by Evan Oscherwitz
The Olympics are a truly magical event, from the amazing Parade of Nations, where the entire planet comes together for the wonder of sport, all the way to the closing ceremony, where we reflect on the many wonders that took place over the prior two weeks.
After four long years of waiting, the Rio games finally arrived on August 5, and despite the concerns and questionable political environment in which they took place, they were captivating as ever.
These Olympics exposed us to the breathtaking skill of Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky, Usain Bolt, and Simone Biles, who dominated their respective domains in spectacular fashion. However, you would be hard-pressed to find somebody who doubted any of those four. This list will remember the most unlikely successes from the Rio games, in all their glory.
The Men’s 400 Meters
The men’s 400 meters has always been one of the most coveted events at the Olympics, and has seen superstars like Michael Johnson and LaShawn Merritt claim gold medals. Four years ago in London, a new legend was born; but unlike Johnson and Merritt, he was not a highly coveted American prodigy.
Instead, he was a 19 year old from the Caribbean island of Grenada named Kirani James. James shocked the world when he blew by the competition and won gold, the first Olympic medal in Grenada’s history.
In Rio, James was expected to be a lock in the 400, having performed very strongly in international competition, and at the NCAA championships with the University of Alabama. James blazed through the heats and semifinals to reach the medal race, but it was clear early on that this would not be the blowout everyone had anticipated, as two possible challengers emerged in the preliminaries.
The first was a man whose name everyone knew, a man who had claimed gold for the United States 8 years before, a man who was at his final Olympics, a man named LaShawn Merritt. Merritt, appearing to have bested Father Time, ran very well through the preliminaries, placing second heading into the final, ready to redeem himself after a disappointing London games.
The second challenger was by no means a household name, and despite being the defending world champion, he was not expected to contend for a medal. Representing a country with a history of oppression, his own mother had been denied the opportunity to compete in the Olympics because of her skin color, and he was not ready to let his chance slip away.
This man was Wayde van Niekerk, a tall, skinny South African who had upset James in at the world championships in Beijing a year before. Van Niekerk had not posted excellent times in the Olympic qualifiers, and was hence considered a dark horse candidate for a medal. Van Niekerk ran very well in his heat, but finished second in his semifinal, still automatically qualifying for the medal race.
The final was a battle of epic proportions, heavily anticipated, and extensively hyped by the media. James and Merritt had the top two semifinal times, and thus drew the best lanes, 5 and 4 respectively. Van Niekerk had finished 6th, and thus ended up in lane 8, from which nobody had ever won a world or Olympic final.
After a long day of waiting, the race finally kicked off at around midnight in local time. James and Merritt were strong from the sound of the gun, looking poised and in peak form; however, neither of them was any match for van Niekerk, who took off with the speed of a cheetah running across the Savannah, and never looked back.
Van Niekerk absolutely obliterated the previous world record, finishing with a time of 43.03 seconds, finishing almost a full second ahead of James, who won silver, doubling Grenada’s all time count in one night. Merritt won bronze, just barely edging out Trinidad and Tobago’s young star, Machel Cedenio. All in all, this final was one for the ages, and will be looked back on for ages to come.
Pernille Blume, Denmark
The 50-meter freestyle is the shortest swimming event at the Olympic games, but it is no small deal, as it is about as exciting as 24 seconds can get. In London, the Netherlands’ Ranomi Kromowidjojo emerged victorious, and she returned in Rio with a good chance at a second consecutive gold medal.
However, Kromowidjojo was left in the wake of the huge buzz surrounding American swimmer Simone Manuel, (we’ll get to her later) who posed a real threat to Kromowidjojo’s crown. Compared to Kromowidjojo and Manuel, Denmark’s Pernille Blume was a relative unknown, quietly making her way into the final; when the starting gun sounded, though, Blume was all business.
She and Manuel were neck and neck at the front of the pack from the beginning, and neither let up. When their heads broke the surface, nobody was sure who had won, but the replay showed Blume edging out Manuel by just a fraction of a second, her gold medal being Denmark’s first in swimming since 1948.
Kyle Chalmers, Australia
Coming into the Rio games, Australia’s swim team was favored to take home a bucketload of medals in both men’s and women’s competition. Unfortunately, those expectations never materialized, as standouts like the Campbell sisters, Emily Seebohm, and Mitch Larkin came up short in race after race.
While Mack Horton took gold in the men’s 400 free, the Aussies simply felt that they had not done enough. Then came the men’s 100 free, an event in which they were not expected to medal. In lane 5 for the Australians was 18-year-old Kyle Chalmers, who had the best qualifying time.
In spite of this, the presence of defending champion Nathan Adrian and world junior champion Caeleb Dressel led many to believe that Chalmers would only have an outside shot at a medal.
For most of the race, Chalmers tagged behind Adrian and Belgium’s Pieter Timmers, but in the final 25 meters, Chalmers pulled ahead, touching the wall about 2 tenths of a second before Timmers. The upset win invigorated the Australians, who went on to win another gold and a bronze in the relays.
Sanne Wevers, Netherlands
This story begins in 1928, with the Dutch women’s gymnastics team, who won gold in the team all-around thanks to the tutelage of head coach Gerrit Kleerekoper, and the prowess of gymnasts Ans Polak, Jud Simons, Estella Agsteribbe, and Lea Nordheim.
Aside from being gold medalists, these five share another, more ominous distinction: they were all killed in the Holocaust. That 1928 team all-around gold would be the last time a Dutch woman won a medal in gymnastics until 2016. That’s where Sanne Wevers comes in.
The 24-year-old balance beamer from Leeuwarden shocked the globe by upsetting American phenomenon Simone Biles, as well as Biles’ teammate Laurie Hernández. Wevers completed a spectacular routine that brought the crowd at Arena Carioca 2 to their feet, and won first place by a margin of .133 points.
Due to her impressive performance, Wevers was named the Netherlands’ flagbearer for the closing ceremony.
Penny Oleksiak, Canada
Sixteen is a large milestone. It’s the time one obtains their driver’s license, starts getting serious about their future, and much, much more. Very rarely, though, does sixteen mark the first time one wins an Olympic medal. Canada’s Penny Oleksiak is clearly an overachiever by our standards, then, as she won not one, not two, not three, but four medals at the Rio games, including a gold in the women’s 100 free that the shared with the United States’ Simone Manuel (again, we’ll talk about her later).
Penny, the sister of Dallas Stars defenseman Jamie Oleksiak, became the first Canadian athlete to win four medals in the same summer games, set a shared Olympic record in the 100 free, and became the first person born in the 21st century to win an Olympic medal.
Overachiever suddenly doesn’t seem strong enough.
Abdoul Issoufou Alfaga, Niger
Most of you probably just read the above line and thought, “Who is Abdoul Issoufou Alfaga, and where is Niger?”
Well, dear reader, allow me to explain. Niger is a country in Northwestern Africa known for gazelles, sand, salt, the Niger River, for which it is named, and as of August 2016, Abdoul Issoufou Alfaga. Abdoul Issoufou Alfaga, for those who are wondering, is a 6’9 giant of a man who won a silver medal in the 80+ kg taekwondo competition at the Rio games.
To the surprise of quite literally everyone, Issoufou Alfaga beat the number one practitioner in the world, Uzbekistan’s Dmitriy Shokin, to reach the gold medal match. Although he lost to Azerbaijan’s Radik Isayev, Issoufou Alfaga’s silver medal is only Niger’s second Olympic medal, and by far the best result that Niger has ever had at the games.
Making this feat even more improbable is the fact that Issoufou Alfaga’s father banned him from the sport at age 7, after his cousin died from injuries sustained in a fight. Issoufou Alfaga only picked the sport back up after moving in with his uncle in Togo, and even then, he was only able to compete using a friend’s uniform. Talk about unlikely successes.
Anthony Ervin, United States
You know what’s even more rare than winning a gold medal at 16-years-old? Winning two gold medals 16 years apart.
Would you believe that both of these things happened at the Rio Olympics? The first feat, you already know has been accomplished by Penny Oleksiak of Canada in the women’s 100-meter freestyle. The second was miraculously accomplished by the United States’ Anthony Ervin, at 35 years of age, in the men’s 50-meter freestyle.
At the age of 35, Ervin beat out teammate Nathan Adrian, and defending gold medalist Florent Manaudou of France to reclai, the title he earned 16 years prior in Sydney.
Simone Manuel, United States
Representing a country on the world’s biggest stage is a lot of pressure, to put it lightly. Representing an oppressed minority group and a country on the world’s biggest stage is a lot more pressure.
Representing a country, and an oppressed minority group in a sport that said minority group is often billed as being unable to excel in is about the highest pressure situation a person can put themselves in. Imagine doing all three and still breaking an Olympic record.
American swimmer Simone Manuel lived this scenario during the Rio Olympics, as the lone Black swimmer representing the United States, and despite the massive amount of pressure placed upon her shoulders, she still excelled, winning a gold medal and setting an Olympic record in the 100-meter freestyle in a tie with the aforementioned Penny Oleksiak, and adding another gold and two silvers in the 4×100 meter medley relay, 4×100 meter freestyle relay and the 50-meter freestyle, respectively.
Manuel became the first Black American woman to win an Olympic medal in swimming. Despite the massive importance of her outstanding success, Manuel was not expected to win an individual medal at the games, a fact which now seems almost unbelievable given how dominant Manuel looked in the pool while swimming alongside legends like Cate Campbell and Sarah Sjöström.
What’s more, Manuel is only 20-years-old, and will have a good chance to repeat her success in Tokyo four years from now.
Missy Franklin, United States
Most of us remember Missy Franklin from the London games, where the then 17-year-old won a handful of medals for the American swim team, including four golds. Most of us would like to forget the Missy Franklin we saw at the Rio games, where she did not win an individual medal, and even failed to even qualify for the semifinals in the 200-meter backstroke, her best event in 2012.
Nobody knows why Franklin performed so poorly in Rio, but talent and strength of competition had nothing to do with it. The addition of teammate Maya DiRado and Katinka Hosszú to the field in her two strongest events would be an excuse for a bronze or even a fourth or fifth place finish, but failing to advance past the heats in every individual event is absolutely inexcusable, especially with the pedigree, coaching, and pure talent that Franklin has.
Unfortunately, not all surprises are good, and there is no way around having to talk about this one. Since the conclusion of the Olympics, many have tried to find a reason for Franklin’s pitiful showing, but to no avail, because no reason exists.
At the end of the day, Franklin has nobody to blame but herself, and it’s her responsibility to make sure that Tokyo is nothing like Rio was.
Ivorian Taekwondo Team (Ruth Gbagbi and Cheick Sallah Cissé)
Coming into the Rio games, the West African nation of Côte d’Ivoire (formerly Ivory Coast) had only one Olympic medal to its name, a silver in the men’s 400 meters from the 1984 Los Angeles games. On August 19th, that total was tripled.
Thanks to the heroic showings of Cheick Sallah Cissé in the men’s 80kg and Ruth Gbagbi in the women’s 67kg, a gold and a bronze were respectively added to Côte d’Ivoire’s Olympic trophy case.
Cissé, who won his discipline at the 2015 African Games in Brazzaville, Congo, powered his way to the gold medal match, upsetting multiple highly touted practitioners in the process, including Germany’s Tahir Güleç and Tunisia’s Oussama Oueslati, who won the bronze medal.
In the final, it appeared that Cissé had finally met his match, but miraculously, down 6-5 with just seconds remaining, he delivered a powerful head kick that broke the stalemate and won him the gold medal. On the same day, Gbagbi, competing in the women’s 67kg, had a much tougher path to the podium. The ninth seeded practitioner, Gbagbi was pitted against top seed Haby Niaré of France in the semifinal.
Gbagbi was defeated in a tightly contested bout, but earned a spot in the bronze medal match after defeating Haiti’s Aniya Louissaint in the repechage. In the battle for bronze, Gbagbi emerged victorious against the heavily favored Azeri Farida Azizova. Nothing even close to the show put on by the Ivorians on that Friday night has ever been done in the history of the Olympics, and it is unlikely that it will ever be replicated, which only makes it more special.
Dilshod Nazarov, Tajikistan
Francine Niyonsaba, Burundi
Fijian Rugby Sevens Team
Shaunae Miller, Bahamas