, the two exchanged some words. The next thing we knew, Zatopek had blazed ahead of the British runner and won the race by more than two and a half minutes.

Jim Peters was so visibly distraught that he actually walked off the track mid-race and quit. The fact that this guy from Czechoslovakia who had never run a marathon before was shredding the entire field of competitors was too much for Peters to handle.

This is a perfect reminder of the famous phrase in sports:

“This is why the game is played on the field and not on paper”

No Shoes, No Problem for Bikila

At the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Ethiopian Abebe Bikila did something that is completely unfathomable in today’s day and age.

The fact that he accomplished this feat back in 1960 takes nothing away from how incredible his marathon victory was.

Abebe Bikila in Rome 1960

He backed that up by setting it again when he repeated as the gold medal winner in 1964 in Tokyo. What we MUST tell you is that Bikila not only won the race and set a record in 1960, he did so without wearing shoes.

Think about that for a second. Bikila won a 26+ mile race against the fastest men on the planet, and he wasn’t even wearing shoes. Forget about this ever happening again — runners spend hundreds of dollars on racing equipment, including the most optimal footwear.

The story of why Abebe didn’t have any protection on his feet during the race is quite ironic. He was a late addition to the Ethiopian Track and Field team and arrived at the Olympics later than the other runners.

Adidas was the official shoe sponsor of the Olympic Games, and was low on shoes by the time it was Bikila’s turn to get fitted.

Unable to find a pair that fit him comfortably, Abebe made the decision to run the marathon barefoot. The first person from Sub-Saharan Africa to win a gold medal did it in the most extraordinary fashion. There is no denying that this is one of the most incredible developments at any Olympic Games.

Apparently, he disappointed some fans four years later in Tokyo when he defended his gold medal in the marathon race. This time, he actually had socks and shoes on his feet.

Billy Mills Surprises the World in 1964

Unknowns are supposed to win gold medals at the Olympic Games. Somebody forgot to tell 26-year-old Billy Mills that at the 1964 Games in Tokyo.

Heading into the 10,000 meter race there, nobody knew who Billy Mills was. He had no previous Olympic experience and was serving in the Marine Corps as a First Lieutenant. The huge favorite was Australia’s Ron Clarke, and rightfully so, as Clarke was the world record holder for the fastest time in this event.

Considering that Clarke’s time in the trials was more than 60 seconds faster than Mills’, it’s no wonder there wasn’t a person watching that race that expected Billy to do what he did.

What Mills, a Native American from Pine Ridge, South Dakota, did was take the entire world by storm. He didn’t just win the race, but he did it in an emphatic manner.

Check out this video clip and watch how Billy surges past his competition in the final moments of the race. All you have to do is listen to the raw exuberance and disbelief in the announcer’s voice to grasp how astonishing of a result this was at the time.

Entering the final stretch, it looked as if Mills was a complete afterthought and would have no shot of threatening for the gold medal. While everyone’s eyes were focused on Clarke and Tunisia’s Mohammed Gammoudi at the front of the race, Mills astoundingly blazed past both men and crossed the finish line first.

With the victory, Billy Mills became the first American to stand on the highest portion of the podium in the 10,000 meter race at the Olympics. As we approach the 2020 Summer Games that happen to be in Tokyo again, we are still waiting to see another man from the United States do the same.

The Miracle on Ice

Were you watching it live?! Did you hear Al Michaels famously shouting,

“Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”

If you weren’t alive in 1980 or haven’t heard the words, you will enjoy this 8-second clip capturing the final moments of the Olympic medal-round hockey game between the United States and the Soviet Union. The heroic scene took place in 1980 at the Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, New York.

On one side we had a team of amateur hockey players playing in their home country. On the other side was a dominant group of the top professional hockey players in all of the Soviet Union.

The team from USSR had won the gold medal 5 times in their last 6 tries. This time around was supposed to be no different as the Soviets were largely-favored over the entire pool of teams.

When the game began, it was thought by everyone to just be a formality that the game even was played out. Certainly, the college kids from America had zero chance to beat the more than formidable squad of Soviets.

When the second period ended, the Americans were trailing 3-2 and people were genuinely shocked that it was as close as it was. If they were surprised at that, imagine how they felt when left-winger Mike Eruzione scored the go-ahead goal and put the United States up 4-3 late in the third period.

This wasn’t just an upset in sports. This was as monumental of an upset as we have seen at the Olympics — period. Nobody thought American head coach Herb Brooks and his squad could even stay competitive in the contest, and they actually went out and won the game.

The United States team carried the substantial momentum their next matchup against Finland, which they went on to win. This meant the Men’s Hockey team from the United States of America were gold medalists. Their accomplishments will forever be remembered as “The Miracle on Ice.”

Rulon Gardner Takes Down Aleksandr Karelin

The 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney were supposed to be another walk in the park for Russian wrestler Aleksandr Karelin. Not only had the Greco-Roman wrestler not lost a match in 13 years, this guy hadn’t even allowed an opponent to score a single point in the last 6 years. He wasn’t nicknamed the “Russian Bear” for nothing.

Everything was moving along as normal for Karelin until the gold-medal match in Sydney. On the other side of the mat stood a man named Rulon Gardner, who grew up on a Wyoming farm.

Aleksandr was clearly frustrated by the brute strength and persistence of Gardner. With the score still knotted at 0-0, Rulon scored a point on a reversal in the second round, stunning Karelin and everyone watching.

That would be all he needed as he fended off Karelin’s attempts get back into the match. Even Gardner himself was shell-shocked at what he had just accomplished.

He told a reporter from the New York Daily News after the fight:

“When did I think I could beat him? Maybe 10 minutes ago.”

The loss was so devastating for the Russian Bear that he retired from Olympic Wrestling after this historic defeat. On the flip side, Rulon Gardner rocketed himself into overnight fame and was requested on all the major talk shows upon his return to his homeland.

After the strikingly unexpected result, no wrestler should ever feel like a match is over until the final bell has sounded. They don’t use the saying “It ain’t over until the fat lady sings” for nothing.

Japan Shocks United States in the Softball Final

The definition of an upset in team sports is when one team is heavily favored in a matchup and loses the game. Enter the 2008 Olympic Softball Finals in Beijing.

Heading into the tournament, the United States Softball team had utterly dominated their opponents in Olympic competition. They were more than just the odds-on favorite to win.

Consider the following factors:

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) ruled in 2005 that the 2008 Summer Games would be the last time Softball was on the schedule. The reasoning was because there was no legitimate competition anywhere on the globe for the team from the United States.

Softball was introduced to the Olympics in 1996. The Americans had won every gold medal and had won an inconceivable 79-straight games when the IOC made this decision. In their first seven games of the 2008 Games, USA outscored their opposition 53-1. They smashed the Japanese squad 7-0 in group play, and looked to be cruising through the tournament as per usual.

They torched Japan again in the semi-finals, so you can envision what the softball community was thinking when the two teams were set to square off for a third time in the tournament, this time with the gold medal on the line.

Yukiko Ueno Pitching at the 2008 Olympic Softball Finals in Beijing

She hurled “a gem,” only allowing the Americans to cross the plate once. The 3-1 victory for Japan capped off the most unexpected outcome in any women’s team competition we have seen at the Olympics.

The IOC decided to bring softball back into the picture for the 2020 games in Tokyo. We will see if the women from the United States can get back to their winning ways.

Summarizing the Upsets

The Olympic Games are filled with drama and outstanding performances. Some of the most unforgettable moments of the Summer and Winter Games are when the underdogs seize the moment and come out on top.

That is exactly what happened in the 6 circumstances we talked about on this page. We didn’t just want to mention some occasions when the favorite didn’t win.

We wanted to look at all the upsets across all the sports — both men and women — and find out which feats were the most impressive and least likely to happen again. Hopefully, you enjoyed what we came up with.

There were some incredible comebacks and bizarre stories surrounding the track and field events in the 1950s and 1960s.

First, we saw Czechoslovakian runner Emil Zatopek set an Olympic record while winning the gold medal in the marathon, in his first ever crack at the race. Emil had never run anything even close to as long as the marathon and was completely unprepared. That didn’t stop him from making the favorite, Jim Peters, quit mid-race when he realized that he couldn’t catch Zatopek.

Then we had the infamous marathon race at the 1960 Summer Games in Rome. Abebe Bikila went from being the last man added to the Ethiopian squad to setting a world record and capturing a gold medal. Oh yeah, and he wasn’t even wearing shoes!

It’s hurting our feet just thinking about running more than 26 miles barefoot. To do that and do it faster than the speediest men on the planet who were wearing shoes? That’s just mind-blowing stuff.

Four years later at the 1964 Games, it was Billy Mills who would supply the excitement in Track and Field. A complete unknown in the running community, Billy was still unheard of as the 10,000 meter race was winding down. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Mills came flying down the track to pass Ron Clarke and Mohammed Gammoudi and stun the Olympic crowd.

Quite possibly the most significant upset in the history of the Olympics came at the Winter Games in Lake Placid, New York in 1980.

Simply known as “The Miracle Ice,” the United States Men’s Hockey team played the game of their lives and uprooted the Soviet Team who were the massive favorites. Due to everything going on with the Cold War, this was as momentous of a victory for any American team in Olympic Games’ history.

Al Michaels provided the famous call, and it has been replayed over and over again ever since.

Some 20 years after the Miracle on Ice, we saw a miracle of sorts on the wrestling mat. The setting was the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. The best Greco-Roman wrestler to ever live, Aleksandr Karelin, was riding a 13-year win streak. His opponent was an American named Rulon Gardner who had no Olympic wrestling experience.

Wouldn’t you know that Gardner found a way to discourage Karelin and win the match. Even Rulon himself was in utter shock at the result, and it took some time for it to sink in.

The 2008 Games in Beijing was witness to another one of the most epic comebacks or collapses (depending on whose side you’re on) that we have ever seen. The Softball team from the United States had obliterated every team that stood in front of them since softball was introduced to the Games in 1996.

When the Japanese team defeated the Americans 3-1 in the gold-medal game, history had officially been made. The decision had already been made to dismiss softball from the Olympics due to the fact that no teams were competitive enough for the United States’ squad.

Softball teams who are now preparing for the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo can thank this amazing performance by the Japanese team for their opportunity. It was ruled that softball will be making a return to the Olympics now that there appears to be some suitable foes.

Regardless of what happens on the softball field in 2020, we can most certainly expect to see some upsets. How grand of an upset it is will determine if it warrants a spot on our page.

Remember, our intention was to discuss the more treasured and shocking results we could find. The 6 events above most definitely qualify.