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8 Underdog Nations and Their Memorable Olympic Performances

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This week, 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. With a population of 104,000, Grenada is the 17th-smallest country in the world, and now the smallest nation to win a gold medal. Here's a look back at eight other great Olympic performances from underdog nations.

1. India: 1928 Amsterdam Summer Olympics

India may be the second-most populated nation in the world, but prior to London 2012, they’d 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 Calcutta 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.”

2. 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.

Kip Keino grew up as a sheepherder in the rural reaches of Kenya. He ran 20 miles to and from the train that took him to his boarding school as an orphaned teenager. 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, despite holding the (rather unimpressive) 24th-place seed time in the field.

3. Jamaica: 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics

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Immortalized in the 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 and 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.

4. Nigeria: 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics

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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.

5. The Tropical Lugers: 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics

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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 (the oldest and youngest competitors in the field), who made history as the first father and son to compete at the same Olympic event.

6. Equatorial Guinea: 2000 Sydney Summer Olympics

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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.

7. Australia: 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics

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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 twelve 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.

8. Zimbabwe: 2004-2012 Summer Olympics

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Kristy 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 — not to mention poor infrastructure, as Zimbabwe has no 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. As a result, she’s become a national hero and one of the few white Zimbabweans whose appeal crosses the racial divide of her country. 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.

Coventry fell just outside of the medal ranks in her events in London this year, but she has indicated that she doesn’t plan on retiring anytime soon.

Redesigned Adidas Sneakers Channel Beijing’s Olympic Stadium

Beijing National Stadium has stood empty since the 2008 Olympics, but that hasn’t stopped the building from becoming an architectural icon. Designer KXIV (Nathan Kiatkulpiboone) found inspiration in the tangled "Bird’s Nest" structure when re-imagining Adidas’s Ultraboost running shoe. As designboom reports, he used 3D-printing technology to achieve the lattice design.

KXIV comes from a background in architecture. When he isn’t dreaming up shopping centers or city towers, he’s applying the principles he uses as an architect to sneaker design. In 2014, he unveiled a pair of Nike Jordan X shoes that borrowed elements from Thailand’s White Temple and Black House. He's also created a line of dress shoes inspired by modern architecture for the footwear brand SewRaw.

His latest project evokes the Bird’s Nest woven exterior. The Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron designed the stadium for the 2008 Olympics, and today it’s remembered as one of the most distinctive structures ever built for the games.

To recreate the look on an Adidas sneaker, KXIV used polyurethane webbing fused to a lycra base. The upper layer of bands were 3D-printed in a way that holds the shoes together. The sneakers are just a prototype, so like the stadium they’re based on, the striking form will remain unused for the foreseeable future.

Shoes inspired by Beijing National Stadium.

Shoes inspired by Beijing National Stadium.

[h/t designboom]

Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images for The Buoniconti Fund
5 Fast Facts About Nancy Kerrigan
Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images for The Buoniconti Fund
Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images for The Buoniconti Fund

Google Nancy Kerrigan’s name and the first batch of results will mainly be articles about the brutal knee injury she sustained, courtesy of an assailant hired by fellow skater Tonya Harding’s ex-husband, right before the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. Yet Kerrigan is much more than a victim of that attack, even though Hollywood keeps making documentaries and feature films about the incident. Despite the injury, Kerrigan won a silver medal at Lillehammer (after previously winning a bronze at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France).

Currently, Kerrigan and dance partner Artem Chigvintsev are competing on the new season of Dancing with the Stars; as of this writing, the couple is still in it. Here are five things to know about the wannabe Mirror Ball trophy winner.


In 1972, Nancy’s mom, Brenda, lost complete sight in her left eye—and most of the sight in her right eye—and became legally blind because of a rare virus. When Nancy’s parents attended the Albertville Olympics, they had to sit underneath the stands and watch the performance on a TV. “It’s made it possible for me to see 100 percent more than I would in the stands, but not the way you do,” Brenda told The New York Times in 1992. “I never can see her face.” Kerrigan set up a charity, The Nancy Kerrigan Foundation, to raise money for the vision impaired.


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During the 1991 World Figure Skating Championships held in Munich 10 months before the 1992 Olympic Games, Kristi Yamaguchi, Harding, and Kerrigan all won medals; it was the first time the same country had swept the women’s medal stand. (American men did this in 1956.) Yamaguchi won gold at Albertville, Kerrigan won bronze, and Harding finished fourth.

Like Kerrigan, Yamaguchi also competed on DWTS; she danced with Mark Ballas during season six—and won. Wishing her former competitor Kerrigan luck, Yamaguchi tweeted “break a leg” to Kerrigan (which, in hindsight, might not have been the best way of rooting Kerrigan on).


In 2002, Kerrigan published a book on how to figure skate. In Artistry on Ice: Figure Skating Skills & Style, she writes about advanced techniques, competition, choreography, and costumes (she competed in designer costumes created by Vera Wang).


Kerrigan recently told People about how she developed an eating disorder after the traumatic events at the 1994 Olympics. All the media scrutiny caused her to feel like “everything else was really out of control at the time,” she said. “I would avoid food because it was something I could do. I felt like I could control that and nothing else.” She wasn’t anorexic, but she did stop eating for a period.

With encouragement from her manager and family, she slowly started eating more. Kerrigan is producing a documentary on eating disorders called Why Don’t You Lose 5 More Pounds, due out next year. The doc will feature interviews with other women who have suffered through extreme eating issues.



I, Tonya, a big-screen recounting of Harding’s rise to fame (and fall from grace) is currently in production. Directed by Craig Gillespie, the film will focus mainly on Harding, who will be played by Margot Robbie. Caitlin Carver, who appeared in the film adaptation of John Green’s Paper Towns, will play Kerrigan.


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