Summer Olympics 2016: Ranking the Biggest Surprises from the 2016 Rio Games

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistAugust 22, 2016

Summer Olympics 2016: Ranking the Biggest Surprises from the 2016 Rio Games

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    One of the best things about the Olympics is that they never fail to provide drama. The stories of perseverance and dedication that lead to an athlete or team to achieving their ultimate goal are why we watch, but we're also hoping to see some surprises.

    The Rio Olympics didn't disappoint in this area. While the United States dominated in the pool, the Jamaicans ruled the sprints, and plenty of other things happened just as predicted, there were also quite a few unexpected results.

    We've listed the biggest surprises of Rio, ranked based on how unlikely they seemed coming into the Games and how much we're still shaking our heads in disbelief. Though this list leans heavily on American accomplishments (or failures), a fair share of surprising developments involving international stars also warranted recognition.

10. Welcome to the Gold-Medal Club

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    Vietnam's Hoang Xuan Vinh earns his country's first Olympic gold medal by winning the 10-meter air pistol shooting competition.
    Vietnam's Hoang Xuan Vinh earns his country's first Olympic gold medal by winning the 10-meter air pistol shooting competition.Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

    The Olympics are the ultimate global competition with hundreds of different countries coming together for one set of events. And it's always great to see how many nations are able to claim a medal. While most of the attention is paid to the top of the medal table, where the usual suspects are found, credit should also go to those at the bottom, where a single medal might mean more than the 121 the United States collected.

    All told, 86 countries or territories (along with the collection of Independent Olympic Athletes who competed under the Olympic flag) won at least one medal, with 59 making it to the top of the medal stand with a gold. For nine of those gold-winning countries plus the IOA team, it marked the first time they'd ever claimed Olympic gold.

    It started with Vietnam's Hoang Xuan Vinh winning a shooting gold on Aug. 6 and adding a silver four days later. Also grabbing their first-ever golds were Bahrain, Fiji, Ivory Coast, Jordan, Kosovo, Puerto Rico, Singapore and Tajikistan. For Fiji, Jordan and Kosovo those were their first Olympic medals of any kind. Fehaid Al Deehani, an independent athlete from Kuwait (suspended by the IOC), won gold in double trap shooting. 

9. Ginny Thrasher Shoots U.S. to Victory

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    The first medals handed out in Rio were in shooting, and it was a first-time Olympian who took gold and gave the United States an early start on its path to finish atop the medal table.

    Virginia "Ginny" Thrasher, a 19-year-old from Virginia, won the 10-meter air rifle competition and knocked off a pair of former gold medalists from China in the process.

    Thrasher is a member of the University of West Virginia rifle team that won the NCAA title in March.

8. Age Is Just a Number to Anthony Ervin

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    Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

    Hundreds of teenagers competed in the Rio Olympics, with several claiming medals, and the oldest competitor was 62-year-old New Zealand equestrian rider Julie Brougham. With that wide of an age range, a 35-year-old gold medalist shouldn't really stand out as too surprising.

    But the age associated with being eligible to run for U.S. president isn't often connected to swimmers, certainly not those good enough to contend for an Olympic medal. But don't tell that to Anthony Ervin, who at 35 became the oldest individual swimming gold medalist ever after he won the men's 50-meter freestyle.

    It's the same event he won back in 2000 in Sydney as a sprightly 19-year-old. During this amazing 16-year span, Ervin didn't qualify for the 2004 or 2008 Olympics. He competed in 2012 but took fifth in the 50-meter freestyle.

    Ervin won gold by swimming the 50 in 21.4 seconds, a tenth of a second off the Olympic record and one-hundredth of a second ahead of France's Florent Manaudou. Prior to his win, the oldest gold-medal-winning swimmer was 31-year-old Michael Phelps.

7. Tennis Powers Tumble

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    Novak Djokovic congratulates Juan Martin del Potro after losing to him in the first round of the men's singles competition.
    Novak Djokovic congratulates Juan Martin del Potro after losing to him in the first round of the men's singles competition.Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

    The summer months are the most grueling for the world's top tennis players, with the French Open in June, Wimbledon in July and the U.S. Open set to begin Aug. 29. Despite the compressed schedule, many of the world's top players came to Rio hoping to add a gold medal to all of their other trophies.

    But two of the sport's biggest names—and the top individual seeds—bowed out far earlier than expected.

    Serbia's Novak Djokovic lost to Argentina's Juan Martin del Potro in the first round of the men's singles tournament, while the United States' Serena Williams fell to Elina Svitolina of Ukraine in the third round. For Williams, it put a quick end to her shot at defending Olympic gold, and in Djokovic's case, it prevented him from completing the career Golden Slam (all four Grand Slam tourney titles and Olympic gold).

    The early exits of Djokovic and Williams paved the way for lesser-known players to earn the spotlight. Del Potro, who took bronze in London in 2012 and won the U.S. Open in 2009, has undergone a pair of wrist surgeries since 2014, yet he managed to beat the No. 1 and No. 3 seeds (Spain's Rafael Nadal) to reach the final before falling to defending gold medalist Andy Murray of Great Britain.

    The women's title went to 22-year-old Monica Puig, the first-ever gold medalist from Puerto Rico, after she beat second-seeded Angelique Kerber of Germany in the final.

6. Singaporean Upstart Takes Down a Legend

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    Joseph Schooling's victory parade
    Joseph Schooling's victory paradeSuhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images

    To say the United States ruled the pool in Rio would be a major understatement. Team USA claimed 33 of 104 medals, including 16 of 35 golds, earning at least one medal in 15 of 16 men's swimming events and 14 of 16 women's events.

    Yet one of the few races an American did not win was one the most decorated Olympic swimmer of all time had owned for 12 years.

    Michael Phelps' 23 golds included three in the 100-meter butterfly dating back to 2004, and he hadn't lost that event in international competition since 2005. A fourth in that event looked promising, but a young swimmer from Singapore—possibly inspired by a photo he got with Phelps eight years ago, as a 13-year-old—ended up keeping that from happening.

    Joseph Schooling won gold by recording an Olympic-record time of 50.39 seconds, breaking Phelps' mark of 50.58 seconds from the 2008 Beijing Games and beating Phelps by 0.75 seconds. He actually beat a trio of swimmers by that time, as Phelps, South Africa's Chad le Clos and Hungary's Laszlo Cseh finished in a three-way tie for the silver.

5. Jordan Burroughs' Sudden Freefall

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    JACK GUEZ/Getty Images

    American Jordan Burroughs is one of the most accomplished freestyle wrestlers in history. He was the reigning Olympic gold medalist and a three-time world champion at the 74-kilogram weight class.

    Burroughs came to Rio having lost only twice in his career and not since September 2014, and he was the odds-on favorite to repeat as Olympic champion.

    On Friday, the 28-year-old went from a heavy favorite to out of the competition in the course of one afternoon. First he lost 3-2 to Russia's Aniuar Geduev, who would go on to win the silver medal. Then in the repechage—a loser's bracket that allows wrestlers who fall in the quarterfinals or semifinals to have a shot at earning a bronze medal—he dropped an 11-1 result to Uzbekistan's Bekzod Abdurakhmonov.

    Burroughs' comments to's Steve Politi after the second loss illustrate just how devastating the day was for him:

    I feel like I let my family down, my kids. I missed a lot of important ... milestones in my children's lives to pursue this sport. I didn't see my son walk for the first time. I've left my wife at home with two kids for long periods of time to go to training camps, to foreign countries. She did that joyfully, not begrudgingly, because she knew on days like these I always fulfilled my end of it. Now I feel like I let her down, I let my family down. This is supposed to be my breakthrough performance that cemented me as a legend in the sport. And it almost retracted my position in the sport. It hurts me. It hurts a lot.

4. Missy Franklin's Disappearance

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    Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

    The United States' aquatic dominance came via a mix of new and old faces, with Phelps adding to his enormous medal collection and Katie Ledecky solidifying herself as the world's most dominant female swimmer. First-time medalists included the likes of Maya DiRado, Simone Manuel and Ryan Murphy.

    But the most surprising facet of Team USA's swimming performance was that it didn't include much of anything from Missy Franklin, who four years ago in London won five medals, including four golds as a 17-year-old.

    Franklin won gold as part of the women's 4x200-meter relay team after swimming the second leg of the preliminary round, but she was replaced in the finals, and she failed to advance to the finals of either the 200-meter freestyle or 200 backstroke. She won gold in the backstroke in London and is the reigning world-record holder in that event.

    "I wish I had an excuse, but I don't," Franklin said, per USA Today's Nicole Auerbach. "And I'm not gonna make up one. The truth is, I worked as hard as I possibly could, I did everything I could think of doing and for some reason, I fell more short than I ever have before, and I wish so much that there was an explanation for that."

3. Kerri Walsh Jennings Suffers First-Ever Olympic Defeat

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    YASUYOSHI CHIBA/Getty Images

    A change in partners wasn't expected to make much difference for Kerri Walsh Jennings in her pursuit of a fourth consecutive Olympic beach volleyball gold medal. April Ross had teamed with Jennifer Kessy to claim silver at the 2012 Games, losing to Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor, and their pairing made another beach gold for the United States look very possible.

    To put into perspective how dominant Walsh Jennings had been on the sand in Olympic play, she'd never lost a match and had only been on the losing end of one set (in 2012). But all that came to an end in the semifinals in Rio at the hands of Brazilians Agatha Bednarczuk and Barbara Seixas, losing 2-0.

    The 38-year-old Walsh Jennings took responsibility for the loss, telling Auerbach: "It's because I wasn't passing the ball. If you see a weakness, you go after it. My weakness was I wasn't passing the ball."

    While Walsh Jennings and Ross rebounded to claim the bronze by knocking off another Brazilian duo, Talita Antunes and Larissa Franca, the third-place finish still had the feel of a disappointing result.

2. U.S. Women's Soccer Eliminated Early

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    Hope Solo
    Hope SoloCelso Junior/Getty Images

    The United States and Olympic gold had become synonymous with each other since women's soccer was introduced in 1996. Team USA had made the final every time, winning four of five gold medals, and as defending Women's World Cup champions, they were looking to be the first country to win the World Cup and Olympic titles in consecutive years.

    Instead, the Americans failed to medal for the first time ever, not even getting to medal round after losing to eventual silver medalist Sweden on penalty kicks in the quarterfinals.

    Team USA came into Rio with a 15-match unbeaten streak and had lost just once since blowing through the 2015 World Cup field in Canada. But from the outset of group play in Rio, the usual dominance wasn't present. Wins of 2-0 over New Zealand and 1-0 over France were followed by a 2-2 draw against Colombia, but that was still good enough to win the group.

    Then came the fateful quarterfinal with Sweden, one in which the U.S. trailed in the second half before Alex Morgan knotted the match at 1-1 in the 77th minute. Both teams had a goal waved off later on, setting the stage for the penalty shootout where Sweden won 4-3. The deciding moment was when Christen Press' fifth penalty shot sailed over the crossbar and then Sweden's Lisa Dahlkvist beat U.S. goalie Hope Solo to end it.

    Solo threw gas on the fire after the match, calling Sweden "a bunch of cowards" for playing a defensive-minded match and saying that "the best team did not win today."

1. South Africa's Wayde Van Niekerk Obliterates 400-Meter Record

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    John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

    Records are meant to be broken; just look at how many of them fell during the swimming competition of the Rio Olympics. While celebration and reverence are always pointed toward the record-breaker, on occasion, the new standard is so amazing that it seems hard to fathom.

    That's the best way to describe how convincingly South Africa's Wayde van Niekerk broke Michael Johnson's 17-year-old world record and 20-year-old Olympic mark in the men's 400-meter run. His time of 43.03 seconds was 0.15 ahead of the previous world record and 0.46 faster than the old Olympic benchmark.

    The 24-year-old Van Niekerk had the seventh-best time in the preliminaries and was fifth-best in the semifinals, relegating him to the the No. 8 lane for the final.

    Regarding the eighth lane, Yahoo Sports' Jeff Eisenberg wrote:

    Runners in lane eight have no competitor to pace themselves against during the race, nor do they have any idea how fast their peers are running behind them. Van Niekerk tried to turn a negative into a positive by treating the Olympic final like a training run. He bolted out of the blocks, maintained his lead throughout the middle of the race and then surged to the finish and leaned at the line as though someone was right on his heels.

    On the same night that Jamaica's Usain Bolt won the 100-meter dash for the third straight Olympics, it was Van Niekerk who stole the show.


    Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.