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Olympic Underdogs: 5 Athletes From History Who Have Overcome The Odds (VIDEO)

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Abebe Bikila wins the Olympic marathon in Tokyo in 1964.
Abebe Bikila wins the Olympic marathon in Tokyo in 1964.

1. Abebe Bikila: Unknown Ethiopian Runner Wins Marathon Barefoot (Rome, 1960)

Abebe Bikila, an unknown Ethiopian runner, won the marathon at the Rome Olympics, breaking the world record--and he did it barefoot.

Bikila was from a tiny village in rural Ethiopia and didn’t even start running until he was 24 years old. At the time, he was working for the Emperor’s Guard and had been noticed by a Swedish coach who was hired by the Ethiopian government to spot potential athletes.

Although Bikila had won multiple marathons in Ethiopia, his finishing times weren’t good enough to get him noticed. He wasn’t even slotted to go to the Rome Olympics in 1960, but he was sent in place of a teammate who had injured himself.

Bikila was completely unknown when the marathon began. Commentators couldn’t even pronounce his name. What got him noticed was his bare feet, which many in the audience and the media found funny. The marathon route in Rome was drawn to showcase the city’s splendor, and therefore the runners passed dozens of references to colonialism, hegemony, and fascism. At one point, Bikila passed a 1,700 year old monument that Mussolini had plundered from his native country during World War II.

When Bikila won the race, although he ran it barefoot, he beat the world record, and became the first black African to win an Olympic gold medal. At a time when Africa was beginning to emerge from colonial rule, Bikila became the symbol of an entire continent’s resurgence.

2. Misty Hyman: US Swimmer Who Almost Quit Swimming Upsets Reigning Champion (Sydney, 2000)

At the Summer Games in Sydney, Australia, there was no question Susie O’Neill was going to win the 200 meter butterfly. She was the defending champion, having won the gold in Atlanta four years earlier, and had earned the nickname “Madame Butterfly” as a result. She held the record for most Olympic medals of any Australian. It was her last Olympics, and she was going to be competing in her native country.

But she lost to Misty Hyman, a 21 year old American swimmer from Mesa, Arizona, who had a reputation for losing steam on the final legs of her races, and who had considered quitting swimming entirely only months before.

Even on her own team, Hyman wasn’t favored to win. Two of her teammates, Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres, were both more experienced, had won multiple Olympic medals and had reputations for performing better under pressure.

But, in one of the greatest upsets in the history of Olympic swimming, Misty Hyman won the gold medal in the 200 meter butterfly, with a time of just under 2 minutes and 6 seconds, beating reigning champion Susie O’Neill by 7/10 of a second. Hyman was in such disbelief upon winning that she had to repeatedly look at the scoreboard to verify that her name was in first place.

3. Emil Zatopek: Czech Runner Sets Record That Has Never Been Beaten (Helsinki, 1952)

Emil Zatopek will go down in history as one of the greatest distance runners of all time. But he got into running through sheer chance at the age of 16 while working in a Czech shoe factory, and in almost every way he was an unorthodox athlete.

Even as he trained to become an Olympian, Zatopek would wear work boots instead of running shoes, and used to sprint as fast as he could instead of pacing himself like most runners. He moved his torso in a way that many criticized as inefficient. His tortured facial expressions prompted one sports columnist to remark that he “ran like a man with a noose around his neck.”

But in spite of his remarkable lack of professional training, Zatopek (who was a major in the Czech army) entered the Olympics in 1948 and won the gold medal in the 10 kilometer race. It was only the second time he had run that race.

But what earned him a place in the pantheon of Olympic greats was his performance in the Summer Games in Helsinki in 1952. Although doctors had warned him not to compete on account of an infected gland in his neck, Zatopek won the 5,000 and 10,000 meter races and then, on a whim, entered and easily won the gold medal in the marathon, although he hadn’t bothered to train for it at all. Zatopek was the first (and remains the only) athlete in history to win all three races in one Olympic Games. He also set records in all three.

Over the course of his career, Zatopek set 18 world records. He died in 2000 in a hospital in Prague where he was being treated for a stroke he’d had earlier that year.

4. Anthony Nesty: First Athlete Of African Descent To Win Gold In Olympic Swimming (Seoul, 1988)

In a sport dominated by white men from wealthy countries, the victory of a no-name swimmer from Suriname in the 100m butterfly, who was up against a highly-trained American who won 7 medals that year, by just 1/100th of a second, took the whole world by surprise.

Anthony Nesty began swimming at a young age, although he was from a tiny South American country that only had one Olympic size pool. After competing in the 1984 Olympics, Nesty moved to Florida to train at an elite school under coach Gregg Troy.

Although he’d won medals in international competition before, Nesty was a virtual unknown when he arrived in Seoul for the 1988 Olympic Games. He was up against a 6’8” American named Matt Biondi who won 7 medals (5 of them gold) that year and who set 12 world records over the course of his career.

But towards the end of the 100m butterfly, Biondi finished between strokes, which meant he had to glide to the finish. Nesty ended up beating him by 1/100th of a second, winning the gold medal and breaking the world record. It was the first and only time Suriname won an Olympic medal, and perhaps more significantly, the first time a swimmer of African descent had won one.

5. Mariel Zagunis: 19-Year-Old Wins Gold Medal In Fencing For The US For First Time In 100 Years (Athens, 2004)

Italy, Hungary and France have dominated fencing for over 100 years. Together, these three countries hold over half of the almost 600 medals won in fencing since the first modern Olympics in 1896.

But after the breakup of the Soviet Union, many of its fencing coaches immigrated to the United States. One of them was Ed Korfanty, who came to the US from Poland in 1990 and became the US National Women’s coach. One of his students was Mariel Zagunis, from Beaverton, Oregon. Zagunis had been fencing since she was 10 years old, and in 2004 almost qualified for the Olympics, but fell short by a single touch. Zagunis was only 19 years old at the time, and wasn’t even ranked in the top 10 world fencers.

But when a Nigerian fencer named Jaqueline Esimaje dropped out, Zagunis, through a stroke of luck and at the very last minute, made the US team. At the 2004 Athens Summer Olympics, which was the first time in history women had competed in saber fencing, Zagunis easily beat Tan Xue of China for the gold medal. It was the first time in 100 years an American had won the gold in fencing.

“Part of the mental aspect of fencing is to take opponents' strengths and turn them into weaknesses,'' Zagunis said. She brought that strategy to the next Summer Olympics, in Beijing in 2008. Although she was seeded in sixth place, Zagunis beat the top seed and won gold a second time. Zagunis, who had such low expectations she was asked to step out of the Olympic photograph before the match, single-handedly changed American history.

Zagunis will be going to London this year with hopes of winning a third gold medal. Her coach is the same Ed Korfanty of Poland who has trained her for 18 years.

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