A recent article by Time listed 60 athletes to look out for in the Rio Olympics. Among the list of 60 individuals and teams are Chad le Clos (200 m butterfly) and Caster Semenya (800 m) from South Africa. Another article by Telegraph listed the top 100 athletes likely to take gold – placing South African Wayde van Niekerk (400 m) among the athletes likely to take a medal.
But qualifying times aren’t always an indication of success. There have been quite a few surprises at the games throughout history, some stories which have inspired generations from across the globe.
Inspirational Olympic stories throughout history
Lawrence Lemieux had his heart set on the silver medal during the 1988 Games in Seoul. Though the seas were rough, this sailor persevered and was well in second place when he heard a commotion on the seas at a nearby event. Two Singaporean sailors were in dire straits – one in a boat which had capsized, the other swept off by the currents. Lemieux swiftly abandoned course and pulled the two sailors from the water, waiting for rescue boats to arrive before re-joining his competition. Of course, at this stage he’d slipped to 23rd place. His valour did not go unrewarded though, as the Olympic committee awarded him the Pierre de Coubertin medal for sportsmanship.
Most athletes have years of training behind their backs before attempting the wow the world on the Olympic stage, but Eric Moussambani from Equatorial Guinea had a different story to tell. When Moussambani stood in front of the pool at the 2000 Summer Games, it was the first time in his life he’d ever seen an Olympic-sized pool and he’d only started swimming mere months before the event. Although Moussambani did not come close to winning a medal, he’d inspired youths from disadvantaged communities throughout the world by showing that the hurdles in front of you are merely concepts of the mind and you can overcome these hurdles if you believe.
108 years before Oscar Pistorius came along, being an amputee didn’t offer athletes a lot of options. This was the case for George Eyser, who had a wooden leg. At the 1904 Olympic Games, Eyser competed in the gymnastic events, winning several medals – including three gold, two silver and one bronze. Eyser had lost his leg after a train ran over him, but this did not deter him. Eyser was the first person in history before 2008 to have competed in the Olympic Games with a prosthetic leg and the only amputee before this time to have taken so many medals in different events.
Not many people know about Derek Redmond – probably because he never got that medal he was hoping for. In 1988 Redmond’s hopes to compete in the race were dashed by an Achilles tendon injury mere 10 minutes before the games. After numerous surgeries, Redmond re-entered the Olympics with his sights set on that medal he’d been waiting for.
The stadium for the 400 m semifinals was packed with 65 000 spectators. Redmond quickly took first place, breaking from the pack and taking a comfortable, but a mere 17 metres from the finish line, Redmond heard a pop as his right hamstring snapped. Redmond fell to his knees and is attended by medical professionals, but from his haunches he stands up, hopping mostly on his one leg. Suddenly a man runs from the side of the field to Redmond’s side, taking his hand. It’s Redmond’s father. Together the father and son walk across the finish line, tears streaming down Redmond’s face. Watch the inspiring video of Redmond’s 1992 Olympic race. Redmond’s story is a testimony to the power of perseverance and how failure does not define us.
Another inspirational tale of perseverance through injury is that of Shun Fujimoto. The Japanese men’s gymnastics team had won gold at every Olympic Games from 1960 to 1972, which meant the country’s eyes were looking towards their gymnasts for yet another gold – something Fujimoto knew well. So when he heard a pop in his leg during his floor exercises, he knew he had to downplay his injury – a broken knee cap. Fujimoto pushed through the pain, scoring a 9.5 in the pommel horse and continuing on to the rings – dismounting with a triple-somersault and a near-perfect landing which saw him score a 9.7 – his personal best. Fujimoto collapsed after the dismount and was warned that any further competition could see him permanently disabled. The Japanese team took the gold thanks to Fujimoto’s perseverance.
As the only male and second diver in Olympic history to take the gold in consecutive Olympic Games’ diving events, Louganis is undoubtedly a stellar athlete. Although a favourite to win gold at the 1980 Summer Olympics, Louganis was prevented from participating due to an American boycott. That did not deter him though, and Louganis competed at the world championships in 1982, becoming the first diver in major international sports to win a perfect score of 10 from all seven judges. He went on to win gold in both the springboard and tower diving at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and won two more championship titles in 1986 as well as two more golds at the 1988 Seoul Olympics despite a concussion suffered during preliminary rounds. His feats saw him named ABC’s Wide World of Sports Athlete of the year. What made Louganis’ feats all the greater was the revelation that Louganis had received an HIV-positive diagnosis a mere six months before the 1988 games.
The 1936 Berlin Olympics placed athletes on the stage of a tumultuous time in history. German dictator, Adolf Hitler, was still in charge of things on that side of the world – and he’d planned to show the world exactly just how much more capable his Aryan race was at sports. In fact, Hitler had lambasted other nations for sending non-white athletes to the Olympic Games. But for Jesse Owens, the black grandchild of slaves, the games was to disprove Hitler’s theory. Owens became the first American to win four track and field gold medals at a single Olympics. He clinched the gold in the 100 metres, 200 metres, 4 x 100 metre relays and the long jump. His Olympic medal record stood for 48 years.
Mildred ‘Babe’ Didrikson
Most athletes struggle to simply qualify for their event and enter the Olympics. This was not the case for Babe Didrikson, a 19-year old typist who qualified for five track-and-field events at the 1932 Olympics, two more than the maximum events athletes were allowed to enter. Babe chose three events to compete in. During her javelin throw the javelin slipped from her hand, tearing the cartilage in her right shoulder. Despite the injury, Babe’s throw travelled more than 43,5 metres to earn her a new world record. Babe didn’t let the injury hamper her, and she competed in the 80-metre hurdles and setting another world record. She had to settle for silver in her high jump after a disqualifying head-first jump. Babe’s sporting feats didn’t end there, though, as she left the track and field for the green golfing grass – winning every available women’s title by 1950.
Growing up in the streets of Brazzaville, Republic of Congo, Serge Ibaka had spent a great time of his life without parents. His mother had passed away at a young age and his father had been imprisoned during the Second Congo War for two years without charges in this war-ridden country. Ibaka escaped the horrors of streetlife by focusing on basketball as an escape – making his real escape from the country at the age of 17. He landed in France and later moved to Spain – teaching himself Spanish – this is where his basketball career took off. Ibaka went on to become one of the most valuable players for the Seattle Supersonics (Oklahoma City Thunder) and one of the hopefuls for team USA. Ibaka later found out he had a daughter in the Republic of Congo who had been kept a secret from him for several years.
The best place to prepare for Olympics is undoubtedly on the track or in the gym among fellow athletes and coaches who show you the ropes, spur you on and support your progress. Of course, if you found yourself living during the World War II stretch, and happened to be a Japanese American immigrant, then you didn’t have those luxuries. Tamio Kono was one of these immigrants and due to his heritage, Kono and his family were forced from their home in San Francisco to a detention centre in California – living under brutal conditions for three and a half years. Kono who suffered from asthma found that the dry desert air of the centre eased his ailment and he started lifting weights to pass the time. Kono went on to become one of the most important weightlifting stars in American history – swiftly gaining and losing weight to fill up gaps in the US team roster. Kono set seven Olympic and 26 world records during his lifetime – competing between 67,5 kg and 90 kg’s as equired – and also won the Mister Universe title three times.
Not many Olympic athletes can say they literally learned to run by running for their lives – but this is the story of Loppez Lomong. Lomong grew up in war-stricken Sudan. During the Second Sudanese Civil War, Lomong was abducted at the age of six while attending Catholic mass and assumed dead by his family. The family buried him in absentia after Lomong didn’t turn up. After nearly dying in captivity Lomong and some of the villagers managed to escape, running for three days straight across the border into Kenya. Lomong then spent ten years in a refugee camp before being offered entry to the USA via a Catholic charity. In 2003 Lomong was reunited with his Sudanese family whom he’d assumed to be dead. A year after receiving his US citizenship, Lomong qualified for the US Olympic team and was even chosen as team captain to carry the US flag at the 2008 Summer Olympics.
Caster Semenya is well-known in South African circles and worldwide – not merely for her prowess on the track, but also for the controversy surrounding her gender. Growing up in the heart of Limpopo in Ga-Masehlong, Semenya’s dream has always been to simply win the Olympics. But Semenya’s speed and male features put her in the spotlight of gender-controversy. Semenya had to undergo humiliating and dragged-out gender testing by the International Association of Athletics (IAAF), who later declared Semenya was to retain her world championship title and would be allowed to compete in the female running events. Semenya is the favourite pick for winning the 800 metre track event at the Olympics this year.
Having a great eye is probably the first requirement for becoming an archer – after all, seeing that bulls-eye is the number one focus for athletes in this event. Im Dong-Hyun wasn’t going to let that little bump in the road stop him though. Having been declared legally blind (with 20/200 vision), he’d been told his disability even made him too impaired for holding down a job. Hong has become an inspiration in Olympic circles, having won two Olympic golds and seven other world titles during his career.
Jamaican Bob-sled team
The story which stole hundreds of thousands of hearts is undoubtedly that of the 1988 Jamaican bobsled team. Despite coming from a country with no snow, the team went on to compete in the Olympic games. Although a Disney movie dubbed ‘Cool Runnings’ depicted the team as a group of track sprinters, the team was actually recruited from the Jamaican army. Two American businessmen had seen the local pushcart derbies in Jamaica and inspired to start a bobsled team. Stokes, on whose life the film was based, had been a captain in the army and told by his Colonel to participate in the bobsled event. September 1987 was the first time he’d seen a bobsled, and by February 1988 he was competing in the Winter Olympics. The team had to use borrowed equipment and a team member suffered an injury during training. After crashing at 137 kilometres per hour during one of their runs, the team was trapped underneath the sled. The team then finally got out and pushed their sled to the finish line before lifting it over their heads. Although they didn’t win at the Olympics they certainly won the hearts of Olympic supporters across the globe.
At the age of 12, Queen Underwood decided she wanted to become great. She wanted to change lives and give people who are hurting a place to belong and feel loved. She wanted to become an inspiration. Queen’s dream was spurred on by a harrowing history of abuse, Underwood made a promise that she’d one day be strong enough to fight back. Underwood and her sister suffered sexual abuse for years at the hand of her father. Living in Seattle’s Central District, there wasn’t a lot of hope to attain her dream of becoming a national sporting star. Underwood fell into the wrong crowd at high school – trading the abuse of home with the delinquency of her crowd. But Queen found solace in the pipefitters union – laying pipes as an apprentice in downtown Seattle buildings. She got another silver lining when stopping off at Cappy’s Gym in Central District – where the owner, Cappy Kotz, saw her commitment to fighting. Underwood went on to become a Olympic boxer for the USA, winning several titles across the world. She started the Living Out the Dream Foundation to help other youths overcome the hardships of their upbringing and poverty and reach outside their situation.
US National ice hockey team
Another underdog story is undoubtedly that of the 1980 Winter Olympics ice hockey. The team was comprised of a group of amateurs and collegiate – players who had little experience at competing on a national, let alone international level. The Olympic favourites were the Soviets who’d clinched the medal four times. The US team was seeded seventh and no one paid them much attention, until, of course, they clinched the world title. The feat saw the story earn the title of ‘Miracle on Ice’ and went on to inspire a nation.
We are all rooting for the underdogs at this year’s Olympics and looking forward to seeing what this year’s games has in store for us.