The Olympics are truly a time to celebrate the endurance of the human spirit, where near incredible feats are accomplished across a range of sporting disciplines every four years. And what makes the Olympics just that much more exciting is those unexpected moments when outside competitors come from nowhere to take the gold. Here are a few of the most memorable gold medals in Olympic history.
1. Steven Bradbury
Undoubtedly, this ‘Cool Runnings’ competitive ice skater from hot, sunny Australia tops the list with his truly unexpected gold medal claimed at the 2002 Winter Olympics. The race was going as planned, with Bradbury hanging back behind the leading quartet including American home favourite, Apolo Ohno, and three other former medal winners. But, as they proceeded into the final turn, the incredible happened…the entire field of racers crashed in front of Bradbury. This allowed him to simply saunter across the line unchallenged, gliding straight to the gold medal.
2. Kipchoge Keino
This Kenyan proved his tenacity three times at the 1968 Olympic Games which he entered as the underdog. In addition, Keino was diagnosed with gallstones during the games but this didn’t deter him. He still went on to enter the 10 000m race which, unsurprisingly, he couldn’t complete because of unbearable pain that prompted him to crawl off the track for a break before – and this is quite remarkable – he then returned to finish the race. He was disqualified from this race because of leaving the track, so he decided to give the 5 000m a shot four days later – gallstones and all. He actually managed to win a silver, missing out on gold by only two-tenths of a second. But Keino wasn’t done. Despite being bedridden in between games, he still wanted to compete in the 1 500m race so he got on a bus which got stuck in traffic. No matter, Keino just got out and ran the last mile to the stadium before taking the gold from the favourite, Jim Ryun, by an unprecedented 20m. Definitely a well-deserved gold.
3. Emil Zatopek
Czechoslovakian Emil Zatopek started running in the 1930s when working for a shoe company. His lack of formal training resulted in quite an unusual running style, but this didn’t stop him from winning bronze in the 10km race at the 1948 Olympics. But it was at the 1952 Helsinki games that he showed some real talent. Besides never having competed in a marathon prior, Zatopek wasn’t even sure what the rules were but, no worries, he would give it a shot. Still trying to figure out the best pace, he kept up with the leading runner, Jim Peters, to ask him his views. And, thinking that the refreshments along the route came at a price, Zatopek didn’t even have a drink throughout the marathon. Despite these setbacks, he still managed to win the marathon, breaking the record as well. The following Olympics he went on to finish sixth in the marathon, despite running with a hernia.
4. Im Dong-Hyun
South Korean Olympian, Im Dong-Hyun managed to set the world record in archery at the 2012 London Olympics – breaking his own record – all with incredibly limited vision. Although he’s not blind, Im only has 20/200 vision which means that he needs to be 10 times closer to an object than those with 20/20 vision to see it. This is particularly impressive in a sport such as archery where one has to hit a small target from a distance. Im relies solely on muscle memory because target placement and distance for the event don’t change, so he ensures his arms are in the exact position, every single time. South Koreans are also notoriously dedicated to winning medals. For this particular Olympics, they built an exact replica of Lord’s Cricket Ground, got an audience to fill the stadium and also announced the archers’ names in English, all in preparation.
5. Abebe Bikila
The son of a shepherd, Ethiopian marathon runner, Abebe Bikila, only ever practiced running barefoot. So, when it came running in the 1960s Olympics in Rome, Bikila stuck to what he knew and ran barefoot. Not only did he run barefoot, he won barefoot and also broke the record…barefoot. In the 1964 Olympics, 40 days after undergoing an appendectomy, Bikila won another gold medal in the Tokyo Olympics, this time competing in the marathon with shoes.
6. Canadian Rowers
A fortuitous last-minute pairing of Canadian rowers ended in a gold medal for the pair during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. George Hungerford, who was suffering from mononucleosis, was dropped from his eight-man crew while Roger Jackson was left teamless when two rowers were injured. The team joined together to form a coxless pair entry and, as luck would have it, went on to win the gold.
7. Japanese Softball Team
Since its introduction as an Olympic sport in 1996, the American team has won every women’s softball gold. Until the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Despite the crowd thinking another American gold was a foregone conclusion, the Japanese team pounced in to take the top spot, beating the Americans 3-1 in the final.
8. United States Ice Hockey Team
Remembered as ‘The Miracle on Ice’, the United States ice hockey team pulled off one of the greatest Olympic upsets in history when they beat the Soviet Union at the 1980 Winter Olympics. An ice hockey powerhouse, the Soviet team had won an unprecedented 22 world championships and seven Olympic gold medals coming into the 1980 games. So, it’s unsurprising they were tipped to win again. But the US team, consisting of college players, beat the USSR 4-3, which would eventually lead the Americans to gold based on points.
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