The Heist: Biggest miracles at the Olympics, from Rulon Gardner's gold to Steven Bradbury's victory

In this edition of The Heist, we look at instances from the Olympics that make you believe in miracles:

FP Sports June 09, 2020 20:29:16 IST
The Heist: Biggest miracles at the Olympics, from Rulon Gardner's gold to Steven Bradbury's victory

Editor's Note: For a number of years, sports have provided succour to troubled societies, alleviating them, even if temporarily, of their pain and suffering. As a locked-down world struggles with the 'new normal', it's only natural that we seek inspiration in sports. Where else would one find impossible being redefined and proverbial phoenixes rising in real-time? Firstpost's latest series, The Heist, deals with precisely that sentiment. Over the next few days, we shall bring you stories of grit and giant-killing that have stood the test of time. Here's to hope.


‘Do you believe in miracles?’

You may be familiar with that phrase. ABC play-by-play announcer Al Michaels famously posed that question to viewers watching the ice hockey game of the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics between USA and Soviet Union. 40 years have passed since that heady victory, but every two years the Olympics play host to miracles.

In this edition of The Heist, we look at instances from the Olympics that make you believe in miracles:

Greco-Roman wrestler Rulon Gardner at Sydney 2000

Sometimes contests at the Olympics can be a foregone conclusion long before any athlete as much as steps onto the field. The Greco-Roman final of the super heavyweight weight class at the 2000 Sydney Olympics was one such occasion.

On one end stood Russia’s Aleksandr Karelin, a man who had not been beaten in a bout for 13 years. This included three Olympics (from Seoul 1988 to Atlanta 1996), nine World Championships (1989 to 1999) and 12 consecutive European Championships (1988 to 200) where Karelin claimed gold medals. His conquests on the mat earned him nicknames like ‘Aleksandr, the Great’, ‘Russian King Kong’ and ‘Russian Bear’. His myth had been burnished by tales that sounded too good to be true ― like how he had once carried a refrigerator seven flights of stairs by himself.

Facing him was American grappler Rulon Gardner, a dairy farmer from Wyoming, who was at his first Olympics in Sydney. A man nicknamed ‘Fatso’. A man who was mocked since childhood for his weight. Before Sydney 2000, Gardner had never finished higher than fifth in an international competition. In fact, he was ranked third in his weight class even in his own country. He was never even a NCAA champion!

So, predictably, no one gave Gardner a chance in the Sydney Olympics final.

But in what was christened The Miracle on Mat, Gardner took a 1-0 lead after his Russian opponent broke his clinch. It was the first point the Russian had conceded in seven years. Gardner never relinquished his lead, much to the surprise of the world and Karelin himself, who departed the venue leaving his shoes on the mat, a sign that he was retiring.


Singaporean swimmer Joseph Schooling at Rio Summer Olympics 2016

The Heist Biggest miracles at the Olympics from Rulon Gardners gold to Steven Bradburys victory

File image of Singapore's Joseph Schooling posing with his Rio Olympics gold medal after reaching home. AFP

In a race with names like USA’s Michael Phelps, South Africa’s Chad le Clos and Hungary’s Laszlo Cseh, not many would have thought that a 21-year-old swimmer from Singapore, Joseph Schooling, would stand a chance. But Schooling didn’t just win gold at the 100m butterfly event, he did so in Olympic record time of 50.39secs.

Phelps, who had won gold in the event at three previous Olympic Games, was relegated to silver, along with Le Clos and Cseh in a unique three-way tie.

What made the gold remarkable was the fact that Schooling was inspired to take up swimming seriously after a meeting with Phelps at a club in Singapore. Schooling’s gold was also the first time an athlete from Singapore had claimed the elusive yellow metal at the Olympics.


Puerto Rico tennis ace Monica Puig at Rio Summer Olympics 2016

Ranked World No 34, no one had too many expectations from Monica Puig at the Rio Olympics. It was a field loaded with players of the calibre of Garbine Muguruza, Petra Kvitova, and Angelique Kerber. But one by one, the unseeded Puig took them down, dropping just two sets in the entire tournament. She took down 2016 French Open champ Muguruza in the quarters, and Kvitova in the semis, before taking on World No 2 Kerber in the final.

“I didn’t lose. She beat me,” Kerber later told reporters.

Puig’s gold made her the first woman in her country’s history to win a medal at the Olympics. It also made her the island nation’s first-ever gold medallist.


Great Britain men’s hockey team at 1988 Seoul Summer Games

This was one of Great Britain hockey’s biggest moments on grass. True, they weren’t really rank underdogs going into Seoul 1988, having won bronze four years ago and silver at the 1986 World Cup. But they were a team filled with players who held regular jobs such as bankers, surgeons, newspaper show proprietors and teachers.

They began the tournament with a 2-2 draw and a 1-2 defeat against West Germany in their third pool game. But they bounced back from those early setbacks to make it to the final after defeating the fancied Australians. The Brits took a 3-0 lead in the final against West Germany, their tormentors in the group stage. While West Germany managed to pull a goal back, the Brits held on to fly home with a famous gold. 

Argentina men’s basketball team at 2004 Athens Summer Games

When they were almost beaten at the final of the 1988 Olympics, Team USA responded by assembling teams of NBA superstars for the Olympics, starting with the Dream Team at Barcelona 1992.

Their team for Athens 2004 was similarly star-studded, consisting of Allen Iverson, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Tim Duncan and Carmelo Anthony. Granted, that many of these players were still young but with the talent on the roster they should have swept gold at Athens.

They got an early wake-up call with a defeat to Puerto Rico in the group stages. Then they ran into the feisty Argentinians, led by Manu Ginobili, in the semi-final. On paper, they should won easily. The Argentinians had little basketball pedigree to boast of on the international stage.

But Ginobili scored 29 points to lead the South American side to an 89-81 victory and assure them of their first-ever Olympic medal in basketball. They went on to win gold, while USA settled for a bronze medal.


Marathoner Emil Zatopek at 1952 Helsinki Summer Olympics  

Emil Zatopek had already won a gold and silver at the 1948 London Olympics and was known as a running machine. But at the Helsinki Olympics he achieved what was, and is, nearly impossible: he won gold medals in the 5,000m, 10,000m and the marathon events. In recent decades, it’s unheard of for runners to even attempt running the 5,000m, 10,000m and the marathon. Not only did Zatopek run those distances in a span of eight days and win them, but he also set world record times in all three of them at the same Games.

The Czechoslovakian decided to compete at the marathon event at Helsinki on a whim, having never run the distance competitively before. The pre-race favourite was Britain’s Jim Peters, who had set the world record just weeks ago. What’s enhanced Zatopek’s legend are tales of how he actually asked Peters during the marathon if the pace of the race was okay, and then spent time chatting with a car of photographers as he ran during the event!


USA ice hockey team, 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics

The Heist Biggest miracles at the Olympics from Rulon Gardners gold to Steven Bradburys victory

File image from February 1980 showing the US ice hockey team pouncing on goalie Jim Craig after their 4-3 victory against the Soviet Union at the the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. AP Photo

The Soviet Union ice hockey team was heavily favoured to win gold medal at the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics. For one, they had won gold at all four previous Olympic Games. They also had 12 golds from the 16 World Championships held between 1961 and 1979. So when they made it to the medal round of the 1980 Games, not many doubted that they would end up with gold. Theirs was a star-studded team, after all.

Team USA, on the other hand, was composed of college kids. They had also been thumped 10-3 in an exhibition match by the Soviet Union team at Madison Square Garden one week before the 1980 Olympics.

As fate would have it, both teams, along with Sweden and Finland, made it to the medal round (There was no semi-final or final to decide the medallists).

Facing off in the medal round, the Soviets took the lead thrice. Each time, the Americans pulled level. Then captain Mike Eruzione scored another goal with 10 minutes left on the clock, and for the first time, USA were ahead. The Americans withstood nine attempts on goal in those 10 minutes to register, perhaps, the most famous victory in ice hockey, a match christened ‘The Miracle on Ice’.

The Americans still had to beat Finland in their next game to seal gold, which they managed. But their names had already been etched into history a few days before that win.


Nigerian paddler Aruna Quadri at Rio Summer Olympics

The Nigerian paddler, who had started playing the sport on the streets back home, started his pre-quarter-final match at the Rio Olympics against Germany’s Timo Boll on a wing and a prayer. Boll had won three medals at previous Olympics, while Quadri was a rank outsider.

But at the Olympics, reputations matter for little. The Nigerian wrested control of the match early on by taking a 3-0 lead after winning the first three games of the clash. Boll, a former World No 1 who was the 10th seed at the Rio Olympics, hit back by clinching the next two games. But it was too late. Quadri sealed his entry into the quarters by winning the next game, thereby becoming the first African paddler to make it to the quarters of an Olympics. It was a result so significant that even the ITTF, the world organising body for table tennis, branded it as the biggest upset in Olympic table tennis history.


Australian speed skater Steven Bradbury at 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympics

Every gold medallist at the Olympics will have an irresistible tale to tell. But Steven Bradbury’s gold medal-winning story purely includes jaw-dropping amounts of sheer luck.

The first slice of luck came in the quarter-finals of the 1,000m speed skating event where pre-race favourite Marc Gagnon was disqualified. Bradbury had finished third in the race, but progressed into the semis due to the disqualification. In the semis, many competitors in Bradbury’s race toppled over.

In the five-man final, Bradbury was not a favourite, given the presence of men like two-time World Champion Apolo Ohno, three-time World Champion Mathieu Turcotte and 10-time World Champion Li Jiajun.

Once the race started, Bradbury fell back while the remaining four racers were neck-to-neck jockeying for the three medals. At the final bend of the race, Jiajun made an ambitious yet risky move to overtake Ohno leading to a collision which resulted in a four-man pile-up. Before they could compose themselves, Bradbury passed them by and crossed the finish line. So remarkable was this victory that it spurred his second career as a motivational speaker and forced even Urban Dictionary to take note.


Great Britain’s men’s 4x100m relay team at 2004 Athens Olympics

Before the race began, the American men’s relay team was supposed to be certain gold medal contenders. In their ranks, they had the likes of 100m champion Justin Gatlin, 200m champion Shawn Crawford and three-time world champion Maurice Greene.

The British sprint quartet, on the other hand, had just one runner ― Jason Gardener ― who had actually dipped below the 10 seconds mark, albeit five years ago. Darren Campbell, meanwhile, was nursing a dodgy hamstring while Marlon Devonish and Mark Lewis-Francis were woefully out of form.

But once the relay team started, the Americans spluttered with their baton exchange as Lewis-Francis edged ahead to hand Great Britain a historic gold.

Click here to read other articles in this series.


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