7 Inspiring Olympic heroes who beat the odds
The Olympic swimmer who'd only just learned to swim
Eric 'the eel' Moussambani
12 months before Sydney’s 2000 Olympic Games Eric Moussambani had never set foot outside of his home country, the tiny nation of Equatorial Guinea where most citizens get by on less than one dollar a day.
Having secured his entry into the Games with the help of a wild card, Moussambani set about teaching himself to swim. The only pool available belonged to a local hotel, and they allowed him to use it between 5 and 6am, just three times a week. Before Sydney he had never set eyes on an Olympic pool, let alone swum in one.
Moussambani had no coach, no lanes, and no way of tracking his efforts. His training was further hampered by a communication breakdown that led him to believe he had been entered into the 50m race, not the 100m endurance test he would actually be competing in.
"It was the slowest time in Olympic history, but a personal best"
When the day came, events only got stranger. Of the three swimmers in the qualifying heat, Moussambani was the only competitor not to be disqualified for starting early. He now had to swim alone, against the clock, before 17,000 spectators to be in with a chance of qualifying for the final.
The underdog captured the hearts of the Australian audience, and although he flagged in the second half of the race, with commentator Adrian Moorhouse remarking that “this guy doesn’t look like he’s going to make it”, he completed the heat with a time of 1 minute and 53 seconds.
It was the slowest time in Olympic history, but a personal best.
International media dubbed him ‘Eric the eel’ and he was hailed as the embodiment of the Olympic ideal that it’s not the winning, but the taking part that counts.
When he was interviewed, still dripping from his exhausting feat, Moussambani remarked; “The first 50 metres were OK, but in the second 50 metres I got a bit worried and thought I wasn’t going to make it. Then something happened. I think it was all the people getting behind me. I was really, really proud. It’s still a great feeling for me and I loved when everyone applauded me at the end. I felt like I had won a medal or something.”
Moussambani is now the head coach of the Equatorial Guinea swimming squad and thanks to his efforts, the country has since built two 50m swimming pools.
The gymnast who achieved gold on a near-broken ankle
By the 1996 Olympics, American Kerri Strug had been training for 16 years, having started gymnastics at the tender age of three.
The US ladies team had gotten off to such a strong start in the Games that the press dubbed them The Magnificent Seven, but as the competition heated up it soon became clear that the Russians were a force to be reckoned with.
Despite their best efforts, the US lead had evaporated by the time it came to their final gymnast Kerri Strug. Strug had sprained her ankle during her first vault, and when she realised that she was to be called upon again, she earnestly asked her coach, “Do we need this?”
The US hope for the gold relied solely on Kerri’s final vault, and so she limped towards the runway for her second attempt. Her performance was incredible, and she even managed a near perfect dismount, landing on both feet. It was the first time since 1948 that the Russians hadn’t taken home the team gold.
It instantly became clear that Kerri was badly hurt. So much so that she collapsed onto her knees and needed assistance just to leave the platform. The team’s coach, Bela Karolyi, carried Kerri onto the medals podium and after the ceremony, she was hospitalised for a third-degree lateral sprain and tendon damage. “People think these girls are fragile dolls. They’re not. They’re courageous,” Karolyi told the gathered press.
Stug became a national hero, meeting with President Bill Clinton, appearing on talk shows across the US and making the cover of Sports Illustrated. Speaking to the media after the win, she said, “This is the Olympics. This is what you dream about from when you’re 5 years old. I wasn’t going to stop.”
The athlete who had to finish, even with a broken hamstring
The 1992 men’s 400m final had the world in tears. Not just in sympathy for the injured Derek Redmond, but because his story resonated with every parent, and the child within us all.
Pain was not new for Redmond. He had been forced to withdraw from the 1988 Seoul Olympics due to tendinitis and had missed the 1986 Commonwealth Games because of a serious hamstring injury. What happened at the Games in 1992 was the determination of a man who refused to let his injuries define him.
Speaking to the press later, Redmond remembered how, “On the day everything went smooth. I got a really good start, which was unusual for me. I think I was the first to react to the pistol. My normal tactics were to get round the first bend and then put the burners on for 30m, accelerate hard. But by the time I’d got upright I was almost round the bend, much further than usual, and I decided not to bother, to save my energy in case I had to fight for the line. About three strides later I felt a pop.”
"It was a spontaneous reaction, as if I had seen him hit by a car”
That pop was his hamstring. Redmond collapsed to the floor in pain. With his head in his hands, it was clear he was seriously hurt. But rather than allow himself to be quietly stretchered off by paramedics, what the runner did next amazed the world.
Redmond got back up, and heavily limping he tried to finish the race. As the spectators rose in a standing ovation, his father tore through security to run to his son’s side and, holding Redmond up, they finished the race side by side.
Looking back on that day, Derek’s father remembered how he’d told his son to stop. When it became clear that he was determined to finish, he said, “Well then, we’re going to finish this together. Even now, it’s hard to say how or why I did it. It was a spontaneous reaction, as if I had seen him hit by a car.”
Redmond’s courage has now allowed him to travel the world as a motivational speaker.
The discus medalist who'd never seen a discus before
1896 is known as the first modern Olympics. But it was a completely different affair to what we know today. It featured 14 countries competing in 10 disciplines across 43 events and some of the athletes entered not knowing what to expect.
One such athlete was Robert Garrett. The American excelled at track and field during his undergrad years and entered the Olympics playing to his strength, shot put. One of his professors suggested he enter the discus event too. The only thing Garrett was sure of at this point was that it was a throwing event from Greek , he had no idea what the apparatus looked like, how to throw it or where to seek training, but the most pressing problem seemed to be obtaining the discus itself.
Garrett turned to the classics department for help. They looked through ancient records, and rumour has it, came up with a drawing based on illustrations from Greek vases. The discus was then made by a blacksmith. The result was about 25 pounds too heavy, five inches too wide and virtually impossible to throw.
Of course, the Greek competitors were tipped to win and adopted a beautiful, classical Discobolus style, as represented throughout Greek art, throwing the discus smoothly through the air to a graceful landing. Garrett quickly saw the error he had made but being a good sport decided to compete for the fun of it.
His style was clumsy, an adaptation of the style seen in the hammer throw, spinning round and round, and the discus wobbling through the air, crashing quickly to the ground. His first two throws made him a laughing stock. But his third throw, punctuated by a grunt, saw the discus glide perfectly travelling 19inches further than his nearest competitor.
American spectator Burton Holmes wrote: "All were stupefied. The Greeks had been defeated at their own classic exercise. They were overwhelmed by the superior skill and daring of the Americans, to whom they ascribed a supernatural invincibility enabling them to dispense with training and to win at games which they had never before seen."
Garrett took gold for discus and shot put and took silver for high jump and long jump.
The runner who beat Hitler
Berlin had won the bid for the Olympics two years before Hitler became Chancellor and enforced Nazi regime. At first he wasn't fond on the idea of hosting the Games, but when he saw the International Olympic Committee's plans to televise the event he saw it as a perfect propaganda opportunity.
The conditions against minorities in Germany, and especially Berlin, at this time were horrific and the world was starting to recognise this. But the self-assured Nazis pressed on with their bigotted beliefs, seeing the Games as an opportunity to promote their ideals of racial supremity thus insisting that the Olympics were only for Aryans and that no other races were to compete. When faced with a mass boycott, the Nazis retracted their demands and even included a 'token' jewish athlete in their women's team.
The Nazis hid a lot of their antisemitic propaganda when the athletes arrived, but tensions were still high.
After considerable boycott debates, the US decided to send their team over including 10 African-American athletes. The general consensus among African-Americans was that strong black athletes would only serve to counter the Nazi's racial supremacy. And a star athlete was indeed found in Jesse Owens.
"The Nazis saw the Games as an opportunity to promote their ideals of racial supremity"
Owens won four gold medals in 100m sprint, long jump, 200m sprint, 4×100 m sprint relay. This level of achievement remained unmatched until 1984.
Against all odds, Owens was a superstar in Berlin. Upon his arrival he was met with throngs of female fans chanting "Wo ist Jesse?", brandishing scissors to snip away at his clothes. When the German sports brand Addidas approached him that year asking him to don Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik shoes, he became the first black athlete to gain a sports sponsorship.
Even Hitler was impressed. Although it's widely reported that Hitler snubbed the athlete, he in fact didn't. After only greeting German athletes, Hitler was criticised and told either greet all athletes or none at all—he opted for the latter. Owen's himself said: "Hitler had a certain time to come to the stadium and a certain time to leave. It happened he had to leave before the victory ceremony after the 100 metres. But before he left I was on my way to a broadcast and passed near his box. He waved at me and I waved back. I think it was bad taste to criticise the 'man of the hour' in another country."
There are even rumors of a picture existing when the Führer is seen shaking hands with Owens. Eric Brown, a British fighter pilot and test pilot, independently stated in a BBC documentary "I actually witnessed Hitler shaking hands with Jesse Owens and congratulating him on what he had achieved."
The Olympian who saved 20 people
Yusra Mardini is only 18 but has suffered great ordeals. The Syrian refugee represented the Refugee Olympic Athletes team in the 2016 Rio Olympics swimming 100m freestyle and 100m butterfly. Although she didn't win a medal, her achievement outside of the Games is incredible—especially considering her age—and the stuff that true heroes are made of.
Before she left Syria Mardini was already backed by her country's Olympic Committee, but her homeland was becoming more and more dangerous and she soon found herself training in pools with the roofs blown off by bombs. It wasn't safe to stay there anymore.
She fled her country for Greece, via Turkey. 20 people left Turkey in a boat designed for six and it wasn't long before their engine failed. Her and three others saw no option but to swim the boat to safety, in order to stop it from capsizing. They swam for three hours straight.
“We were the only four who knew how to swim,” she said of the experience. “I had one hand with the rope attached to the boat as I moved my two legs and one arm. It was three and half hours in cold water. Your body is almost like… done. I don’t know if I can describe that.”
After settling in Berlin, Coach Sven Spannekrebs quickly recognised her potential and has been training her with the 2020 Olympics in mind, although thanks to the Refugee Olympic Athletes team, her route to the games were much quicker.
The chatty marathon winner who didn't know the rules
In the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, the Czechoslovak runner had already won gold in the 5000m and the 10,000m. His most memorable achievement came from his last minute decision to run his first marathon at the Games.
Zatopek was known as everyone's friend due to his chatty nature, and his favourite place to chat was on the track. Being a long-distance runner afforded him the time to get to know his competitors on a personal level. This irritated the officials who subsequently refused to tell him the rules for the marathon.
"Zatopek passed on all opportunities for water, food, and refreshment"
Not phased, Zatopek decided to take it easy, follow his competitors and do as they do. He soon caught up to the leader, Briton Jim Peters. Peters had previously been a long distance runner but had turned to marathons after he suffered a humiliating defeat by Zatopek during a 10,000m run, so when Peters heard the words "Hello I am Zatopek" during the race, he knew exactly who he was.
Halfway into the race Zatopek asked Peters for some advice. “Jim,” said Zatopek, “is this pace too fast?” “No,” Peters replied. “It isn’t fast enough.”
Although the comment was said in jest Zatopek took it to heart and picked up his pace going on to win the marathon and smash the world record.
Being completely naive to the rules, Zatopek also passed all opportunities for water, food, and refreshment.
Read more: The evolution of the Olympic Games