9 Underdog Nations and Their Memorable Olympic Performances
During the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, 33-year-old Flora Duffy finished first in the women’s individual triathlon, making history for her home country Bermuda. Her grueling victory gave the tiny island the distinct honor of becoming the smallest nation to win an Olympic gold medal. Here's a look back at nine other great Olympic performances from underdog nations.
1. Grenada // 2012 London Summer Olympics
The tiny Caribbean nation of Grenada won its first Olympic medal when 19-year-old Kirani James took the gold in the 400-meter dash. Grenada is now the 11th-smallest country in the world, and was then the smallest nation to win a gold medal.
2. India // 1928 Amsterdam Summer Olympics
India may be the second-most populated nation in the world, but prior to London 2012, it had only amassed 20 medals. India is, however, dominant in the sport of field hockey and held a 30-game winning streak from 1928 to 1960, with six gold medals.
India was first introduced to the sport through British officers in the elite sporting clubs of Kolkata as early as the 1880s, and its popularity quickly spread through the ranks. The team had only begun playing international matches in 1926, but when they stepped onto the field in their first Olympics, they showed up the competition by not conceding a single goal. The 1928 tournament run gave birth to hockey’s first international star, 22-year-old Dhyan Chand, whose name has become so synonymous with hockey excellence that Pakistani star Habib-ur-Rehman is known as the “Dhyan Chand of Pakistan,” and up-and-coming hockey players are often dubbed “the modern-day Dhyan Chand.”
3. Kenya // 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics
Today, the distance running world is dominated by East African nations, particularly Kenya and Ethiopia. That wasn't always true.
Kipchoge Keino grew up as a sheepherder in the rural reaches of Kenya. As a child, he ran four miles to school each morning—barefoot. Keino was a quick study in running, and qualified for the 1964 Olympic Games without a coach. A year later, he became the first African in history to break the 4-minute mile; his time of 3:54.2 was within a second of the world record.
Even so, Keino was not favored to win at the Mexico City Games. But he used the high altitude to his advantage and pushed the pace so brutally that no one could keep up. He took his country’s first gold and would follow it up with another medal in Mexico City and two more in the 1972 games. Perhaps Keino's most impressive Olympic feat was when he arrived at Munich and discovered that a scheduling problem wouldn’t allow him to run the 5K. He decided on the spot to enter the steeplechase instead and won gold.
4. Jamaica // 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics
Immortalized in the 1993 movie Cool Runnings, the Jamaican Bobsleigh Federation was formed by an American businessman, George Fitch, residing in Jamaica. He and a friend were watching a pushcart derby and theorized that bobsledding might not be such a big stretch. Funded by Fitch and the Jamaican Tourist Board, the bobsled team had a hard time with recruitment and eventually formed their first group of recruits by asking the Jamaican Defence Force to volunteer some soldiers.
Cool Runnings is largely accurate in that the Jamaicans were first greeted with skepticism and treated as a punchline by media outlets, although the other Olympic teams were largely supportive of their efforts (one team even provided a back-up sleigh). Beyond the conclusion of the film—which showed that the Jamaicans succeeded in spirit despite failing in a spectacular crash—the real-life Jamaican bobsled team continued, improved, and eventually became competitive. At the 1994 Olympics, the Jamaican team finished ahead of both U.S. bobsled squads in 14th place. The team is still going strong today.
5. Nigeria // 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics
Pele’s famous prediction that an African soccer team would win the World Cup by the year 2000 didn't pan out, although he wasn’t very far off. Four years before the end of the century, Nigeria fulfilled the dreams of an entire continent by winning an Olympic gold.
Lest anyone think the team had easy competition, they beat World Cup champ Brazil in the semifinals, erasing a 3-1 deficit in the final 12 minutes before winning in extra time. In the final, Nigeria staged another comeback against an even more formidable Argentine squad with a 3-2 victory.
Upon their victory, heads of state from all over Africa telephoned their congratulations to the Nigerian government and a national holiday was declared the following Monday. Four years later, Africa would strike again, when Cameroon defeated Spain to take the gold in Sydney.
6. The Tropical Lugers // 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics
In the early 1990s, the number of nations participating in luge was in decline, putting the sport in danger of falling below the IOC-mandated 25-nation participation minimum. To remedy this, the International Federation of Luge implemented an initiative to recruit lugers from tropical countries and support their training endeavors.
Of the athletes invited into the training program, three managed to qualify for the Olympics. On the men’s side, Shiva Keshavan of India finished 28th with a sled made from eight-year-old spare parts, while Patrick Singleton of Bermuda placed 27th out of 34 competitors. (Singleton is perhaps best known for wearing Bermuda shorts in 17-degree weather at the Salt Lake City Opening Ceremonies.) On the women’s side, Venezuela’s Iginia Boccalandro Valentina finished 28th out of 30.
All three have returned to the Olympics and inspired further Olympic participation from the tropics. By 2002, the program qualified participants in the sliding sports from Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, Mexico, and the Virgin Islands. Among the new tropical Olympians were 48-year-old Venezuelan Warner Hoegger and his 17-year-old son, Christopher (the oldest and youngest competitors in the field), who made history as the first father and son to compete at the same modern Olympic event.
7. Equatorial Guinea // 2000 Sydney Summer Olympics
When the International Olympic Committee (IOC) allowed each nation to send up to two swimmers to the Olympics regardless of qualifying team, Eric Moussambani of Equatorial Guinea volunteered.
Moussambani taught himself how to swim in a 20-meter hotel pool in preparation for the 50-meter freestyle swim—before the Olympics, he'd never been in an Olympic-size pool. When he got to Sydney, however, the coach insisted he be placed in the 100-meter freestyle race. At the start of his heat, the two other swimmers got disqualified—meaning all Moussambani had to do was finish the heat, and he’d be through to the next round.
Inexperienced with the longer distance and being in a pool in which he couldn’t stand, Moussambani petered-out 20 meters before the finish. His arms flailed wildly and lifeguards were on standby to rescue him if necessary, but Moussambani eventually leveled himself out and plunged for the wall. At 112 seconds, his was the slowest recorded time in history, but he picked up the nickname “Eric the Eel” and became a media darling.
8. Australia // 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics
Although Australia ranks 8th in all-time Summer Olympic medals and their athletic program is considered at the forefront of modern science, they have been somewhat slow to keep up during the Winter Games. The country has sent a delegation to every Olympic Games since 1936, but it wasn’t until 1994 that Australia won a medal in the short-track speedskating team event.
One of the members of that team, Steven Bradbury, continued to skate in three more Olympics but was beset by two debilitating injuries and knew he didn’t stand a chance of advancing in the 2002 Games. Bradbury adopted a strategy of waiting in the back of the field, just in case another athlete fell down. Amazingly enough, the plan worked to perfection as he made the finals through a series of disqualifications and falls by his competitors. One of Bradbury’s biggest goals was to get the endorsement of superstar Apollo Anton Ohno for his line of in-line skates. Little did he know that Ohno and three other skaters would go down with one massive crash, leaving him the victor and Australia’s first Winter Games gold medalist.
Bradbury was dubbed the “Accidental Gold Medalist” and had conflicting feelings about his medal, but eventually reasoned that he won it through 12 years of hard work. A couple of days after his win, freestyle aerialist Alisa Camplin won another Winter gold for Australia through more legitimate means.
9. Zimbabwe // 2004-2012 Summer Olympics
Kirsty Coventry holds seven of Zimbabwe’s eight medals and has defeated some of the biggest names in the Olympics. Despite a lack of government funding for athletics programs—and Zimbabwe's lack of indoor pools—Coventry earned a scholarship to Auburn, where she won seven NCAA titles and claimed several world records in the backstroke and individual medley. Upon her return from Beijing, the country’s already-controversial president, Robert Mugabe, gave Coventry a suitcase containing $100,000 cash, a move that incited even more controversy because of Zimbabwe’s runaway inflation.
A version of this story was originally published in 2012; it has been updated for 2021.