The Biggest Surprise Stars of the Olympic Games

Eric NewmanCorrespondent IIIDecember 14, 2011

The Biggest Surprise Stars of the Olympic Games

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    The Olympic Games have produced many champions. Of those, the majority were already rising stars or proven pros.

    This list is not that majority.

    The following athletes were the unknowns, the underdogs, or the has-beens.

    Click on to see 15 stars that shocked nations around the world with their improbable victories. 

15. Julia Mancuso

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    Representing: USA

    Event: Women's Apline Skiing - Giant Slalom

    Medal: Gold

    Year/Host City: 2006/Turin

    Surprise because: She was suffering from hip dysplasia which caused her thigh muscles to tighten and aggravate her right knee; she had failed to medal in any other events. In fact, the much-hyped US ski team was looking to be an all-around embarrassment. 

14. Steven Bradbury

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    Representing: Australia

    Event: Men's Short Track Speed Skating - 1000m

    Medal: Gold

    Year/Host City: 2002 Salt Lake City

    Surprise because: This guy is either a clown, a genius or both. Way outclassed, he was at the back of the pack.

    When all the leaders fell over each other, he coasted to the gold

    And became an Aussie folk hero.

13. Wyndham Halswelle

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    Representing: United Kingdom (where else with a name like Wyndham?)

    Event: Men's Athletics - 400m

    Medal: Gold

    Year/Host City: 1906/Athens

    Surprise because: Well, because there was no element of surprise at all. None. You see, it's quite easy to win the gold in your event when you're THE ONLY COMPETITOR.

12. Ioannis Melissanidis

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    Representing: Greece

    Event: Men's Gymnastics - Floor

    Medal: Gold

    Year/Host City: 1996/Atlanta

    Surprise because: (a) He had failed to reach the finals in the previous two world championships.

    (b) Greece hadn't medalled in gymnastics for about 100 years.

    (c) He was up against gymnast goliaths Li Xiaoshuang of China, Vitaly Shcherbo of Belarus and Aleksei Nemov and Yevgeny Podgorny of Russia.

11. John Akii-Bua

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    Representing: Uganda

    Event: Men's Athletics - 400m hurdle

    Medals: Gold

    Year/Host City: 1972/Munich

    Surprise because: (a) He beat out reigning Olympic champion David Hemery.

    (b) He set a new world record.

    (c) He was the first African to win gold in an event under 800 metres.

    (d) He was the first man to break the 48 seconds barrier in the 400 metre hurdles. 

    (e) He was the first Olympic champion for Uganda.

10. Bode Miller

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    Representing: USA

    Event: Men's Alpine Skiing - Multiple

    Medals: Gold, Silver (x3), Bronze

    Year/Host City: 2010/Vancouver

    Surprise because: He was supposed to be the hero of the 2006 Olympics, not the 2010.

    This time around, expectations were low; he was coming off a ligament injury and had but 1 victory to his name for the previous two years.

9. Bryan Clay

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    Representing: USA

    Event: Men's Athletics - Decathalon

    Medal: Gold 

    Year/Host City: 2008/Beijing

    Surprise because: A year before, Clay had "endured injuries that knocked him out of the national and world championships."

8. Ted Ligety

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    Representing: USA

    Event: Men's Alpine Skiing - Combined

    Medal: Gold 

    Year/Host City: 2006/Turin

    Surprise because: (a) Spirits were down for the men's ski team after star Bode Miller was disqualified in the first leg of the slalom. 

    (b) Twenty-one year old Ligety was sick with a cold and in 32nd place after the downhill portion of the combined event. 

    Then with a near-perfect slalom performance, he brought home the gold.

7. Tara Lipinski

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    Representing: USA

    Event: Women's Figure Skating - Singles

    Medals: Gold

    Year/Host City: 1998/Nagano

    Surprise because: (a) She was up against skating genius Michelle Kwan--who at the present, is the most decorated figure skater in U.S. history.

    (b) She was only fifteen years old (that's a mere 5734 days, folks) which made her not only the youngest figure skating champion, but also the youngest individual athlete to win a gold medal.

6. Colette Besson

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    Representing: France

    Event: Women's Athletics - 400m

    Medal: Gold 

    Year/Host City: 1968/Mexico City

    Surprise because: (a) She was an unknown and a teacher, not a full time athlete.

    (b) British runner Lillian Board was a heavy favorite.

    (c) She was in fifth place until the last 100m. Then made an unbelievable surge.

5. Kerri Strug

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    Representing: USA

    Event: Women's Gymnastics - Team

    Medal: Gold 

    Year/Host City: 1996 Atlanta

    Surprise because: After teammate Dominique Moceanu fell on both her vaults, the US team was in danger of losing their tenuous lead over the Russians.

    Strug was the last to perform; on her first vault, she fell too, and injured her ankle.

    It looked like it was all over, but then this happened.

4. Abebe Bikila

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    Representing: Ethiopia

    Event: Men's Athletics - Marathon

    Medals: Gold, Gold

    Year/Host City: 1960/Rome, 1964/Tokyo

    Surprise because: In the 1960 Olympics:

    (a) He was unknown. So unknown that at the start of the race, one of the media commentators said "And what's this Ethiopian called?"

    (b) He was from a poor, humble background. A shepherd boy turned military guard.

    (c) He ran barefoot.

    (d) He was up against European Championship gold medal winner, Sergei Popov.

    (e) He won in record time.

    And in the 1964 Olympics:

    (a) Forty days before the Olympics began, he had an emergency appendectomy. He was not expected to compete.

    (b) He did compete. By mile 22, he was two and a half miles ahead of the nearest competitor.

    (c) He broke the world record.

3. Rulon Gardner

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    Representing: USA

    Event: Greco-Roman Wrestling

    Medal: Gold 

    Year/Host City: 2000/Sydney

    Surprise because: He beat the unbeatable Alexander Karelin aka  "Alexander the Great" aka "The Russian Bear" aka "The Experiment." 

    Karelin was on a 13-year unbeaten streak. Gardner had no previous championship titles, and was never before a world medalist. 

    It was "the miracle on the mat."

2. Soviet Basketball Team

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    Representing: The Soviet Union

    Event: Basketball

    Medal: Gold (controversial)

    Year/Host City: 1972/Munich

    Surprise because: As Houston Chronicle journalist Jerome Solomon states it, " "Prior to this one-point defeat, the U.S had won every gold medal in Olympic basketball history."

    To this day the players on the Soviet squad are celebrated heroes in St. Petersburg.

1. US Hockey Team

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    Representing: USA

    Event: Hockey

    Medal: Gold 

    Year/Host City: 1980/Lake Placid

    Surprise because: (a) The Americans were all amateurs.  

    (b) The Soviet team was the most powerful USSR national team ever assembled. All pros. All proven. These guys practiced 11 months a year. Hockey was all the did, all they knew. 

    Just a year before, the Soviets had butchered the NHL All Stars 6-0 in the deciding game of a challenge series.

    And remember, after beating the Soviets, the US team still had to go on to beat Finland for the gold.