10 Greatest Upsets in Summer Olympic History
Incredible upsets are one of the biggest reasons people watch sports, and the Summer Olympics have been host to some of the most memorable underdog stories in sports history.
From team events to individual competition, athletes have been performing seemingly impossible feats since the modern games started in 1896.
The stage has moved from continent to continent, and evolved from decade to decade, but one thing has remained: drama.
Athletes put themselves through grueling training regimens for four years just for a chance at a brief moment of glory—one which can be snatched away from them in the blink of an eye.
Every now and then, spectators are gifted the opportunity to watch an athlete or team overcome all odds and win gold under incredible circumstances.
This list will focus on these upsets. There have been many great underdogs at the Summer Games, but only 10 will make the cut.
Due to limited space on the list, a gold medal must have been won to make the countdown.
Mary Lou Retton (USA)
Before 1984, every gold medalist in the women's gymnastics individual all-around competition had been from an Eastern European country.
Mary Lou Retton changed all that when she upset a group of über-talented Romanian gymnasts to win the sport's highest individual honor.
Unfortunately, every Eastern bloc country except Romania boycotted the Los Angeles Games, and Retton's lack of competition is what keeps her out of the top 10 in this list.
Few spectators at the football tournament in the 1924 Paris games expected Sweden to pull out a victory against defending gold medalist Belgium.
Not only did the Swedes win, they blew the Belgians off the pitch and won by an astonishing scoreline of 8-1.
However, Sweden would finish third in the tournament and only gold medalists are eligible for this list.
Wilma Rudolph (USA)
Wilma Rudolph's whole life is an upset. Before she was 12, Rudolph dealt with scarlet fever, whooping cough, chicken pox, measles and polio.
Remarkably, she recovered from each disease and at 12 years old she began excelling in sports.
By the time she was 20, she was an Olympian and dominated the 1960 games in Rome, winning three gold medals. However, Rudolph had already established herself as a phenom at this point and was not enough of an underdog in those games. Therefore, she just misses this list.
Eric “The Eel” Moussambani (Equitorial Guinea)
Prior to the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Eric Moussambani had never swam in an Olympic-sized pool, which made an 100-meter swim a very tall task.
He swam the 100m freestyle race in 1:52.72, meaning he would not even have medaled in the 200m freestyle, but he received a standing ovation nonetheless.
Moussambani, who had only been swimming for eight months prior to the games, has since dropped his personal-best time to under 57 seconds. His courageous swim in 2000 leaves a timeless and iconic image, but he did not win, so he cannot make this list.
10. Argentina Ends USA Domination
Olympics: Athens 2004
The United States allowed professionals to take part in the basketball tournament for the first time in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, and proceeded to dominate the next three competitions.
However, the days of the Dream Team were a distant memory in the 2004 games, and that become abundantly clear when America lost to Puerto Rico in its opening match.
The U.S. stopped bringing the NBA's best players to international competitions at this point, but still had an abundance of talent on its roster. Tim Duncan, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Allen Iverson were all on the court for the Athens games.
Most spectators brushed off the loss to Puerto Rico as overconfidence by Team USA and thought that a loss would wake them up, but the team lost yet another game to Lithuania in the preliminary round.
Even at this point, most Americans refused to accept the reality that talent wasn't enough for the United States to roll over everyone in international basketball anymore.
The 2004 USA squad limped into the semifinals and met a stacked Argentina team led by Manu Ginobili.
The San Antonio Spurs star lit up the U.S. for 29 points and made four of his six three-point attempts.
Some felt the loss was a long time coming for the cocky Americans, but right up until the moment the buzzer sounded in the 2004 semifinal, few believed that the USA basketball team would ever lose an international game that really mattered.
The loss was monumental enough to cause an overhaul of the U.S. Olympic basketball program and will go down as the second-most painful defeat in American international basketball history.
The worst loss comes next.
9. The Soviets Win Gold (After a Couple Tries)
Olympics: Munich 1972
To this day, 12 silver medals sit in a vault in Lusanne, Switzerland, waiting to be claimed by the members of the 1972 USA men's basketball team.
America has owned the men's basketball competition since its inception in 1936 and won every gold medal leading up to the 1972 games in Munich.
Things looked to be the same when the Olympics kicked off, and the American stormed through the group stage, winning all seven of their games and outscoring their opponents by a combined 230 points.
However, the basketball competition started to resemble the geopolitical landscape of the time, as the USSR emerged as a superpower in the other group. The Soviets also went 7-0 in the group stage and, in a strange coincidence, also outscored their opponents by a combined 230 points.
The USSR was not like the teams the Americans were used to facing in international competitions. The Soviets may as well have been a professional team, as the squad had played nearly 400 games together when the Olympics started.
Fittingly, the two teams met in the finals. The Americans quickly discovered that this game would not be just another blowout, as the Soviets took a considerable lead.
Team USA came storming back and was down by one with just seconds remaining in the game. Guard Doug Collins, now the coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, intercepted a pass and broke towards the basket.
He was fouled hard on an attempted layup and appeared to be injured. He courageously got up and sunk two free throws to give the Americans a one-point lead.
Then, one of the most controversial series of events in Olympic history took place.
The Russians inbounded the ball with three seconds remaining, but the referees stopped the clock with one second left as the Soviet coaches were protesting. They claimed the referees had ignored their request for a timeout during Collins' free throws.
The refs then ordered time to be put back on the clock and restarted play. The Soviets failed to score and time ran out, but the scorers table did not correctly reset the clock. The officials again added time to the game and gave the USSR one more shot at inbounding the ball.
This time, Alexander Belov caught a long pass and laid the ball in to give his country a one-point victory and the gold medal.
The U.S. players refuse to accept the legitimacy of this result to this day. There is plenty of merit to their cries of foul play, but the result still stands.
This game has been remembered for the controversy, but it was still a monumental upset by the Soviets.
8. The 'Flying Housewife' Wins Four Golds
Olympics: London 1948
Sport/Event: Track and field
Nation represented: Netherlands
Unfortunately, Fanny Blankers-Koen's athletic prime coincided with World War II.
However, this did not stop her from setting numerous world records while the war was raging, and it didn't keep her from competing in multiple track and field events at the 1948 Olympics as a 30-year-old.
Her road to the London games was a bumpy one, and she had a disappointing showing at the 1946 European Championships. This is likely because she had given birth just six weeks prior to games and still attempted to compete in several events.
In 1948, she limited herself to just four events. She decided to take part in the 100m, 80m hurdles, 200m and 4x100m.
Blankers-Koen faced a lot of skepticism as she arrived in London. Jack Crump, the team manager for Great Britain, called her "too old to make the grade."
She also competed at a time when women's athletics were not as widely accepted as they are today. Blankers-Koen had two children when she competed in the London games, and many of her countrymen felt she should be at home taking care of her kids instead of racing.
Blankers-Koen brushed all that aside and did what she had always done best: run.
First up was the 100m race, where Blankers-Koen ran away with the gold. She did the same two days later in the 80m hurdles, then waited two more days to win another gold in the 200m.
No other medalist in the three individual events was older than 23.
Finally, on Aug. 8, 1948, the Dutch Olympian solidified her legacy by anchoring the 4x100m relay. She crossed the finish line one-tenth of a second ahead of the Australians, earning her fourth gold of the Games.
Her incredible performances earned her the nickname "The Flying Housewife," and a place on this list.
7. Great Britain Shocks USA
Olympics: Athens 2004
Sport/Event: Men's 4x100m relay
When American sprinters finished first, third and fourth in the finals of the 100m race, nearly everyone believed they would cruise to an easy victory in the 4x100m meter relay.
In the 100m, Justin Gatlin took the gold with a time of 9.85 seconds. Maurice Greene won bronze and finished in 9.87 seconds, and Shawn Crawford was right behind him with a time of 9.89.
The team from Great Britain was part of the minority that believed the U.S. was beatable. This confidence may have been completely irrational, considering the fastest British time registered in the 100m heats was 10.12.
Only five sprinters were able to break the 10-second barrier at the 2004 games, and three were the previously mentioned Americans. Furthermore, all three of those sprinters were taking part in the 4x100m relay.
With a remarkable amount of talent, it was seemingly impossible that the U.S. would lose the event.
However, this event involved teamwork on the baton passes, and this is where the Americans faltered while the Brits were flawless.
A bad hand-off from Gatlin to Coby Miller caused the U.S. to lose some ground. The British sprinters had immaculate technique and perfect execution during each transition, and the British anchor, Mark Lewis-Francis, held the lead going into the final leg.
The American's individual talent was evident down the stretch, as Greene nearly closed the gap. In the end, however, it was too little, too late.
Great Britain won the race by the narrowest margin possible—one one-hundredth of a second.
A photo finish, impossible odds and an underdog winning gold. This event had it all and is very deserving of a place on this list.
6. USA Steals Clean Sweep from East Germans
Olympics: Montreal 1976
Sport/event: Women's 4x100 meter freestyle relay
The East Germans were a juggernaut in women's swimming at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal but had very little previous Olympic success.
Four years earlier, it was the USA women who were the giants of the swimming world. At the 1972 games in Munich, the Americans took eight gold medals in 13 events.
The East Germans surpassed this feat four years later when they went on to win all but two of the races at the 1976 games. Of the events they won, their swimmers set a world or Olympic record in every one except the 100m breaststroke.
The reason for the meteoric rise of the East German athletes was a state-sponsored steroid program that began in 1974.
The German Democratic Republic government used its infamous intelligence agency, the Stasi, to administer and monitor the program. The athletes were fed performance-enhancing drugs and hormones without their knowledge. Those who suspected anything were kept quiet by the vast, invisible network of Stasi informants.
The side effects of the drugs administered caused extremely unfortunate side effects for many of the athletes later in their lives. This story is ultimately another tragedy to come out of the GDR, but the drugs worked, and the East German women came into the 1976 games as machines.
They won event after event, and even the USA's star swimmer, Shirley Babashoff, could not beat them in any of the individual events. Babashoff had won a gold medal in the previous Olympics as a 15-year-old, but walked away from Montreal with three silvers in the individual races.
However, the U.S. team of Kim Peyton, Jill Sterkel, Babashoff and Wendy Boglioli swam the race of their lives in the 4x100m freestyle relay. They finished with a time of 3:44.82, which was a new world record and 0.68 seconds ahead of the East Germans.
Beating a heavy favorite is always inspiring, but it means something more when those favorites are cheating. The U.S. beat the odds to win gold, and did it the right way.
5. The Magnificent Seven
Olympics: Atlanta 1996
Sport/event: Women's gymnastics
Mary Lou Retton started something special with her performance at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, and when the Olympics returned to the United States, the country's women's gymnastics team continued her legacy.
Retton was the first female American gymnast to win the individual all-around competition. In the 1996 Olympics, seven teenagers pulled together and became the first to win the all-around team competition for their country.
Eastern European countries had historically dominated the sport, and the Russian and Romanian teams were as good as ever. The Russians had won gold in every Olympics since 1952 except one—the 1984 games in which the Romanians won gold.
The competition looked to be headed for a familiar result, as the Russians held a slim lead over the Americans heading into the final day of competition.
The U.S. was fueled by an exuberant crowd in Atlanta and had an excellent final day.
The team opened up a comfortable lead after the Russians had a poor performance on the balance beam, but had to close out the victory in the vault.
The gold medal seemed to be taunting the Americans, as Dominique Moceanu fell on her first two attempts in the vault, and Kerri Strug injured her ankle in her first go at it.
But then, a moment of unforgettable courage captivated the entire world.
Strug, who was barely walking before the second attempt, managed to sprint down the runway and execute a nearly flawless vault, despite her injury.
She was then carried off the floor by her coach, Bela Karolyi, leaving the world with one of the most iconic images in Olympic history.
The Americans would have won the gold even if Strug had pulled out, but there was no way to know that at the time, and her incredible vault guaranteed victory.
The U.S. women ended a nearly 50-year reign of dominance by the Soviets, and did it in the most dramatic fashion possible.
4. Rulon Gardner Tames 'The Bear'
Olympics: Sydney 2000
Sport/event: Greco-Roman wrestling
Nation represented: United States
If there was one sure bet heading into the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, it was Aleksandr Karelin to win the gold in Greco-Roman wrestling.
Karelin, nicknamed the "Russian Bear," had won the wrestling competition in the last three Olympic games. He had also taken gold in every international competition he entered since 1988.
An even more impressive statistic was that Karelin had gone six years without giving up a single point in any match when he headed to Sydney.
To this day, Karelin is universally considered to be the greatest Greco-Roman wrestler in the history of the sport.
His competition in the gold-medal match in Sydney was Rulon Gardner, a farm boy from Wyoming.
Gardner claimed his strength came from the chores he had to do growing up on his family's dairy farm and came into the Olympics without ever having won an international competition or an NCAA championship.
Gardner's strength proved to be a problem for Karelin, who grew increasingly fatigued throughout the match.
After a stalemate in the first round, Gardner was able to score a point on a reversal in the second. After a period of grappling, Karelin's hands slipped apart while Garder kept his hands locked. The move was very subtle, and even the judges could not believe what happened next.
The match was stopped and the officials reviewed the play on video tape, then awarded a point to Gardner as the crowd gasped.
The first point that Karelin allowed in six years would lead to the first—and only—loss of his international career.
The American lasted the rest of the second round and continued to hold off the Russian in overtime (a wrestler must score at least three points to win in regulation).
In the last few seconds of the extra period, Karelin backed off and put his hands on his hips, conceding the match to Gardner.
As with all great upsets, it took a few seconds for Gardner to fully process what had happened. For a moment, he stayed crouched, ready for another attack from Karelin. Then reality set in, and Gardner realized he had accomplished the unthinkable.
3. Emil Zatopek Runs the Marathon on a Whim
Olympics: Helsinki 1952
Nation represented: Czechoslovakia
Emil Zatopek was one of the best distance runners in the world entering the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. He ran away with the gold medal in the 10,000m race and staged an incredible comeback to win the 5,000m.
So how is one of the best runners in the world responsible for one of the greatest upsets in Olympics history?
Zatopek decided at the last minute that he wanted to run the marathon, a race he had never competed in before—10,000 meters was the furthest distance that Zatopek had run in international competition, which is less than a quarter of the length of a marathon.
In the marathon, Zatopek's main competition was Great Britain's Jim Peters, the world record-holder at the time. Peters' best time was more than five minutes faster than any of the runners set to compete in the race.
During the race, Zatopek supposedly caught up to Peters and asked him if the pace was too fast. The Brit responded, jokingly, that it was too slow. This caused the Czechoslovakian runner to increase his pace and leave Peters in the dust.
The brief exchange of words seemed to have a profound effect on Peters, who did not finish the race.
Zatopek passed by the rest of the runners one by one and crossed the finish line in 2:23:03.2, more than 2.5 minutes ahead of the silver medalist.
His gold medal in the marathon is one of the strangest, most unexpected turn of events in Olympic history.
To enter any event just moments before it was set to begin and win it is a remarkable achievement. Adding to that, it was the first time that Zatopek had competed in a marathon at any level.
Further still, the event he chose to enter on an impulse is so grueling that the world record-holder could not even bring himself to finish the race.
Zatopek was a one-of-a-kind athlete and personality. What he did in Helsinki in 1952 was just him being himself, and that is why nothing like it will ever happen again.
2. Japan Beats USA in Softball Final
Olympics: Beijing 2008
In July of 2005, the International Olympic Committee voted to eliminate baseball and softball from the games.
The votes are kept secret, so the reasoning behind the decision is unknown, but in softball's case, most people suspect that it had to do with a lack of worldwide participation and competitive balance.
In other words, the United States was just too good. The Americans had won all three gold medals since the sport became part of the Olympics in 1996 and they were in the midst of a 79-game winning streak when the decision was made.
The vote had no bearing on the 2008 games in Beijing, which would be the last time softball was part of the Olympics.
By all appearances, the 2008 games would play out just as the previous three tournaments had.
In the opening round, the United States won all seven of its games, scoring 53 runs while allowing only one.
During group play, the U.S. faced Japan and beat the squad easily 9-0. This would be one of the three times the teams played due to the tournament's unorthodox format.
The next time they met, a chance to go to the finals was on the line. The Americans were victorious again, but in a much closer scoreline of 4-1.
Japan then had to face Australia for a spot in the final against the Americans. The Japanese pulled out a thrilling 12-inning victory for yet another chance at the three-time defending champions.
In the finale, fireballer Yukiko Ueno pitched against the U.S. and held them to just one run. The Japanese won 3-1 and recorded what is arguably the most unexpected result in Olympics history.
The sport of softball had just been eliminated for being too predictable, and in an ironic twist, the most unpredictable event in the sport's history happened in its final Olympic game.
1. Billy Mills Comes out of Nowhere in the 10,000m
Olympics: Tokyo 1964
Nation represented: United States
There are plenty of great upsets in the Olympics, but one man stands above everyone else in this category: Billy Mills.
Mills was part of the Oglala Sioux people and grew up on an Indian reservation in South Dakota. He was orphaned at the age of 12 and went on to excel at running and boxing.
He received an athletic scholarship to Kansas and had a fairly successful career on the track team. He then joined the Marines, and while serving he qualified for the Olympics.
At the 1964 games in Tokyo, he made it to the finals of the 10,000m race, but was still just an unknown runner in a heat of 29 athletes.
However, when the final laps started to approach, Mills was right there with Australia's Ron Clarke, the world record-holder at the time. The two were joined by Tunisia's Mohammed Gammoudi.
Clarke's record was nearly a minute faster than Mills' qualifying time, but it was Gammoudi who made the decisive move down the stretch.
The Tunisian ran in between Clarke and Mills, nudging the two runners out of way and opening a narrow lead.
Clarke began to close the gap, with Mills close behind in third place. Just when the race seemed to be narrowed down to Gammoudi and Clarke, Mills shifted into another gear and sprinted by his competition in the final 100 meters of the race.
Mills later said that his vision was coming and going down the final stretch, and he just kept telling himself that he could win over and over again.
In the same interview, Mills identified the motivation behind his monumental effort: "That one fleeting moment you know that you're the very best in the world."
Mills perfectly encapsulated the Olympic spirit in this quote. This "fleeting moment" is what every athlete who competes in the games is after, and it is what make the Olympics so captivating to watch.
Mills understood and channeled that spirit more than anyone ever has and he used it to push himself to unimaginable heights.
All the event-winners on this list proved that no feat is too great—that anything is possible. However, never are we more reminded of that than when we watch Billy Mills sprint the final hundred meters in 1964.