Winning an Olympic gold medal…by chance!

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A look at recent Olympics history and how a few relatively lesser known athletes got fortunate enough to upset the odds, and the favorites, to take home the gold at the world’s biggest sporting extravaganza.

Olympics is all about the opportunity.

Whenever an opportunity knocks, an athlete ought to be prepared to seize it. On most occasions the big names justify the expectations and finish on the podium.

However, there have been occasions when the results haven’t gone as per expectations. Athletes not expected to win the said events otherwise, have actually taken advantage of the available opportunity, arising out of either an injury or under-performance of the favorites, to win gold.

The 120-year old history of the modern Summer Olympics is replete with examples of such athletes who have been smart enough to grab a chance coming their way with both hands.

From Italian Livio Berruti in Rome (1960) to New Zealand’s John Walker in Montreal (1976) to Portugal’s Carlos Lopes in Los Angeles (1984) to Greek Fani Chalkia in Athens (2004), there are ample such instances. For most of you the names mentioned above might be tough, rather impossible, to recall. However, it is a fact that they are all Olympic champions.

In fact, for most of them, the Olympic gold is their lone claim to fame. (If one has an Olympic gold what else does he/she need?)

In this piece we have examples of a few athletes in recent history who have upset the odds, and the favorites, to take home the gold at the world’s biggest sporting sporting extravaganza.

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Maksim Tarasov (Unified Team)

The pole vault discipline in the latter part of the last millennium was dominated by one man — Sergei Bubka.

The Ukrainian — representing the Unified Team in Barcelona (1992) — besides being a six-time world champion and the first person to clear six meters, also happened to break his own record on a number of occasions (he still holds the world record).

Bubka came to Barcelona as the defending champion — having won the gold medal in Seoul four years earlier. No points for guessing he was the favorite.

The challenge, if at all, was supposed to come from countryman Rodion Gataulin and South African Okkert Brits — the only two other vaulters to have cleared the six-meter back then.

Maksim Tarasov was nowhere in the frame.

However, Bubka flattered to deceive, failing to clear in his first three attempts.

Tarasov got the chance and he seized it. He cleared 5.80 meters, and it was enough to win him the gold.

It is sheer irony that Tarasov failed to qualify for the Atlanta Olympics four years later, left out of the Russian squad after failing to clear the starting height.

(For the record Bubka never won a second Olympic gold medal)

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Ellen van Langen (The Netherlands)

We stay at Barcelona; the event on this occasion being the women’s 800 meters.

Liliya Nurutdinova of the Unified team, who won the World Championships in Tokyo in 1991, was the favorite. Cuban Ana Quirot was considered as the main challenger.

Not many had heard of Ellen van Langen.

The Dutchwoman though surprised all, probably even herself, to win the event ahead of both Nurutdinova (silver) and Quirot (bronze) — her timing of 1:55.54 secs has remained a personal best.

Van Langen was involved in competitive athletics for six more years, albeit failing to reach the heights of Barcelona.

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Fermin Cacho (Spain)

He was consistent but certainly not the best. He was good enough to win medals but not good enough to win gold.

Coming into the Barcelona Olympics, Fermin Cacho had no major win to his credit.

Despite being a Spaniard, he was not considered a favorite for the 1500 meters gold. Noureddine Morceli was. The Algerian comfortably won his heats to justify the billing.

The 1500 meters final in Barcelona though was a disappointing one, with the athletes failing to match the timing of their women counterparts at the halfway mark.

Adding to the disappointment was the fact that Morceli could finish only seventh. (He broke the 1500m world record a month later)

Taking advantage of the Algerian’s failure was the Spaniard. Cacho ran a tactical race, positioned himself perfectly for the final stretch and raced home in 3:40.12 secs to win gold.

The gold medal in Barcelona remained the Spaniard’s lone major international success though he won the silver at the 1993 World championships (in Stuttgart) and the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, losing to Morceli on both the occasions. Cacho won silver again at the 1997 World championships at Athens, behind Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj.

Paraskevi Patoulidou (Greece)

Her name is somewhat of a tongue twister.

Also known as Voula, Paraskevi Patoulidou came into the Barcelona Olympics as a rank outsider.

Already 27, she had no major success in her resume.

American Gail Devers was the favourite in the women’s 100 meters hurdles. However, in reaching the final, Patoulidou became the first Greek woman to achieve the feat.

As she crossed the finishing line, setting her personal best (12.64 secs) en route which remains a national record, Patoulidou started celebrating what she thought was a silver medal. The replays increased her joy manifold.

Devers had tripped on the last hurdle and the woman from Greece won the gold.

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Vebjorn Rodal (Norway)

In the mid-1990s, the men’s 800 meters was dominated by one man, Kenyan-born Danish athlete Wilson Kipketer.

Since he had emigrated to Denmark before the Atlanta Olympics, the Kenyan federation blocked his participation in the Games, thereby ensuring the race was wide open.

Vebjorn Rodal, who had won bronze behind Kipketer in the World championships in Gothenburg a year earlier, was still an outsider.

However, the Norweigian overtook the field in his second lap, crossing the finish line ahead of South African Hezekiel Sepeng and Kenyan Fred Onyancha and with a new Olympic record (1:42.58).

The gold at Atlanta remained Rodal’s lone international triumph. He couldn’t defend his title in Sydney four years later, failing to reach the final.

Venuste Niyongabo (Burundi)

Coming into the 5000 meters at the Atlanta Olympics, Venuste Niyongabo had competed only twice before in that event.

German Dieter Baumann, a gold medalist in Barcelona four years earlier, was the favourite to retain his crown. The Kenyans were supposed to provide the major challenge.

As it turned out, Baumann could only finish fourth, the Kenyans couldn’t take advantage of the same and Niyongabo had won the gold medal.

He failed to add any other international title to his achievement in Atlanta.

However, to this date Niyongabo remains the first, and so far only, athlete from Burundi to win an Olympic medal, a gold at that.

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Josia Thugwane (South Africa)

For starters, Josia Thugwane is the first black athlete to win gold for South Africa at the Olympics.

He won gold in the marathon at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.

Thugwane was fortunate to be able to compete in the Games. He survived a gun shot and a back injury ahead of the same.

However, in Atlanta, the South African upset everyone, including favourite Martin Fiz of Spain, to win gold.

That remained Thugwane sole international triumph, the South African failing miserably at his attempt at defending his title in Sydney four years later.


Arsi Harju (Finland)

Shot put and a Finnish athlete don’t make a good pairing!

When it comes to field events, the Nordic country has a history of doing well in javelin. However, in shot put its record doesn’t speak much.

Arsi Harju is an exception though.

The Kurikka-born athlete won gold at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 with a throw of 21.29 meters.

Prior to final, he also set a personal best (21.39 m) in the heats.

The triumph in Sydney remained Harju’s major international success.

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Erki Nool (Estonia)

Czech Roman Sebrle was the main contender for the decathlon gold at the Sydney Olympics. American Chris Huffins was the main challenger.

Estonian Erki Nool was nowhere in the frame. Neither did he win any of the 10 events.

Yet Nool walked away with the gold, even if it was in a controversial manner. The referee overruled the judge at the discus event and made the Estonian’s final attempt valid.

Though there were protests thereafter, Nool was celebrating his gold medal win.

Million Wolde (Ethiopia)

Ethiopians are generally good at long distance races, so much so that they can’t be counted out before a race.

Million Wolde’s credentials coming into the 5000 metres event at the Sydney Olympics was nothing to boast about.

The Ethiopian had finished a disappointing eighth at the World championships in Seville a year earlier.

However, in Sydney Wolde defied all odds and won comfortably.

That triumph remained Wolde’s lone win at an international level even though the Ethiopian came close at the world championship in Edmonton (2001), finishing second.