Not even a world champion is safe

By Diana Pearl
Updated August 02, 2016 05:00 PM
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Credit: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

They only come around once every two years, so the Olympics are exciting no matter what.

But hearts really start pounding when a competitor that’s favored to win ends up getting surpassed by another. And if that underdog is from your own home country, that’s when things really get crazy.

In the build up to Rio, let’s take a look at the captivating – and at times, heart-breaking – upsets from Olympics past.

1. Argentina’s basketball gold in Athens, 2004
The United States had taken home the gold medal in basketball every year since 1988, so it came as a big shock when Argentina beat them in 2004. After winning against the United States, the South American nation went on to play (and beat) Italy, taking home the gold.

2. Chad le Clos’s 200-meter butterfly gold in London, 2012
Michael Phelps was a gold medal machine in Beijing, but during the London Olympics, he wasn’t winning like he did four years prior. That became apparent to spectators in the 200-meter butterfly, in which he lost to South Africa’s Chad le Clos. Le Clos, understandably, was pretty excited about the win. “I just wanted to race Phelps in the final and I’ve beaten him,” he said. “I can’t believe it. Phelps is my hero and I love the guy. To beat him, I can’t believe it. You don’t understand what this means to me. This is the greatest moment of my life.”

3. The Soviet Union’s basketball gold in Munich, 1972
In 1972, Cold War tensions were high, so the gold medal basketball game between the undefeated United States and the Soviet Union had even more riding on it. The Soviet Union ended up winning, but many Americans questioned the legitimacy of their victory: they won in the last second of the game, by one point, after the referees had given them one last chance at the basket when it had appeared the U.S. had already won. The Soviets sunk the shot, and were declared the winners. The United States, however, wasn’t having it, and still isn’t: their silver medals remain in Munich.

4. McKayla Maroney’s vault silver in London, 2012
Maroney was widely regarded as the top gymnast in the world on the vault, but fell short during the individual event at the London Olympics. During one of her infamous high-flying vaults, she fell on her landing, which knocked her down to second place, earning her a silver medal and Internet meme status.

5. The United States’ gymnastics all-around gold in Atlanta, 1996
The “Magnificent Seven” gymnasts of the 1996 team became household names after they took home the first-ever team all-around gold medal, ending the Eastern European dominance in the sport. A particular moment of pride for the team was when an injured Kerri Strug managed to pull off a near-perfect vault, landing on one foot. That year also marked the first time an African-American woman, Dominique Dawes, or an Asian-American woman, Amy Chow, won an individual medal in gymnastics.

6. Emil Zatopek’s marathon gold in Helsinki, 1952
Back in 1952, Olympic rules were a little different. So when Czechoslovakia’s Zatopek dominated the 5,000- and 10,000-meter races, winning gold, he decided he wanted to enter the marathon race – despite never having run a marathon before – and was allowed to. It worked out pretty well for him: He ended up winning by a whopping two-and-a-half minutes. The favorite, Jim Peters, didn’t finish the race.

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7. Japan’s softball gold in Beijing, 2008
Softball was only an Olympic sport for 12 years, and up until 2008, the United States had won gold every time. In 2005, the International Olympic Committee decided to discontinue the inclusion of softball in the games starting in 2012, meaning 2008 would be the last chance at Olympic gold. Japan was triumphant that year, besting the U.S. 3-1. Making the loss even worse? It was rumored that the main reason the sport was dropped from the Olympics was because the U.S. team was too dominant.

8. Missy Hyman’s 200-meter butterfly gold in Sydney, 2000
The 200-meter butterfly was Australian Susie O’Neill’s race: At the time of the 2000 Olympics, she was not only the favorite to win, but also the defending gold medalist and the world record holder. But she fell short to American Missy Hyman, who ended up winning the race. Still, O’Neill is remembered for her skills on the stroke – she even earned the nickname “Madame Butterfly.”

9. Rulon Gardner’s wrestling gold in Sydney, 2000
Russian wrestler Aleksander Karelin was a dominant force in the sport, winning gold in 1988, 1992 and 1996. And considering he won the eight of 11 prior world championships, everyone was expecting him to take home the gold again in 2000. But American Gardner pulled off the win, giving Karelin his first defeat in 13 years.

10. Konstantinos Kenteris’ 200 meters win in Sydney, 2000
In the men’s 200 meters for track and field, American John Capel was favored to win. But after a rocky start, Greek runner Kenteris managed to pull ahead, ultimately winning the race – with the slowest winning time in 20 years.

To learn more about all Olympic hopefuls, visit teamusa.org. The Rio Olympics begin this Friday, Aug. 5, on NBC.