From Eddie The Eagle To Jamaican Bobsled Team: The Greatest Olympic Underdog Stories Ahead Of Rio 2016

From barefoot marathoners to injured gymnasts...

03/08/2016 11:07 | Updated 03 August 2016

Usain Bolt, Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis-Hill - there are plenty of athletes who we’ve come to expect medals from at the Olympics.

But what about the underdogs who capture the Olympic spirit and inspire all of us to achieve greatness? 

Whether it’s gold medal glory or simply finishing a race in the face of injury, we’ve rounded up 11 underdog stories to get you in the mood for Rio 2016...

1. Kipchoge Keino - The Runner Who Wouldn’t Quit

This is a man who simply did not know how to give up.

During the Mexico 1968 games, the Kenyan runner was consistently unwell. While in the lead for the 10,000m, he collapsed in pain and staggered off the track. He managed to recover himself and although he was disqualified for leaving the track, he still insisted on finishing the race.

Four days later he came a narrow second in the 5,000m, taking a silver medal.

He was so ill by the eve of his final event, he was diagnosed with gallstones and doctors told him to stay in bed…but Keino was having none of it. At the last moment he changed his mind and boarded a bus to get to the stadium for the 1,500m. When the bus got stuck in traffic, Keino decided to simply run the final two miles to get there.

Despite this, the runner went on to astonishingly win gold by more than 20m.

2. Abebe Bikila - The Barefoot Marathon Man

The Ethiopian runner wasn’t even supposed to be on his country’s Olympic squad but was added at the last moment when teammate Wami Biratu became ill.

Bikila arrived in Italy for the Rome 1960 games with only one pair of running shoes, and by the time came for him to take part in the marathon, these were too worn out. Unable to find a pair which fitted comfortably, he decided to run the race barefoot.

Bikila was treated with derision as he began the race, with the Guardian reporting one commentator asking: “Who’s this Ethiopian?”

But shoeless, unknown Bikila ended up taking gold and smashing the Olympic record in the process, with a time of 2:15:16.

3. Alice Coachman - The High Jump History Maker

Things were hard enough for female athletes during Coachman’s time but the fact that she was black meant she faced an incredibly difficult struggle. The US athlete grew up in the segregated state of Georgia, unable to access training facilities or take part in organised sport because she was not white.

But she ran barefoot along dirt roads and fields, creating makeshift jumps out of anything she could get her hands on, determined to improve her performance.

Her hard work paid off and in 1948, she qualified for the US Olympic team and at the London games she leapt an incredible 1.68m in the high jump.

This led her to become the only US woman to win a gold medal in athletics at the 1948 games - and the first black woman to ever win an Olympic gold. 

Alice Coachman was the first black woman to win an Olympic gold medal

4. Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards - The Ultimate Underdog

No underdog list is complete without the British ski jumper.

Pretty much everything was set against Eddie. He initially tried to get into downhill skiing but switched to ski jumping because it was cheaper and easier to qualify.

He was also a lot heavier than most competitors and was extremely far-sighted. His poor vision meant he had to wear thick glasses which often fogged up at altitude. Edwards was also extremely short on funds and was living in a Finnish mental hospital (for cheap accommodation rather than as a patient).

But against the odds, he made the team and became the first first competitor since 1929 to represent Great Britain in Olympic ski jumping at the 1998 Calgary winter games.

Yes, Eddie came last. Yes, some people claimed he was an embarrassment to the sport. But many admired his determination and he won hearts around the world.

Getty Images via Getty Images
Eddie 'The Eagle' Edwards is mobbed by reporters during the 90m ski jump

5. Emil Zatopek - The First-Time Marathoner

The Czechoslovak runner won gold in the 5,000m and 10,000m at the Helsinki 1952 games - but he wasn’t finished there.

Despite never running a marathon in his entire life, Zatopek decided at the last moment to take part in the event. Yes, that’s right, he ran his very first marathon at the Olympics.

He was unsure of the rules of the race and, worried that he was supposed to pay for them, declined the water and fruit offered at refreshment stops along the route.

Running with his characteristic look of pain on his face, Zapotek spoke with race favourite,  Jim Peters. He asked the Brit how he was finding the pace and in the hope of spooking Zapotek, he told him it was too slow. This had the opposite effect however, and caused him to speed up.

While Peters did not manage to finish the race, Zapotek took gold. 

- via Getty Images
Emil Zatopek, wearing his trademark look of pain, at the Olympics

6. Kerri Strug - The Limping Gymnast Who Jumped For Gold

The competition between the US gymnastics team and their Russian counterparts was exceptionally tight at the Atlanta 1996 games.

The Americans knew they needed to nail their performances in the vault to be in with a chance for gold. But after one team member fell twice, their hope began to falter.

Strug was left in serious pain after tearing two ligaments in her ankle on her second - and supposedly final - vault. But because of the way the points worked, her team needed her to do one more vault.

The brave gymnast agreed to go for it and despite an agonising landing, she managed to quickly hop on one foot to salute the judges, before collapsing to her knees and being helped away.

Her performance clinched the gold for the US team and Strug was carried to the podium by her coach, Béla Károlyi. 

7. Eric ‘The Eel’ Moussambani  

Moussambani was perhaps the wildest of wildcard entries, given the fact that he only took up swimming eight months before the Sydney 2000 games.

The swimmer, from Equatorial Guinea, taught himself to swim in a 20m hotel swimming pool in his home country and never raced more than 50m before his 100m Olympic heat.

This became painfully obvious once he hit the pool in Sydney.

Moussambani stood out next to his two rivals in his swimming trunks, while they wore technical suits. However, both were disqualified for false starts in their heat, leaving Eric to complete the race by himself - but it wasn’t quite that simple for Eric.

Unused to racing such a distance, the swimmer tired quickly and appeared to be struggling even to keep his head above the water. There were fears he would not even manage to finish but the crowd was deafening in its support and he made it in the end.

He finally completed in 1:52.72 (which is put in perspective by the Netherlands’ Pieter van den Hoogenband won the final of the 100m in 48.30) but while Moussambani won no medals, he won the affections of many.

8. Steven Bradbury - The Skater Who Lacked Speed

The Australian ice skater had already had to battle just to get back onto the ice after a training accident in 2000 saw him fracture two vertebrae and receive a warning that he could not take to the ice again.

But Bradbury was determined to skate and ended up in the final of the 1,000m at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics.

Unable the match the speed of his younger competitors and knowing he stood little chance, Bradbury decide to try a different tactic rather than simply raw speed.

The skater hung back behind his four fellow racers, keeping out of trouble and hoping he would be able to capitalise on any errors made. He probably hadn’t quite imagined the carnage that would ensure however.

At the last moment, a huge crash saw every single one of his competitors crash to the ice, leaving the way clear for Bradbury to skate to a gold medal victory.

He became a national hero and the first person from any southern hemisphere country to win a Winter Olympic event.

9. Rulon Gardner - The Farmer’s Son Who Took Down A Bear

Gardner, a farmer’s son from Wyoming who once survived being shot in the abdomen with an arrow, didn’t seem to stand a chance when he came up against Russian’s Aleksandr Karelin in the final of the Greco-Roman wrestling at the Sydney Olympics.

Prior to the 2000 game, Karelin, nicknamed The Siberian Bear, was undefeated for an incredible 13 years.

Comparatively, Gardner’s best previous finish in international competition had been fifth, according to ESPN.

But somehow the American managed to narrowly beat the Russian man-mountain, becoming giving the US their first ever gold in Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling. 

10. John Stephen Akhwari

Most people would have quit long before the Tanzanian runner finished his race but then again, few could match the grit shown by him during the Mexico City 1968 games.

During the marathon, Akhwari began to suffer cramps because he had not trained at such an altitude.

But things went from bad to worse when around 19km into the 42.2km race, he took a tumble as runner jostled for position. He badly damaged his knee and hit his head but, despite medical advice to do so, refused to pull out of the race.

The marathon was won in 2:20:26 but Akhwari hobbled on with his knee strapped up. When he finally arrived back in the stadium, the majority of the audience had already left but those remaining cheered loudly.

He ultimately finished in 3:25:27 and, when asked why, said: “My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start the race; they sent me 5,000 miles to finish the race.”

11. The Jamaican Bobsled Team 

No list of underdogs would be complete with the inclusion of Devon Harris, Dudley Stokes, Michael White, Freddy Powell and Chris Stokes.

The group became the very first Jamaican bobsled team, competing at the 1988 Calgary Winter games.

The team actually had very little experience of going down actual bobsled tracks and were seen by some as a joke. However, many other teams were supportive of them, letting them use spare sleds and giving them guidance.

Alas, the Jamaicans didn’t actually manage to finish their race, as they crashed during a qualifier but their story inspired many and was even made into the film Cool Runnings. Actual crash footage from the race was used for the same scene in the film.

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