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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.

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Big Questions
How Do Aerial Skiers Perfect Their Jumps?
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Cameron Spencer, Getty Images

If you've ever watched an aerial skier in action, you know that some of the maneuvers these athletes pull off are downright jaw-dropping—and you've probably seen more than a few of these skiers land on their rear ends at some point. The jumps are incredible, but they're also so technical that one seemingly insignificant motion can drop a skier on his or her tail.

Given that the skiers can fly up to 60 feet in the air and come down on a 37-degree grade, it seems like just going out and trying a new trick would be a good way to break your neck. That's why you'll need one unexpected piece of equipment if you want to start training for aerials: a towel.

Instead of perfecting their flips and twists over the snow, aerial skiers try out their new maneuvers on ramps that launch them over huge swimming pools. The U.S. national team has facilities in Park City, Utah and Lake Placid, New York that include specially designed pools to help competitors perfect their next big moves. The pools have highly aerated patches of bubbles in their centers that decrease the surface tension to make the water a bit softer for the skiers' landings.

If you're an aspiring aerial skier, expect to get fairly wet. New skiers have to make a minimum of 200 successful jumps into water before they even get their first crack at the snow, and these jumps have to get a thumbs up from coaches in order for the skier to move on.

This sort of meticulous preparation doesn't end once you hit the big-time, either. American Ashley Caldwell, one of the most decorated athletes in the sport, is competing in her third Olympics in Pyeongchang, but failed to advance past the qualifiers on February 15, as she wasn't able to land either one of the two triple-flipping jumps she attempted. Still, it's this very sort of risk-taking that has brought her to the top of her game, and caused friction with more than one of her past coaches.

"Why win with less when you can win with more?" Caldwell said of her competition mentality. “I don’t want to go out there and show the world my easiest trick. I want to show the world my best trick, me putting everything on the line to be the best.”

You can check out some of Team USA's moves in the video below:

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at

9 Scandals that Rocked the Figure Skating World

Don't let the ornate costumes and beautiful choreography fool you, figure skaters are no strangers to scandal. Here are nine notable ones.


Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding
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In 1994, a little club-and-run thrust the sport of figure skating into the spotlight. The assault on reigning national champion Nancy Kerrigan (and her subsequent anguished cries) at the 1994 U.S. National Figure Skating Championships in Detroit was heard round the world, as were the allegations that her main rival, Tonya Harding, may have been behind it all.

The story goes a little something like this: As America's sweetheart (Kerrigan) is preparing to compete for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team bound for Lillehammer, Norway, she gets clubbed in the knee outside the locker room after practice. Kerrigan is forced to withdraw from competition and Harding gets the gold. Details soon emerge that Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, was behind the attack (he hired a hitman). Harding denies any knowledge or involvement, but tanks at the Olympics the following month. She then pleads guilty to hindering prosecution of Gillooly and his co-conspirators, bodyguard Shawn Eckhart and hitman Shane Stant. And then she's banned from figure skating for life.

Questions about Harding's guilt remain two decades later, and the event is still a topic of conversation today. Recently, both an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary and the Oscar-nominated film I, Tonya revisited the saga, proving we can't get enough of a little figure skating scandal.


Mirai Nagasu and Ashley Wagner at the podium
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Usually it's the top three medalists at the U.S. Nationals that compete for America at the Winter Olympics every four years. But in 2014, gold medalist Gracie Gold (no pun intended), silver medalist Polina Edmunds, and ... "pewter" medalist Ashley Wagner were destined for Sochi.

What about the bronze medalist, you ask? Mirai Nagasu, despite out-skating Wagner by a landslide in Boston and despite being the only skater with prior Olympic experience (she placed fourth at Vancouver in 2010) had to watch it all on television. The decision by the country's governing body of figure skating (United States Figure Skating Association, or USFS) deeply divided the skating community as to whether it was the right choice to pass over Nagasu in favor of Wagner, who hadn't skated so great, and it put a global spotlight on the selection process.

In reality, the athletes that we send to the Olympics are not chosen solely on their performance at Nationals—it's one of many criteria taken into consideration, including performance in international competition over the previous year, difficulty of each skater's technical elements, and, to some degree, their marketability to a world audience. This has happened before to other skaters—most notably Michelle Kwan was relegated to being an alternate in 1994 after Nancy Kerrigan was granted a medical bye after the leg-clubbing heard round the world. Nagasu had the right to appeal the decision, and was encouraged to do so by mobs of angry skating fans, but she elected not to.

3. SALT LAKE CITY, 2002.

Pairs skaters Jamie Sale and David Pelletier of Canada and Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze of Russia perform in the figure skating exhibition during the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games at the Salt Lake Ice Center in Salt Lake City, Utah
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Objectively, this scandal rocked the skating world the hardest, because the end result was a shattering of the competitive sport's very structure. When Canadian pairs team Jamie Sale and David Pelletier found themselves in second place after a flawless freeskate at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake, something wasn't right. The Russian team of Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze placed first, despite a technically flawed performance.

An investigation into the result revealed that judges had conspired to fix the results of the pairs and dance events—a French judge admitted to being pressured to vote for the Russian pair in exchange for a boost for the French dance team (who won that event). In the end, both pairs teams were awarded a gold medal, and the entire system of judging figure skating competition was thrown out and rebuilt.


Jackson Haines was an American figure skater in the mid-1800s who had some crazy ideas about the sport. He had this absolutely ludicrous notion of skating to music (music!), waltzing on ice, as well as incorporating balletic movements, athletic jumps, and spins into competition. His brand new style of skating was in complete contrast to the rigid, traditional, and formal (read: awkward) standard of tracing figure-eights into the ice. Needless to say, it was not well received by the skating world in America, so he was forced to take his talents to the Old World.

His new “international style” did eventually catch on around the globe, and Haines is now hailed as the father of modern figure skating. He also invented the sit spin, a technical element now required in almost every level and discipline of the sport.


In 1902, competitive figure skating was a gentlemen's pursuit. Ladies simply didn't compete by themselves on the world stage (though they did compete in pairs events). But a British skater named Madge Syers flouted that standard, entering the World Figure Skating Championships in 1902. She ruffled a lot of feathers, but was ultimately allowed to compete and beat the pants off every man save one, earning the silver medal.

Her actions sparked a controversy that spurred the International Skating Union to create a separate competitive world event for women in 1906. Madge went on to win that twice, and became Olympic champion at the 1908 summer games [PDF] in London—the first “winter” Olympics weren't held until 1924 in France, several years after Madge died in 1917.


A picture of Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie
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Norwegian skater Sonja Henie was the darling of the figure skating world in the first half of the 20th century. The flirtatious blonde was a three-time Olympic champion, a movie star, and the role model of countless aspiring skaters. She brought sexy back to skating—or rather, introduced it. She was the first skater to wear scandalously short skirts and white skates. Prior to her bold fashion choices, ladies wore black skates and long, conservative skirts. During WWII, a fabric shortage hiked up the skirts even further than Henie's typical length, and the ladies of figure skating have never looked back.


Katarina Witt displaying her gold medal

A buxom young beauty from the former Democratic German Republic dominated ladies figure skating in the mid- to late 1980s. A two-time Olympic champion, and one of the most decorated female skaters in history, Katarina Witt was just too sexy for her shirt—she tended to wear scandalously revealing costumes (one of which resulted in a wardrobe malfunction during a show), and was criticized for attempting to flirt with the judges to earn higher scores.

The ISU put the kibosh on the controversial outfits soon afterward, inserting a rule that all competitive female skaters “must not give the effect of excessive nudity inappropriate for an athletic sport.” The outrage forced Witt to add some fabric to her competitive outfits in the late '80s. But 10 years later she took it all off, posing naked for a 1998 issue of Playboy.


For the 2010 competitive year, the ISU's annual theme for the original dance segment (since defunct and replaced by the “short dance”) was “country/folk.” That meant competitors had to create a routine that explored some aspect of it, in both music and costume as well as in maneuvers. The top Russian pair chose to emulate Aboriginal tribal dancing in their program, decked in full bodysuits adorned with their interpretation of Aboriginal body paint (and a loincloth).

Their debut performance at the European Championships drew heavy criticism from Aboriginal groups in both Australia and Canada, who were greatly offended by the inaccuracy of the costumes and the routine. The Russian pair, Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, were quick to dial down the costumes and dial up the accuracy in time for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, but the judges were not impressed. They ended up with the bronze, ending decades of Russian dominance in the discipline. (With the glaring exception of 2002, of course.)


While not a scandal, this event bears mentioning because it has rocked the figure skating world arguably more than anything else. In February of 1961, the American figure skating team boarded a flight to Belgium from New York, en route to the World Championships in Prague. The plane went down mysteriously (cause still questioned today) as it tried to land in Brussels, killing all 72 passengers. America's top skaters and coaches had been aboard, including nine-time U.S. Champion and Olympic bronze medalist-turned-coach Maribel Vinson-Owen and her daughter Laurence Owen, a 16-year-old who had been heavily favored to win the ladies event that year.

The ISU canceled the competition upon the news of the crash and the United States lost its long-held dominance in the sport for almost a decade. The United States Figure Skating Association (USFS) soon after established a memorial fund that helped support the skating careers of competitors in need of financial assistance, including future Olympic champions like Scott Hamilton and Peggy Fleming.


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