Everyone loves a good underdog story, and the Tokyo Olympics provided plenty of them to choose from.
Some athletes entered the Games as virtual unknowns and left as stars after pulling off surprising wins. Others arrived as household names and left without medals after suffering shocking losses.
Here’s a few of the events that will be remembered for their unpredictability at these Olympic Games.
Lamont Marcell Jacobs leads Italy to shocking double gold
With three-time champion Usain Bolt now retired, the men’s 100m sprint was wide-open for the first time in years. Several names—including Trayvon Bromell and Andre de Grasse—were thrown around as possible contenders, but no one had 26-year-old Lamont Marcell Jacobs on their radar heading into the Tokyo Games. As it turned out, the Italian delivered one of the most shocking moments of the Olympics when he ran a 9.80 to win 100m gold, a feat he followed up by helping Italy get another surprise gold in the 4×100 relay.
Lydia Jacoby makes history for Alaska
In becoming the first person from Alaska to ever make the U.S. Olympic Swimming Team, Lydia Jacoby had already defied the odds once. She did so once more when she surged past favorites Lilly King (USA) and Tatjana Schoenmaker (RSA) in the final 25 meters of the 100m breaststroke final to win a surprise gold medal. The 17-year-old’s dramatic win also produced an incredible reaction from friends and family at a watch party back home in Seward, Alaska.
Naomi Osaka’s tournament ends early
Naomi Osaka, who had the honor of lighting the cauldron at the Opening Ceremony, was one of the biggest stars competing for the host nation at the Tokyo Games, but her Olympic tournament was surprisingly cut short after a third-round loss to the Czech Republic’s Marketa Vondrousova. Vondrousova, currently ranked No. 42 in the world, defeated Osaka, the world No. 2, in convincing fashion to advance onward. Throughout the rest of the tournament, Vondrousova continued her strong play and ended up bringing home a silver medal.
Canada breaks through for women’s soccer gold
The Canada women’s soccer team had never reached the final of a World Cup or Olympic tournament, but their Tokyo journey ended in a gold medal thanks to a string of upsets in the knockout rounds. In the semifinal, Canada converted a VAR-awarded penalty in the 74th minute to defeat the United States for the first time in 20 years. Then they went on to face a dominant-looking Sweden team in the final and ultimately prevailed by winning a dramatic penalty shootout. In all, it was a huge breakthrough performance for both Canada and its legendary captain Christine Sinclair.
Parchment denies Holloway’s gold-medal aspirations
Coming into the Tokyo Games, Grant Holloway appeared on course to not just win gold in the men’s 110m hurdles, but to break the world record in the process. The U.S. star entered as the reigning world champion and had just set the No. 2 time ever (12.81—just .01 seconds off the record) at Olympic Trials in June. But in the Olympic final, Holloway lost speed during the final hurdles while Jamaica’s Hansle Parchment had a strong surge to overtake him and win the race. Parchment previously won bronze at the 2012 Games but was not one of the favorites in Tokyo.
Bobby Finke comes from out of nowhere
American distance swimmer Bobby Finke was one of the Tokyo Olympics’ biggest revelations. The unheralded 21-year-old came to Tokyo completely under the radar, but announced his presence with an amazing comeback in the men’s 800m freestyle. At the race’s 750m mark, Finke was outside the medal spots as the swimmers made their final turn. Then he came from out of nowhere and passed the top three swimmers in the race’s final 50 meters to claim the first-ever Olympic gold medal in the men’s 800. A few days later, Finke produced another impressive late charge to win the 1500m final and complete the distance sweep.
Novak Djokovic leaves Tokyo without a medal
After winning Wimbledon, Novak Djokovic had the Golden Slam—winning all four majors plus Olympic gold in one calendar year—in his sights. It helped his case that his two biggest rivals, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal opted not to compete in Tokyo. But after making it all the way to the semifinals, Djokovic was bounced by Germany’s Alexander Zverev, the world No. 5. The surprises continued when Spain’s Pablo Carreno Busta defeated a visibly frustrated Djokovic in the bronze medal match. Djokovic left Tokyo without a medal after withdrawing from a mixed doubles bronze medal match later that night.
Unknown Austrian cyclist snaps 125-year drought
When Dutch rider Annemiek van Vleuten crossed the finish line of the women’s road race, she pumped her fists in celebration of a victory. There was just one problem, though—she was oblivious to the fact that another cyclist had broken away from the lead pack earlier in the race and had been riding solo out front. That rider, an unknown Austrian named Anna Kiesenhofer, had crossed the finish line 75 seconds earlier in what was a massive upset and a historic victory. It gave Austria its first Olympic cycling medal since the inaugural 1896 Athens Games.
18-year-old Tunisian wins from outside lane
While Lydia Jacoby and Bobby Finke’s wins were surprising, none of them were as stunning as Ahmed Hafnaoui’s victory in the men’s 400m freestyle final. Hafnaoui, an 18-year-old from Tunisia, was the youngest swimmer and the slowest qualifier in the field for the final, and he had to swim in Lane 8, one of the lanes farthest on the outside. In the end, none of that mattered, as Hafnaoui swam near the front throughout the race, then passed Australia’s Jack McLoughlin in the final 50 meters to take the lead.Hafnaoui’s win surprised even himself—after seeing that he’d won Tunisia’s fifth-ever gold medal, he emphatically yelled and pounded the water.
U.S. wrestler Gable Steveson won an NCAA title earlier this year, but he had never competed in a major international competition at the senior level before the Tokyo Games. He quickly proved that he belonged on this stage, reaching the final without giving up a single point in his first three matches. Then he took down Georgia’s Geno Petriashvili, a three-time world champion, in a thrilling last-second victory to claim the 125kg freestyle gold medal. WATCH
The U.S. earned the No. 2 seed for the Olympics’ first-ever mixed team archery event, but Brady Ellison and Mackenzie Brown were eliminated in the first round by 15th-seeded Indonesia. WATCH
Russian athletes have swept the rhythmic gymnastics events at the last five Olympics and were heavily favored to do so again in Tokyo. That streak came to an end when Israel’s Linoy Ashram won the individual competition (WATCH) and Bulgaria won the group competition (WATCH) in upsets on back-to-back nights.
Great Britain’s Jade Jones arrived in Tokyo with hopes of becoming taekwondo’s first three-time Olympic champion, but the world No. 1 was bounced in her opening round by Kimia Alizadeh, a refugee from Iran. Alizadeh, who won bronze while competing for Iran in 2016, defected from her home country in 2020 and competed as a member of the IOC Refugee Olympic Team in Tokyo. WATCH
In the Olympic debut of mixed doubles table tennis, host nation Japan upset China’s top-seeded team to win the event’s first-ever gold medal. It marked the first time since 2004 that a country other than China has won an Olympic table tennis event. WATCH