There are typically two main ways for an athlete’s Olympic victory to land in the history books. One happens when elite performers make good on all their talent and potential, often pushing beyond what we thought was possible, earning gold and cementing dominance in their sport. That’s the surest way to win fame and glory with a long shelf life.
But we’d argue the second way is even more exciting. We’re talking about the out-of-nowhere victory, the obscure athlete or one trying a new event who stuns both onlookers and reigning champions to snatch a gold even they perhaps never expected.
Austria’s Anna Kiesenhofer pulled this off in the 137K Olympic cycling road race Tokyo on Monday when she dropped the heavily favored Dutch team. There’s no official record of Olympic champion academics, but she must be in a rarefied group that holds both a gold medal and a PhD in math — which perhaps helped her calculate the odds of her breakaway strategy working?
— UCI (@UCI_cycling) July 25, 2021
Here are five other wins where underdogs rose to the pinnacle of their sport at the summer Olympic games.
Emil Zatopek, 1952 Helsinki, Marathon
Czechoslovakian runner Emil Zatopek was already a gold-medal champion in Helsinki’s 10,000-meter and 5,000-meter races when he decided on a whim to enter the marathon just before it began, an event he had never competed in before at any level. At the starting line, he even asked experienced marathoners for strategic advice. Despite never having finished any race even a quarter of that length, he crushed competitors, beating the silver medalist by two and a half minutes and breaking the Olympic record. After his win, Zatopek said, “If you want to run, run a mile. If you want to experience a different life, run a marathon.”
Billy Mills, Tokyo 1964, 10,000m
The last time Tokyo hosted a summer games also featured one of Team USA’s most thrilling upsets. Native American runner Billy Mills grew up on the Oglala Sioux reservation within South Dakota and won a running scholarship to the University of Kansas, but by the time he qualified for the Olympics’ 10,000-meter race, he’d left collegiate track and field for a career with the Marine Corps. His best marks and competitive history to date were so unremarkable that reporters at the time failed to ask him a single question in the lead up to the race. In the final lap, as then-world-record holder Ron Clarke battled Tunisian Mohammed Gammoudi for the lead, Mills sped from behind to beat them by nearly three meters, topping his personal best by 47 seconds. At the race’s conclusion, a Japanese reporter asked what everyone in the world wanted to know: “Who are you?”
Rulon Gardner, Sydney 2000, Greco Roman Wrestling
In 2000, Aleksander “The Russian Bear” Karelin had won the last three Olympic golds in Grec-Roman wrestling. In fact, he had won every international competition since 1988, and hadn’t given up a single point in six years. Rulon Gardner grew up on a dairy farm in Afton, Wyoming, without even a college championship to his name. But the unknown confounded the Bear with his sheer strength, forcing the Russian to slip and give up a point. Gardner held on 1-0 to hand Karelin his first defeat in decades and win gold. Rulon would later add a world championship, a bronze medal in the 2004 Olympics, and an MMA victory. He also lost a toe to frostbite after crashing his snowmobile into a frozen river back home in Wyoming.
Team USA, Atlanta 1996, Women’s Team Gymnastics
Many consider the Miracle on Ice — the U.S. hockey team’s victory over the Soviet Union in 1980 — the gold standard of Olympic upsets. But it was equaled by the U.S. women’s gymnastics team in 1996. At the time, the Soviet Union or Russia had won every single women’s gymnastics team competition since 1952 except 1984’s win by Romania. The seven women from the U.S. team ended the Eastern European hegemony in the most dramatic way possible: Limping from an ankle injury and barely able to stand after her first vault attempt, Olympian Kerri Strug ended the Russian reign with a near-perfect execution of her final vault. Call it the Miracle on the Mat.
Lydia Jacoby, Tokyo 2020, 100-meter breaststroke
USA’s Lilly King is a breastroking beast who holds the world record and is the reigning Olympic champion in the 100-meter breaststroke. What she didn’t see coming was 17-year-old Lydia Jacoby, a high-school junior from Seward, Alaska, who brought that state its first-ever swimming medal in a sport it’s not exactly known for. In fact, Jacoby has to train in a 25-meter pool (Alaska’s sole 50-meter pool is too far from her hometown). Her high school erupted in celebration and even the dethroned King said, “We love to keep that gold in the USA family … This kid just had the swim of her life and I’m so proud to be her teammate and win bronze for my country.”