Athletes Who Overcame the Most to Win Olympic Gold

Steve Silverman@@profootballboyFeatured ColumnistAugust 5, 2016

Athletes Who Overcame the Most to Win Olympic Gold

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    Emil Zatopek
    Emil ZatopekAnonymous/Associated Press

    Many athletes train years and years to get their opportunity to compete for Olympic gold.

    In many cases, elite athletes have top-of-the-line coaches and work under the best of conditions so they can perform at a peak level.

    All the variables, including diet, sleep, amount of exercise and amount of recovery are scientifically formulated so that an athlete can come up with a peak performance at the key moment.

    But throughout history, there have been other cases where athletes have been sick, injured or had many other obstacles along the way. In this piece, we look at the athletes who have overcome the most to win gold medals.

Abebe Bikila, Marathon

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    The 1960 Olympics in Rome represented the dawning of a new era in Olympic competition. Television was making the event available to viewers around the world, and many were seeing new sporting events and athletes they had never seen before.

    The Olympic marathon figured to be an event for the best trained athletes who had the best running shoes. But as the event got underway, a curious runner from Ethiopia named Abebe Bikila quickly got himself noticed.

    This Ethiopian runner was competing without shoes. He was running barefoot through the streets of Rome because his team-issued shoes hurt his feet. Many Olympic observers had never heard of him before, but Bikila won the gold medal in the marathon and set a new record in the process.

    The runner without shoes also became the first black African to win an Olympic gold medal.

Jesse Owens, Track and Field

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    Few Olympic athletes have ever been under more pressure than Jesse Owens was at the Berlin Olympics in 1936.

    Owens, an American champion, was competing in Nazi Germany under the sneering presence of dictator Adolf Hitler.

    The German dictator had railed about the "Master Race" of Germans he said would show the world how superior they were in competition.

    When African-American Jesse Owens ran in Berlin, he was intent on winning for his country and debunking the master-race myth. 

    Owens won four gold medals in the Olympics, taking the 100- and 200-meter dash, along with the long jump, and running in the 4 x 100-meter relay. 

    Owens showed the world Hitler's theory was nothing but a xenophobic lie.

Kerri Strug, Gymnastics

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    The 1996 Olympics featured one of the best women's gymnastics teams the Americans had ever put together at the Olympic Games.

    The pro-American crowds in Atlanta loudly supported the team. However, all the support in the world could not help Kerri Strug when she badly twisted her ankle while competing in the vault. 

    Strug was clearly in pain after the mishap, and it appeared there was no way she could attempt her second vault. However, Strug found a way to overcome the pain, and she did not quit.

    Not only did she complete her vault, she stuck her landing and helped the U.S. women win the team gold medal in gymnastics.

Rulon Gardner, Wrestling

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    The greatest upset in the history of the Olympics took place in the 1980 Winter Games when a team of American collegiate hockey players beat the Soviet Union in Lake Placid, New York. The story of head coach Herb Brooks and his players has been told and retold many times.

    However, what may be the second-greatest upset in Olympic history is not quite as famous. American Rulon Gardner, who had never even won an NCAA championship as a college wrestler at Nebraska, found a way to defeat powerful Russian Alexander Karelin at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.

    Karelin had not lost a match in 13 years, and it was all but impossible to score a point against him. However, when Gardner managed to escape Karelin's overpowering grip in the second period, he had his point.

    He survived the Russian's brutal assault, and he won the Greco-Roman gold medal in a monumental upset.

Anthony Nesty, Swimming

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    When it comes to the Olympic swimming events, athletes from the United States, Australia and other well-to-do countries tend to dominate.

    They not only have the best coaches and facilities, but they also have the opportunity to train nearly all year long.

    Anthony Nesty of Suriname was not from one of these countries. He was a highly competitive swimmer who took to the sport at a young age and eventually started training in the United States to improve. While Nesty came from Suriname, he was of African descent. No swimmer from Suriname or anyone who had any African descendent won a gold medal in swimming.

    When Nesty arrived at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea, he had to swim against favored American Matt Biondi in the 100-meter butterfly. When Biondi approached the finish, he was between strokes, and Nesty was able to take advantage, win the race and secure the gold medal.

Emil Zatopek, Distance Running

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    Emil Zatopek broke all the rules when it came to distance running.

    He did not train in running shoes. Instead, he wore heavy work boots because it prepared him better for his events. Much the same way a baseball player will swing a weighted bat in the on-deck circle before coming to the plate, Zatopek wore heavy shoes to get him ready to run his best race.

    In the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, Zatopek won the gold medal in the 5,000- and 10,000-meter races, even though he had an infected gland in his neck. Doctors had warned him not to compete, but he ignored their advice and won in spectacular fashion.

    He didn't stop there. He also competed in the marathon and won that event, even though he had not trained for it.

    Zatopek became the only competitor in Olympic history to win the 5,000, 10,000 and marathon in the same Olympics.

Nadia Comaneci, Gymnastics

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    Few athletes have ever been able to say they were perfect in Olympic competition.

    Nadia Comaneci of Romania was a 14-year-old gymnast at the Montreal Olympics in 1976. While she was a talented youngster, she had to face a deep and experienced Soviet team that featured many of the top gymnasts in the world.

    The Soviet gymnasts had many of their competitors intimidated, but Comaneci was not one of them. She was prepared to come through with her best effort.

    She became the first gymnast to score a perfect 10.0, and she won gold medals in the balance beam and the floor exercise.

    Forty years later, her Montreal performances remain iconic symbols of the best in Olympic competition.