From Eric the Eel to Steven Bradbury: The unlikely Olympic heroes


For the first time since before Usain Bolt graced the track, the men’s 100m final at the Olympics this year was an open field.

But few would have predicted an Italian long jumper would take his place as king of the short distance.

Lamont Marcell Jacobs’s win is just the latest in a string of unlikely, or downright incredible, Olympic victories in recent years, from swimmers who’ve struggled through their heats to Aussie speed skaters who’ve caught a very lucky break.

Here are some of the most surprising successes from these Games and Olympics past.

Eric ‘the Eel’ Moussambani

Stepping into the Sydney Aquatic Centre in 2000 was the first time Eric Moussambani had ever seen an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

Eric 'the Eel' Moussambani
Eric Moussambani’s time was one of the slowest ever in competitive swimming.(

Getty Images


He had been relegated to practising one hour a day in a hotel pool in Equatorial Guinea, but a wild card draw for developing countries allowed him to qualify for the men’s 100m freestyle event at the Olympics.

What followed was one of the most remarkable swimming races in Olympic annals — both because he posted one of the slowest times in the history of professional swimming, and because he won his heat by doing so. 

He was up against two other swimmers in the qualifying heats for the men’s 100m, and both of them false-started. 

It meant Moussambani was swimming his heat alone and guaranteed to place first, but even then it was a struggle. 

Eric Moussambani swims alone in the 100m freestyle heat at the Olympics.
Eric Moussambani appeared to struggle to reach the finish line, losing momentum in the pool.(

Getty Images: Mike Powell


At the turn, his lack of experience was obvious and he lost momentum as he pushed away from the wall. 

By the midsection of the pool, it seemed he was barely moving forward as he sloshed through the water. 

But as the crowd cheered the lone swimmer on, he found the strength to reach the wall, in the unheard-of time of 1:52:72.

For comparison, US star Caleb Dressel won gold in Tokyo in just 47.02 seconds.

Unsurprisingly, Moussambani posted a qualifying time too slow to go forward.

But what’s most remarkable is he went on to improve dramatically, shaving a minute off his Olympics time and becoming national swim coach of Equatorial Guinea.

Im Dong-Hyun

Im Dong-Hyun is a former world number 1 archer who claimed gold in Athens and Beijing, and Bronze in London.

Im Dong-Hyun aims a bow.
Im Dong-Hyun medalled in three Olympics despite his vision impairment.(

Reuters: Suhaib Salem


It would be an impressively consistent haul for someone with 20:20 vision, but as it stands Im Dong-Hyun’s vision is far worse than that of most of his competitors. 

Reports from when his Korean men’s archery team won gold in 2012 said he had 20/100 vision in one eye and 20/200 in another.

However this wasn’t the Paralympics, and Im was competing against people with no vision impairment.

He once described to The New York Times that the target he aims for looks to him “like paint dropped in water”.

Some have even speculated whether his vision impairment might be an advantage, as it prevents him from “over-aiming”.

Sifan Hassan

Sifan Hassan was a strong favourite in her women’s 1,500m heat. 

But that all seemed to come tumbling down — as she did on the track in Tokyo last week.

With 400m left to run, she was tripped up by another athlete and hit the ground as the pack sped away. 

Two women getting up off the ground after tripping over during a 1,500m heat at the Olympics
Sifan Hassan didn’t just regain her feet, she gained the lead.(

Getty: Michael Steele


But as the seconds ticked down something incredible happened. 

Having already lost significant ground, Hassan picked up her pace and began to gain on her opponents.

Coming from behind, she overtook the main pack and battled it out with Australia’s Jessica Hull.

In the final few metres, she took the lead to qualify for the semifinal with the time of 4:05:15.

Ahmed Hafnaoui

Ahmed Hafnaoui celebrates in the pool.
Ahmed Hafnaoui won the 400m freestyle after qualifying for the final with the slowest time.(

AP: Martin Meissner


Ahmed Hafnoui wasn’t really supposed to win gold in the men’s 400m freestyle in Tokyo.

The 18-year-old from Tunisia was relegated to lane 8, having scraped into the final with the slowest time of his competitors, which included Australians Elijah Winnington and Jack McLoughlin.

But his presence at the edge of the pool couldn’t be denied once he was in the water, and he shaved three seconds off his personal best.

After finishing, it seemed to take a moment for the win to sink in for the teenager, but once he realised his achievement, he was overjoyed.

Steven Bradbury

Australia’s own Steven Bradbury may go down in history as the GOAT of unlikely victories.

Steven Bradbury raises his arms in triumph after winning gold at the 2002 Winter Olympics
The tables turned at exactly the right moment for Steven Bradbury to win.(

Reuters: David Gray


He was badly behind heading into the last lap of the men’s 1,000m final in Salt Lake City in 2002.

As his competitors jostled for medal positions, Bradbury drifted further and further behind. Until he didn’t.

On the final turn of the final lap, just metres from the finish line, a pile-up took out every other skater.

Bradbury was far enough behind to avoid the collision, and glided past his competitors, who were still scrambling to get up and muddle towards the end line.

Bradbury went from last place to first in the nick of time, securing the southern hemisphere’s first Winter Olympics gold medal and creating the phrase “pulling a Bradbury” in the process.

Anna Kiesenhofer

Anna Kiesenhofer was going up against one of the toughest cycling teams in the world in Tokyo.

Anna Kiesenhofe raises her arms and shouts with glee as she crosses the line.
Anna Kiesenhofer crossed the line first, but her opponents didn’t realise.(

Getty: Tim de Waele


The Austrian, who didn’t have a WorldTour contract and was riding alone, completely outfoxed the Dutch women’s team, which were the heavy favourites to win.

So much so that when Dutch competitor Annemiek van Vleuten crossed the finish line she celebrated, thinking she’d just won gold. 

Little did she know Anna Kiesenhofer’s victory celebrations were already more than a minute old. 


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