The 20 Craziest Finishes in Olympic History
We Olympic fans love speed. We love strength. We love height.
But more than that, we love when all of the above conspires to give us a great finish.
We love the consuming emotion that results from a thin margin or a magnificent upset or an impossible comeback.
And with thousands of athletes competing in dozens of events, we get to see plenty of fantastic finales every four years.
Among the legion of great candidates, here are my 20 craziest Olympic finishes. Write in your nominees below.
20. U.S. Women Beat the Cheaters in 4x100 Relay (1976)
Entering the 1976 4x100-meter women's freestyle relay, East Germany appeared invincible.
And really, they should have been.
Fueled by what later investigations would reveal was a regular regiment of performance-enhancing drugs, the East German women had, to that point, won every swimming contest at the '76 Games save one.
Make that two.
Team USA's foursome, anchored by the legendary Shirley Babashoff, set a new world record and held off East Germany during a dramatic final leg.
Subsequent revelations of East Germany's misdeeds would only sweeten the reward.
19. Fantastic Finish to First Women’s Cycling Event (1984)
In 1984, 88 years after cycling was introduced to the Olympic program, organizers added the first women's cycling event.
Based on the results, you'd have to wonder what took them so damn long.
American rider Connie Carpenter-Phinney—12 years after she made her Olympic debut as a speed skater at the 1972 Winter Games—won the inaugural women's road race with a thrilling half-tire-length victory over countrywoman Rebecca Twigg after almost 50 miles of racing.
18. Ben Johnson by a Mile (1988)
After Ben Johnson's triumph in the 100-meter dash at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the sports world buzzed with a common question: Was there, or had there ever been, an athlete finer than this?
Built like a linebacker and possessed of an unerring cool that bordered on the robotic, Johnson ran a 9.79 to break his own world record and leave rival Carl Lewis many paces in the dust.
It was the rare great finish made great by the fact that wasn't even close. And in the September heat of 1988—after one of the greatest athletic feats ever witnessed—Johnson seemed like athletic perfection incarnate.
Perhaps it was a bit too perfect.
Shortly afterward, a post-race drug test revealed traces of a banned substance, stanozolol, in Johnson's system. The IOC stripped him of his gold medal.
Johnson would cop to steroid use but claimed he didn't use the drug in question. He and his coach, Charlie Francis, also argued that drug use was pervasive in the sport, a claim later validated by the fact that Lewis, the second-place finisher, as well as the race's third- and fourth-place finishers would later test positive for drug use or come under credible suspicion of steroid use.
Johnson, however, was the only one stripped of his medal and would ultimately go down as the first marquee victim of track and field's drug-testing era.
17. Roy Jones, Jr. Robbed in Korea (1988)
So, you think Manny Pacquiao got a raw deal in his most recent fight with Timothy Bradley, Jr.?
I get it. You're pissed. Your boy got robbed.
Well then, brace yourself, because what happened to Pac-Man is but a horsefly of outrage on the Clydesdale-sized injustice handed down to Roy Jones Jr. at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Pitted against hometown hero Park Si-Hun in the gold-medal bout, Jones out-punched his foe by an 86-32 margin.
And even that doesn't convey how lopsided things were. This was classic pugilistic domination. Park was lucky to walk away with his head.
The judges, inexplicably, thought otherwise, handing Park the gold in a 3-2 decision.
Well, there is perhaps one explanation for this mysterious case of sudden onset astigmatism.
Four years earlier, at the 1984 L.A. Games, South Korean boxing authorities felt their fighters had been wronged by biased, American-influenced judges.
Seoul, some say, was payback.
There's no way of confirming intent or wrongdoing, but the facts make a case. All three judges who voted for Park were handed two-year suspensions, and two of the three were eventually issued lifetime bans.
Jones, perhaps as a form of apology, was named the tournament's most outstanding fighter.
16. Eric the Eel Splashes Home (2000)
Equatorial Guinea's Eric "the Eel" Moussambani qualified for the 100-meter freestyle at the 2000 Sydney Games by virtue of a "wildcard" bid meant to encourage the progress of athletes in developing nations. This was despite the fact that Moussambani had never seen an Olympic-sized pool before arriving in Australia.
His performance was predictably poor, at least in a competitive sense. But the reaction was well beyond expectation.
As Moussambani flapped and flailed his way through the pool, fans began to recognize his clear lack of training. And they cheered.
At first, it could have been mistaken for mass sarcasm, but by the homestretch, sincerity had clearly won out.
The fans wanted Eric to finish.
When he did—in a time more than double the eventual gold-medal pace—the arena erupted, and Moussambani was on his way to a cherished place in athletic lore.
Never before or since has the Olympic pool seen such a strangely uplifting performance.
15. Nigeria Shocks Argentina for Men’s Soccer Gold (1996)
Simply making it to the 1996 Atlanta Games was triumph enough for Nigeria's men's soccer team.
Political turmoil back home had nearly prevented the team from participating, and an 11th-hour effort to assemble the team limited its preparation.*
Even with a talented roster, one couldn't have expected much out of such dire circumstances.
The Nigerians thought otherwise, cruising past Mexico in the quarterfinals and staging a dramatic semifinal comeback against powerhouse Brazil in which they trailed 3-1 at halftime.
Nigeria found itself in a similar situation upon reaching the gold-medal game. This time, the South American power was Argentina, and the deficit was 2-1.
With 17 minutes left, the underdog Africans scored an equalizer and then capped the improbable with a go-ahead goal in the final two minutes.
The Argentinians were rightly stunned, and Nigeria danced off with just its second gold medal ever.
*Information via The Complete Book of the Olympics by David Wallechinsky and Jaime Loucky
14. Bob Beamon Ends the Competition Before It Starts (1968)
So it wasn't really a crazy finish in the traditional sense of a finish.
But Bob Beamon effectively ended the 1968 long jump competition with his absurd 29-foot jump, and it certainly qualified as crazy.
Beamon's leap was more than two feet longer than the previous world record (also set in Mexico City) and went beyond the available measurements laid down before the competition.
Though Beamon was just the fourth competitor to jump in the final and the first to register a distance, the field was prepared to concede.
In a moment of awe, Britain's Lynn Davies, the 1964 champion, turned to American Ralph Boston, the 1960 champion, and proposed surrender.
“We can’t go on," Davies said. "We’d look silly.”
13. American Men Hold off the Albatross (1984)
The 1984 showdown between America and West Germany in the men's 4x200-meter freestyle relay was billed as a dead heat.
The billing was almost spot on.
The Americans held a body-length lead entering the final leg when German giant Michael Gross, the 200 free gold medalist, entered the pool.
Gross, known as "The Albatross" for his tremendous wingspan, fought valiantly to close the gap on American Bruce Hayes. But even with the fastest relay split in event history, he would fall just short.
In a race of 800 meters, Team USA would win by 0.14 seconds and set a new world record.
12. Marathoner Keeps Her Feet, Staggers to Finish (1984)
At the 1984 Los Angeles Games, American Joan Benoit won the first women's Olympic marathon in a time of 2:24:52.
Swiss runner Gabriela Andersen finished more than 20 minutes later in 37th place, but with almost as much fanfare.
Andersen entered L.A. Coliseum for the last lap of the marathon under evident duress—her legs wobbling, her posture slumped and her hat resting askew in such a way that it appeared she was too fatigued to adjust it.
Medical attendants rushed to Andersen's aid, but she waved them off, knowing that if they touched her, she would be disqualified. Her body near the point of breakdown, Andersen walked the final quarter mile to raucous applause from the American crowd.
Her last lap took five minutes and 44 seconds.
11. Americans Tie (1984)
Though their career arcs couldn't have been much different, American swimmers Nancy Hogshead and Carrie Steinseifer shared a defining moment at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, registering the first gold-medal tie in Olympic swimming history.
Hogshead, then 22, had retired from swimming after the 1980 U.S. boycott. After three years away from the pool, she had returned to fulfill her deferred Olympic dream.
Sixteen-year-old Carrie Steinseifer was a rising star, excited to make her first Olympic team and hungry to prove her place.
Those disparate paths first met when Hogshead and Steinseifer shared a room at the Olympic Village. Later, when both swam the 100-meter freestyle final in 55.92 seconds, their lives were forever linked.
It would be the only individual gold medal in either swimmer's Olympic career.
10. Seesaw Finish in a Women's Soccer Classic (2000)
Four years after they staged a thrilling semifinal match in the first ever women's Olympic soccer tournament, the U.S. and Norway managed to outdo themselves at the 2000 Sydney Games.
In the gold-medal tilt, America jumped out to a 1-0 lead only to see Norway even the score right before halftime. In the 78th minute, Norway surged to a 2-1 advantage and held it into injury time.
On the verge of defeat, America countered once more with a brilliant cross and header courtesy of Mia Hamm and Tiffeny Milbrett.
In typical seesaw fashion, however, it was the Norwegians who walked away with victory. A golden goal in the 12th minute of overtime gave Norway the gold.
Norway remains the only nation besides America to win an Olympic title in women's soccer.
9. Slimmest of Margins After 6.2 Miles (2000)
Already considered one of the greatest distance runners ever, Ethiopia's Haile Gebrselassie took his legend to new heights with an epic victory over Kenya's Paul Tergat in the 10,000-meter final at the 2000 Sydney Games.
Running neck-and-neck with Tergat over the final four laps, Gebrselassie pulled ahead with a ferocious kick down the home stretch to win his second consecutive gold medal in the event.
The 0.09 margin of victory in the 6.2-mile race was smaller than the difference between Maurice Greene and Ato Boldon in that year's 100-meter final.
8. A Bolt from out of the Blue (1972)
There was nothing conventional about Dave Wottle—not his signature golf cap, not the way came from near anonymity to win the 800-meter run at U.S. trials and most especially not his race tactics.
In the 800 final at the 1972 Munich Games, Wottle fell to last place over the first 200 meters. And by a healthy margin. Plenty of runners like to run behind the pace, but this was extreme.
Even with about 100 meters remaining, the lanky Ohio native sat in fourth place with seemingly no hope of catching Soviet pace-setter Yevhen Arzhanov.
Slow but steady, Wottle let forth a furious kick, moving like he was on some higher plane of human motion, flying over ground while his competition seemed shackled to it.
Upon crossing the line 0.03 seconds ahead of Arzhanov, he had delivered one of the most stunning come-from-behind wins in track history.
7. 'Here Comes Lezak!' (2008)
Michael Phelps' winning eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Games is widely regarded as the greatest individual Olympic performance of all time.
But perhaps the most iconic moment in that historic string of victories was the doing of another man.
Jason Lezak, swimming the anchor leg of the 4x100-meter freestyle relay, needed to recover a full body length from former world-record holder Alain Bernard of France in order to earn a gold medal for the Americans and Phelps.
He did, with the fastest relay split in history.
I won't pontificate any further.
Announcer Rowdy Gaines...take us away.
6. 5-Way Super Thriller (1992)
The numbers tell the story of this finish.
American Gail Devers won her first of two Olympic titles in the 100-meter dash at the 1992 Barcelona Games, clocking in at 10.82 seconds.
Jamaica's Merlene Ottey finished fifth in that same race—0.06 seconds behind Devers.
You might even say the difference between the top five finishers was less than the blink of an eye. And you'd be right.
The average human eye blink lasts between 0.1 and 0.4 seconds.
5. Stunning Home Stretch (1964)
Born into abject poverty on South Dakota's notorious Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Billy Mills was an underdog’s underdog.
Running would help him to a college scholarship, but he didn't seem marked for greatness. Upon graduation, he quit running and entered the U.S. Marines.
After a brief hiatus, Mills decided to go out for the 1964 Olympic team. A second-place finish at Olympic trials in the 10,000-meter run earned him a spot on the U.S. squad.
No one expected the story to go much further, especially after Mills entered the 10,000-meter Olympic final with a preliminary time one minute slower than that of race favorite Ron Clarke.
It is hard to explain what happened over the next six miles.
Mills ran stride for stride with Clarke through the early and middle portions of the race. It seemed only a matter of time before the pace broke him, but Mills kept churning and Clarke kept struggling to break free.
Turning onto the final lap, Tunisia's Mohammed Gammoudi surged past the pair. Mills, it seemed, would be left in a valiant battle for silver.
Boxed in and hanging onto third place on the final straightaway, Mills broke into a furious sprint. With loping strides, he moved to the outside and began gaining ground.
In the springy exuberance of his gait, he appeared almost to high-step. It was as if Mills had some overabundance of energy in reserve and was compelled to waste movement.
He bounded past Clarke and then Gammoudi.
And then...it was over.
No American has won the 10,000-meter Olympic final since.
4. Phelps First to the Wall (2008)
As Michael Phelps pursued an unprecedented eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Games, observers knew the seventh one would be a tough get.
They just had no idea how tough.
Four years earlier in Athens, Phelps had won the 100-meter butterfly by a fingernail over fellow American Ian Crocker. Crocker was back in 2008, but he'd been replaced as chief foil by Serbian dynamo Milorad Cavic.
Cavic flashed his spoiler potential early, leading Phelps at the turn. Even as Phelps began gaining ground in the final 20 meters, it appeared Cavic had him beat by a half stroke at the wall.
Apparently not. The scoreboard read "Phelps"—by one one-hundredth of a second.
Later inquiries revealed that Cavic might have actually touched the wall first, but not with enough force to register a time before Phelps splashed in behind him.
3. Dragged to a Marathon Finish (1908)
More than a century later, Dorando Pietri's valiant effort at the 1908 London Games remains among the most iconic moments in Olympic marathon history.
By the time he entered White City Stadium for the final lap, Pietri held the lead but was suffering from severe exhaustion. The Italian runner collapsed five times before reaching the finish, each time helped to his feet by a team of on-site doctors administering stimulants.
Pietri would cross the finish line first, but was summarily disqualified for receiving aid.
The title would go to American Johnny Hayes, but the spoils to Pietri. News of his heroics traveled the globe and would turn him into an international celebrity.
After a three-year tour as a successful professional runner, Pietri would spend the rest of his life in Italy working as a mechanic.
2. Blood in the Water (1956)
Mere weeks after the Soviet Union invaded Hungary in order to squelch a popular democratic rebellion, the two nations met in a semifinal water polo match at the 1956 Melbourne Games.
Tensions were predictably high, but even they could not have foretold the ugliness that was to follow.
Amid frequent bouts of rough play, the favored Hungarians surged to a 4-0 lead. The game would go no further, however, sabotaged by a potent mixture of competitive frustration and nationalist fervor.
After a verbal confrontation, Soviet player Valentin Prokopov slugged Hungarian Ervin Zador in the face, drawing considerable blood. Enraged spectators surged onto the pool deck, shouting threats at the Soviet team.
Referees called the match and awarded Hungary the victory.
The Hungarians would go on to win their second gold medal in a row and their fourth all-time.
1. USSR Beats US in Controversial Basketball Finish (1972)
Dramatic? Of course.
But were the final three seconds of 1972's infamous gold-medal basketball game between Team USA and the Soviet Union a gross miscarriage of justice?
Well, that's at least debatable—regardless of what the frothing patriots may tell you.
Let's review the facts.
With his team down one and three seconds remaining, American guard Doug Collins hits two free throws (after nearly being knocked unconscious on a hard drive to the hoop, mind you).
International rules stipulate that the clock start after the second free-throw make and that the bench cannot call a time-out. The clock starts. The Soviets inbound the ball. Time expires. Team USA wins.
But there's a hang-up. The Soviets had attempted to call a timeout before the second free throw in order to make a substitution. A mistake, either by the referees or the scoring table, causes the timeout to go undetected.
R. William Jones, the secretary general of FIBA, recognizes the mistake and comes down from the stands to correct the officials. He has no jurisdiction over the affair, but the officials put three seconds back on the clock.
After the hubbub dies down, the Soviets run a second inbound play. Again, the shot attempt goes awry. Again, it appears the Americans have prevailed.
This time, however, the referee has made a crucial error. He starts the play while the official clock reads 50 seconds instead of three. The time never ran. The Americans are ordered back onto the court.
The third time...well...you know what happens.
The Soviets throw a full-length pass to one of their forwards. He catches the ball at its highest point—perhaps after a slight shove—and lays it in for a one-point victory.
The loss was America's first in Olympic basketball. Layer that atop brimming Cold War tensions, and one can see where the outrage stems from.
But was it unfair?
I'll let you be the judge.
Note: Facts above based on ESPN SportsCentury's chronicling of the game. Part Two can be found in the clip above. Part One is online here.
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