The Olympics are the home of miracles.
When it comes to Olympic upsets, the United States’ 1980 “Miracle on Ice” against the Soviet Union tops the list. A team of mostly amateur players taking down the four-time defending gold medalists encapsulates what can captivate the world during the globe’s biggest sporting event.
The Summer Olympics have played host to some miraculous upsets as well over their 125-year history. From the track to the pool to the court, there is always a chance someone could create the next great Hollywood ending.
The Tokyo Olympics saw their fair share of upsets, including some where Team USA ended up on the wrong end. With the 2020 Games wrapped up, here are the greatest Summer Olympic upsets of all time:
1952 Helsinki Summer Olympics: Emil Zatopek wins marathon on a whim
Emil Zatopek is one of the greatest runners of all time, so how could he pull off an Olympic upset? Well, at the 1952 Games, he decided to give the marathon a whirl and won.
The Czechoslovakian had already won the men’s 5000m and 10,000m in Helsinki. Two golds were not enough for him, though, as he entered the marathon even though he had never run one before.
Just three days following his 5000m triumph, the “Czech Locomotive” was back atop the podium for the marathon. If the win wasn’t surprising enough, he beat the second-place finisher by more than two and a half minutes.
1964 Tokyo Olympics: Billy Mills comes out of nowhere to win the 10,000m
The U.S. only has one Olympic gold medalist in the men’s 10,000m, and it certainly didn’t look like it would have any after the first 9,900m at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
The Native American distance runner sped past Tunisia’s Mohamed Gammoudi and Australia’s Ronald Clarke to shock the world. He set a world record time of 28:24.4, which was also 46 seconds faster than his personal best going into the race and less than a second faster than Gammoudi in the race.
1972 Munich Olympics: Clock confusion leads to USSR men’s basketball gold over Team USA
The U.S. men’s basketball team had a 63-0 all-time Olympic record heading into its gold medal game against the Soviet Union in 1972. However, a head-scratching ending kept Team USA from another perfect run.
Team USA trailed by a point when Doug Collins was fouled and given two free throws. He made the first and hit the second, but the Soviet team insisted it called timeout before the second make. After the referees conferred and ultimately decided not to award the timeout, they ordered that the USSR inbound with three seconds on the clock down one point.
The buzzer sounded soon after the ensuing inbound — too soon. Amid Team USA celebrations, the game ended prematurely after the clock only ran for one second instead of three. The proper three seconds were put back on the clock, the Soviets ran another play and sank a go-ahead layup to earn gold.
The gutting defeat did not derail Team USA for long. The Americans ran the table at the 1976 Olympics and continued their Olympic dominance for the next 30 years.
1976 Montreal Olympics: U.S. women beat East Germany in 4x100m freestyle relay
East Germany did not leave much room for anyone else on the swimming podium at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
The East German women did not win a single swimming gold medal at the 1972 Olympics before winning 11 of a possible 13 in Montreal. The Americans voiced suspicions in 1976 that the East Germans were using performance-enhancing drugs but were widely seen as poor losers. Team USA star Shirley Babashoff had entered the Games as the favorite in several events but was held to three silvers in her individual events, falling to an East German in each final.
Babashoff and Team USA did get one gold medal against the East German machine, though. Babashoff, Kim Peyton, Jill Sterkel and Wendy Boglioli set a world record time of 3:44.82 in the women’s 4x100m freestyle relay, edging East Germany by .68 seconds.
The Americans’ suspicions were later confirmed, too. Documents and court testimony have since proved East Germany operated a state-sponsored system that provided PEDs to up to 10,000 athletes from 1968 to 1988.
2000 Sydney Olympics: Misty Hyman beats ‘Madame Butterfly’
Susie O’Neill was widely considered a lock to win the women’s 200m butterfly at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
And why wouldn’t she be? The Australian was the reigning Olympic champion, held the world record in the event and was competing in her home country. She had aptly taken over the nickname of “Madame Butterfly” from Mary T. Meagher, who held the 200m butterfly record for 19 years before O’Neill broke it.
Misty Hyman, on the other hand, was a fish out of water. Her fish kick was seen as obscure in the sport and she had been continuously beaten by O’Neill in the event.
In Sydney, Hyman turned the tide with a stunning, record-breaking swim. She posted an Olympic record time of 2:05.88, relegating O’Neill to silver with a time of 2:06.58. It was O’Neill’s first loss in the event in six years and was the final Olympics of her historic career.
The win gave Hyman her lone career Olympic medal.
2000 Sydney Olympics: Rulon Gardner hands ‘Russian Bear’ Aleksandr Karelin first ever loss
“Do you believe in miracles again?”
That was the commentary call when Rulon Gardner pulled off a David vs. Goliath victory over Russia’s Aleksandr Karelin.
Karelin came into the men’s Greco-Roman 130kg gold medal match with three Olympic titles, nine world championships and zero losses in international competition. A win over Gardner would have made him the first four-time gold medalist in Olympic wrestling history.
Instead, the Wyoming dairy farmer claimed the gold medal with a 1-0 victory. Gardner scored the lone point 3:30 into the match, giving Karelin his first deficit in seven years. The American then fended off “Russian Bear” for the remaining 5:30.
The loss was the last ever wrestling match for Karelin, who immediately retired from the sport. Gardner went on to win bronze at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
2004 Athens Olympics: U.S. men’s basketball settles for bronze after three losses
The U.S. men’s basketball team lost more at the Athens Games than it had in its entire prior Olympic history.
Led by captains Allen Iverson and Tim Duncan, Team USA lost its Athens opener to Puerto Rico by a score of 93-72. The defeat was just the third in U.S. Olympic history and still stands as the largest. It was also one of only three wins for Puerto Rico at the 2004 Olympics.
The U.S. lost again two games later against Lithuania but advanced to the quarterfinals after going just 3-2 in group play.
Despite the disappointing group play results, Team USA still had a path to a gold medal. A quarterfinal win over Spain put the U.S. in a semifinal matchup with Argentina. Manu Ginobili, Luis Scola and Co. handed Team USA a 89-81 loss, ending the Americans’ chances at a fourth straight gold medal.
The U.S. reached the podium with a win over Lithuania in the bronze medal game, but the hardware was hardly a consolation prize for a team that fell well short of expectations.
2004 Athens Olympics: Great Britain finishes with gold in 4x100m relay
With 100m champion Justin Gatlin, 200m champion Shawn Crawford, three-time world champion Maurice Greene and Coby Miller, Team USA was penciled in for gold in the men’s 4x100m relay at the 2004 Olympics.
The United States’ run at gold came one-hundredth of a second short, however, as Great Britain pulled out a stunning victory. The British quartet of Jason Gardener, Darren Campbell, Marlon Devonish and Mark Lewis-Francis won gold with a 38.07 mark, while Team USA settled for silver after botching the baton exchange.
The victory was even greater for the British men given their past shortcomings. Sputtered baton exchanges had dashed their hopes of medaling in the two prior Olympics as they failed to reach the finish line successfully in Atlanta or Sydney. The victory in Athens was vindication, especially when it came against a powerhouse American group.
2008 Beijing Olympics: Japan ends Team USA’s golden run in softball
The U.S. dominated softball from its Olympic start in 1996, winning gold medals in the first three tournaments. Team USA continued that dominance to begin the Beijing Games, winning their seven preliminary games by a combined 53-1 total. The path to a fourth straight title was clear heading into the gold medal game
Yukiko Ueno and Japan had other plans, though.
The Japanese starter gave up just one run in a complete game effort. The offense, meanwhile, got two runs in five innings off the previously untouchable Cat Osterman before tacking on another run against Monica Abbott in the seventh. Ueno shut the door to give Japan a 3-1 win for the gold medal.
Softball returned from a 13-year Olympic hiatus at the Tokyo Games and saw another upset featuring the two nations. Japan pulled off another gold medal victory against an undefeated Team USA, shutting out the Americans 2-0 for its second ever gold medal in the sport.
2020 Tokyo Olympics: Italy’s Lamont Marcell Jacobs becomes world’s fastest man
With Usain Bolt out of the mix for the first time since 2004, the men’s 100m final was expected to be a wide open race. Somehow, the winner was still a surprise.
Italy’s Lamont Marcell Jacobs won out of Lane 3 with a time of 9.80. It was a personal best for Jacobs, who had never run the 100m under 10 seconds until 2021. He made history in the process as the first Italian man to win the event on the Olympic stage.
A couple of Americans were in position to step into the title of “world’s fastest man,” but Fred Kerley took home silver, Ronnie Baker finished fifth and Trayvon Brommel failed to reach the final altogether. Canada’s Andre de Grasse, who ended up with bronze, was also considered a favorite.
Jacobs wasn’t done winning gold at the Tokyo Olympics, either. He was part of Italy’s 4x100m relay team, which placed first in the U.S.-less final with a time of 37.50. In all, Italy won five gold medals in track and field at the Games after missing the podium completely at the 2016 Rio Olympics.