Ten athletes who shocked the world

SPIKES take a moment to remember the greatest moments of the track and field underdog.

Billy Mills (USA) – 1964 Olympic 10,000m, Mexico City

“Who are you?” asked one Japanese official after the race. Seven-sixteenths Sioux Indian, one of 12 siblings and an orphan at 12 years old. They had to make a film, Running Brave, to explain the remarkable life of Billy Mills.

Joe DeLoach (USA) – 1988 Olympic 200m final, Seoul

The 21-year-old Texan first met Carl Lewis to ask for his autograph. He then beat him at the 1988 US Olympic trials and did it again in Seoul, denying the reigning champion an Olympic long jump, 100m and 200m double-triple. DeLoach never ran another sub-20 second 200m again, or competed at another major championship. 

Paraskevi ‘Voula’ Patoulidou (GRE) – 1992 Olympic 100m hurdles final, Barcelona

The unheralded Greek capitalised on a cataclysmic error by US favourite Gail Devers to strike gold. Patoulidou set a massive new personal best time of 12.88 in the semi-finals before hacking a further 0.24 from her best to claim an unexpected win. Devers was cruising to gold until clipping the final hurdle, hitting the deck and crashing over the line in fifth. Following her success in the Catalan capital, Patoulidou quit the hurdles but went on to finish 10th in the Olympic long jump final four years later.   

Donald Thomas (BAH) – 2007 World Championships high jump final, Osaka

The former basketball player only took up the sport in January of the previous year after impressing coaches by clearing 2.14m in his basketball shoes. A little over 18 months later the laid back Bahamian, remarkably, became world champion with a first time clearance of 2.35m.

Stephanie Brown Trafton (USA) – 2008 Olympic discus final, Beijing

Ranked only 27th in the world in 2007 and with no previous major championship experience, Brown Trafton caused a major upset to land gold in Beijing. Squeezing into the final with her third and final attempt in qualifying, a first round throw of 64.74m was enough to ensure she became the first US athlete to take this title for 76 years.

Keshorn Walcott (TRI) – 2012 Olympic javelin final, London

Walcott looked surprised after he’d thrown 84.58m to take the lead in the Olympic final. At 19, the world junior title he’d won in July was quite enough to be going on with. To his even greater surprise, no-one else could throw further. The young Trinidanian bagged a gold medal and a lighthouse for his troubles.

Nouria Mérah-Benida (ALG) – 2000 Olympic 1500m final, Sydney

Such was the faith shown in Mérah-Benida (who had exited the 1500m heats at the 1997 and 1999 World Championships) by Algerian Olympic officials, she was categorised in the third of their three pre-Games classes; medal contenders, possible finalists and ‘others’. Over a thrilling last lap, Carla Sacramento and Suzy Favor Hamilton both raced into the lead before fading. It looked like the same fate would befall Mérah-Benida but she held off a strong Romanian threat to win.

Tianna Madison (USA) – 2005 world long jump final, Helsinki

Aged just 19 at the time, Madison caused one of several major upsets at the 2005 World Championships when leaping a lifetime best of 6.89m on a wet Wednesday in Helsinki. Since that golden moment, Madison’s long jump career has regressed, although she stunningly re-emerged as a world-class sprinter last year, taking gold as part of the USA’s world record-breaking Olympic 4x100m team.

Jenny Simpson (USA) – 2011 world 1500m final, Daegu

The former steeplechaser was such an unlikely winner that even as she forged ahead, the British commentator for Channel 4 thought she was Morgan Uceny. Forced out into lane three in order to pass the leaders on the home straight, Simpson became the first American woman to win this title since Mary Decker in 1983.

Rens Blom (NED) – 2005 world pole vault final, Helsinki

Ninth in the previous summer’s Athens Olympic Games, the Dutchman blindsided many of his more illustrious opponents including America’s Brad Walker to take an unlikely gold. A slightly fortuitous clearance at 5.80m en route to victory, when he rattled the bar, was good enough. He never competed at another major outdoor championship. 

Think we’re missing someone? Let us know @spikesmag if you have another favourite underdog.