As the largest sporting festival in the world, the Olympics has witnessed some of the most unexpected and memorable shocks in sports history. Indeed, recent editions have featured both determined underdogs defying the odds and seemingly unmatched competitors suffering unexpected defeats. Read on to learn about the biggest Olympics shocks of the last 20 years.
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Rulon Gardner makes wrestling history (2000)
There arguably wasn’t a safer bet ahead of Sydney 2000 than Aleksandr Karelin claiming the Men's Greco-Roman 130kg wrestling gold. His CV was flawless and intimidating in equal measure; aside from gold at Seoul, Barcelona, and Atalanta beforehand, Karelin had also racked up nine World Championships and 12 European Championships since 1988.
Aleksandr Karelin signalled his retirement immediately after the fight.
More impressively, ahead of Sydney Karelin had not lost a match in international competition since 1987 and not even dropped a single point in six years.
By contrast, Rulon Gardner’s only prior notable tournament wins were in the US Championship in 1995 and 1997, and he was broadly considered an outsider among the 18 wrestlers who qualified for the finals in Sydney. Despite this, he produced impressive displays to win all three matches in Pool 5 before overcoming Yuri Evseichik in the semi-finals to secure a gold medal bout against Karelin.
In the final, Karelin immediately went on the offensive, but Gardner’s sheer size and weight prohibited him from pulling off his trademark reverse lift in the first round. Early in the second round, Karelin then inadvertently broke a clinch, resulting in a one-point punishment in favour of Gardner as according to recent rule changes.
There was no further scoring until the end of the round, meaning overtime was enforced as Gardner only had a one-point lead. In overtime, Gardner took to the floor to once again successfully defend himself from further reverse lifts before combatting Karelin’s late attacks to pull off a historic 1-0 victory in front of a gobsmacked crowd.
Karelin left his shoes in the ring after the fight to signal his immediate retirement and never fought again. Despite suffering a series of injuries and an amputated toe in the immediate years afterwards, Gardner once again exceeded expectations by picking up a bronze at Athens before confirming his own retirement.
Argentina stun the NBA’s best (2004)
When FIBA decided that NBA players were permitted to participate in Olympic basketball events in 1989, it reignited American dominance of the Men’s tournament. The legendary ‘Dream Team’ took home the next gold medal at Barcelona 1992, achieving a gargantuan average winning margin of 44 points per game in the process, before the US also topped the podium at Atalanta and Sydney.
Before the tournament at Athens 2004 commenced, there was little reason to suggest proceedings wouldn’t continue in the same manner, especially when the US announced a star-packed roster featuring the likes of LeBron James, Tim Duncan, and Dwayne Wade. However, the group stage presented unexpected difficulties and the US scraped qualification from Group B following shock defeats to Puerto Rico and Lithuania.
Head coach Larry Brown attributed the shaky start to complacency and declared that their performances would improve for the knock-out stages. He was initially vindicated when the US defeated Spain 102-94 in the quarter-finals, setting up a semi-final clash against Argentina the following day.
Instead, the US were outplayed by a spirited Argentinean team spearheaded by Manu Ginobili’s heroic performance, in which he recorded a game-high 29 points. Argentina dominated the first three quarters to establish a 13-point lead, before turning in a dogged defensive display in the final quarter to ultimately beat LeBron and co. 89-81.
Argentina went on to beat Italy 84-69 in the final, while the US exacted revenge on Lithuania to secure bronze. The US have since gone on to win men’s basketball gold at Beijing, London, and Rio, underlining the extent of surprise in Argentina’s win.
Mitcham denies a Chinese clean sweep (2008)
After claiming six of the eight diving gold medals at Athens 2004, the Chinese team set the target of a perfect return in front of home fans at Beijing 2008. Their medal haul at the National Aquatics Centre was relentless from the outset and by August 23, they simply needed to win the 10m Platform Men’s event to secure an eighth and final gold.
Matthew Mitcham secured the gold medal with highest single dive score in Olympic history (112.10).
The Chinese representation in the final was encouraging. Zhou Luxin had taken silver at the previous year’s World Championship and dominated the preliminary round. Meanwhile, Huo Liang won gold in the 2007 World Championships 10m Synchronised event and firmly set the benchmark in the semi-finals with a virtually flawless 549.95. Among the other finalists was Australia’s Matthew Mitcham, who placed second in the semi-finals with 532.20.
As the final got underway, it quickly became apparent that Luxin represented the most feasible chance of gold. Liang ranked third after the first of six dives but ultimately failed to replicate his semi-final form and landed just one 90-point plus dive. Conversely, Luxin comfortably topped the rankings throughout his first five dives and entered the final round as third last to dive with a formidable 32.50-point lead.
However, he mistimed the landing on his dive and received a score of 74.80, which was disappointing for an individual dive, but importantly still enough to establish a seemingly unassailable 107.40-point margin in first place. Next on the board was Mitcham, who decided to attempt a two and a half somersault with two and a half twists in the pike position, a dive with a very high difficulty degree of 3.8.
Mitcham executed the dive perfectly, earning ratings of four 10s, two 9.5s and a 9 from the seven judges for a score of 112.10. Not only was that enough for gold, but it was the highest single dive score in Olympic history. Mitcham had denied China an eighth and final diving gold both at the last possible moment and in the most spectacular fashion possible.
Liang performed the last dive of the contest, but he was too far behind to rescue the host nation’s hopes and prevent Mitcham from becoming the first male Australian diver to win Olympic gold since 1924. China went on to rack up six and seven diving golds at London and Rio respectively, meaning the perfect eight remains elusive.
Peralta downs Brazil’s soccer stars (2012)
On paper, the Brazil Men’s soccer squad for London 2012 seemed suited for the World Cup or Champions League, let alone the Olympic Games. Indeed, it sported several instantly recognisable talents who have enjoyed careers adorned with numerous major trophies, including but not restricted to Neymar, Thiago Silva, Marcelo, Alex Sandro, Lucas Moura, Hulk, and Oscar. The team was broadly deemed more than capable of finally earning Brazil’s first soccer Olympic gold medal.
Brazil were overwhelming favourites to win the 2012 Olympics men's soccer final.
They entered the tournament as favourites and topped Group C courtesy of three wins earned with limited difficulty. Following this, they successfully came from behind to overcome Honduras in the quarter-finals before easing to a 3-0 victory over South Korea in the last four. By the time their final against Mexico was confirmed, Brazil had scored three goals in every match.
While Mexico’s squad was certainly down the stronger end of the spectrum, its notable names were somewhat lacking and their march to the gold medal match was less convincing. They won Group B despite netting just three goals, before requiring extra-time and a second half turnaround to eliminate Senegal and Japan respectively in the knock-out stages.
With this in mind, Mexico were expected to provide decent if unchallenging opposition for the final at Wembley. They lined up with a pressing-led strategy, which paid instant dividends as Oribe Peralta pounced on a defensive mistake to score past the sprawling Gabriel within the first 28 seconds. A visibly shaken Brazil struggled to create chances in response, despite the first-half introduction of Hulk.
In the second half, Mexico heightened their control as Marco Fabian hit the crossbar with an overhead kick before Peralta doubled their lead with a well-timed header. Hulk managed to score an injury-time consolation goal, but it was not enough as the visibly distraught yet undoubtedly outplayed Brazil again found themselves settling for silver.
Mexico’s triumph brought their first-ever soccer gold at the Olympics, while Brazil eventually concluded their agonising wait as host nation four years later when they defeated Germany on penalties in the final.
The Williams sisters suffer a first round defeat (2016)
For a lengthy period of time, the Olympics tennis Women’s doubles event was the unwavering domain of Venus and Serena Williams. The siblings worked together to top the podium at Sydney, Beijing, and London (having not competed at Athens), effortlessly swatting aside any opponents and winning three gold medals in predominantly one-sided finals.
Suitably, they were first seeds and firm favourites for the tournament at Rio 2016, which they entered having also won the Women’s doubles at Wimbledon the previous month. In the first round, they were drawn against the unseeded pair of Lucie Safarova and Barbora Strycova from the Czech Republic.
A routine victory was expected, particularly as the opposing duo had not progressed beyond the first round of a major tournament in the previous year. Almost predictably, the Williams broke their serve in the first game of the match.
However, a combination of deftly placed shots and unforced errors by the Williams sisters enabled Safarova and Strycova to grow in confidence, to the extent that they managed to overhaul the early setback and win five straight games. They ultimately took the first set 6-3, before returning the favour by breaking the Williams’ serve in the opening game of the second set.
Amidst increasingly ferocious and fast-raced rallies and several competitive games decided via deuce, the second set was poised at 4-4. It was the Williams’ turn to serve, but the Czechs broke it again with an expertly timed return in another game in which the lead swapped sides numerous times. Buoyed by the opportunity to make history, they then held their both their serve and nerve in the next game to achieve what nobody had done before: defeat the Williams sisters in the Olympics Women’s doubles.
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