Ten Biggest Shocks In Summer Olympics History

With Tokyo 2020 just days away, we have looked at the ten biggest shocks in the history of the Games
13:14, 19 Jul 2021

Tokyo 2020 is now just a matter of days away and as we gear up to watch the greatest athletes on the planet strut their stuff, it is worth remembering that things won't always go as planned. Even the most-fancied, best athletes can be beaten on any given day, so we’ve taken a journey back through time to look at the top ten shocks at the summer Olympics. 

Rulon Gardner - 2000

Wrestler Rulon Gardner was a relative unknown heading into Sydney, as he prepared to make his Olympic debut. He would leave as a gold medalist against all the odds. Facing legend of the sport Alexander Karelin in the final, who had won the last three Olympic gold medals along with nine world titles, he was not given a hope of victory, but gained an early point and held off the Russian giant for a historic win. 

Puerto Rico, Basketball - 2004

USA seemed to be at the heart of a lot of these shocks and had won gold in ‘92, ‘96 and ‘00 - but by the time ‘04 came around, other nations were ready to strike. A star-studded team featuring the likes of Lebron James came up against Puerto Rico in their opening game and were surprisingly beaten 92-73. 

It would be a talented Argentina team who would knock the USA out of the competition, but this Puerto Rico defeat goes down as one of the biggest Olympic shocks ever.

Japan, Softball - 2008

USA’s women were the dominant force in the world and had won every single gold medal since the sport was introduced to the Games in 1996, and when Beijing came around they were expected to walk to another gold. They’d already beaten Japan in China comfortably, 7-0 and 4-1 on their way to the final, but when the two sides met in the final, it would be the underdogs who would come out on top. 

Pitcher Yukiko Ueno had the game of her life as the Japanese recorded a shock 3-1 win to take home the gold. Nobody saw this coming, and with the sport returning for this year’s Games, we could be in line for more Japanese success.  

Billy Mills, 10,000m - 1964

World record holder Ron Clarke was the heavy favourite for this race but an unknown quantity entered a huge 29 man field for the final. Mills was a marine and had qualified for the Games during training, and managed to hold onto the leaders, Clarke and Tunisia's Mohammed Gammoudi. 

Then, in the last 100m, he found something from somewhere and sprinted past his illustrious two rivals to take the most unlikely goal. 

USA, 4x100m freestyle relay - 1976

A state sponsored drugs programme saw the East Germans absolutely clean up in the pool at the 1976 Olympics as they won all but two races in the individual events. This was unprecedented for a nation with little history in the sport, and clearly something was up, but even so the USA pulled off a historic win in the 4x100m freestyle relay. 

Against four obviously juiced up Germans, Kim Peyton, Jill Sterkel, Babashoff and Wendy Boglioli finished 0.68 seconds ahead of their rivals to take gold against all odds. 

Fanny Blankers-Koen - 1948

The 30-year-old British runner nicknamed ‘the flying housewife’ had given birth two years before the Games, had her prime taken away from her by World War II and was seen as many as over the hill by the time the London Olympics came around. 

She competed in four events in London, including the relay, and no other medalist was over the age of 23 in an era where women athletes and particularly mothers, were not seen as equals. Instead of looking after her two children she blew the field away and won four gold medals. 

Great Britain, 4x100m relay - 2004

One of Team GB’s greatest achievements was beating the USA to win gold in Athens. The US had beaten Britain by half a second in their heat and brought Justin Gatlin into their quartet for the final. There was surely only going to be one winner. 

However, Jason Gardner, Darren Campbell, Marlon Devonish and Mark Lewis-Francis ran the race of their life to edge out the American team, which featured three of the top four in the 100m, but had struggled with one changeover by 0.01 seconds. Incredible.

Emil Zatopek - 1952

Zatopek was one of the top athletes in the world when the 1952 Games came around so why is this a shock? Well, before the Olympics, he had never run more than 10k, his preferred event and only decided to take part in the marathon at the last minute. Four times the distance, this would be a big ask, especially up against world record holder Jim Peters. 

The Czechoslovakian ran to victory by two minutes, as he set a blistering pace that forced Peters to retire in Helsinki. The best runner in the world at the time made the marathon look like child’s play. 

Ben Johnson - 1988

One of the biggest shocks in Olympic history came in the blue riband event as Canadian sprinting sensation Ben Johnson seemingly broke the world record with a 9.79. He got an incredible start and powered his way to gold, but the events that unfolded hours after the race were shocking.  

24 hours later, after the medal ceremony, he failed a drugs test and his gold medal was taken from him in the most dramatic of circumstances. The dirtiest race in history. 

Chad Le Clos - 2012

Michael Phelps is the greatest Olympian of all time. 23 gold medals and 28 in total, he was expected to win every single race he entered. He scooped eight golds from eight events in 2008, and was expected to clean up in 2012. 


In the 200m butterfly, Phelps led at 150m, but did not count on a huge final 50m from the South African, who overhauled him to beat him to the wall and stop him winning the same event at three consecutive Olympics. 

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