The biggest underdogs in Winter Olympic history

A yellow bobsled with Jamaica written on it in green letters
The Jamaican bobsled team impressed everyone with their spirited performance during the 1988 Olympics | Shutterstock

Underdog stories are great, aren’t they? They’re the stuff of countless feel-good films and the ultimate feat in sporting glory. We all love them. Unless, of course, you’re a much-fancied sportsman that loses to one during a major event.

For the rest of us, though, there’s nothing better, especially when you’re watching something like the Olympics. This global affair is truly the pinnacle of sport and is often based around narratives and journeys.

With the Winter version of the Games about to get underway in Beijing, casual viewers will be hoping to enjoy a few underdogs showing that their bite is just as bad as their bark. We'll have to wait and see if the the XXIV Olympic Winter Games in China will provide any classic longshot winners. In the meantime, let’s enjoy some of the dark horses that defied the odds in previous winter games.

The ‘Miracle on Ice’ (Lake Placid, 1980)

Think of countries that should dominate ice hockey on the world stage and you’ll instantly think of the United States, home of the NHL. Yet in 1980, the USA were seeded only seventh of the 12 competing nations. At a home games too. Why? Well, their team was almost exclusively made up of players from amateur leagues.

The Soviets took a different approach. Their squad wasn’t a hodgepodge of college players and part-timers. They went big. That’s why they’d previously won golds in the sport for the past four Olympics. As expected, the Soviets eased through the group stages. Against the odds, so too did the USA.

The two nations, still locked in a tense Cold War stand-off away from the rink, met in the first medal game. The Soviet Union was expected to win heavily. However, they did not.

The first period ended with the sides drawing 2-2. The second period saw the Soviets edging things 3-2. Despite being under the cosh and defending for most of the game, the US capitalised on the Soviets’ offensive play and countered with two goals to win the game and shock the sport. The famous line from the American TV commentator Al Michaels sums it up: "Do you believe in miracles? YES!"

The win proved decisive in the end. The Soviets thrashed the Swedes 9-2 in their final game, but the USA beat Finland 4-2 to seal the gold.

‘Cool Runnings’ (Calgary, 1988)

You hardly need telling about the Jamaican bobsled team, do you? So we’ll keep this entry on the briefer side. After all, we’ve all seen Cool Runnings.

Theirs was an underdog story, for sure. Just not one that ended - technically - in glory. Medals don’t maketh the man, though. So while the unlikely appearance of a Carribbean outfit in the four-man bobsled event didn’t end in gold, silver or even bronze, there was plenty of spirit shown. Which sounds patronising, but the sheer fact that the team went from riding push carts down the street to competing on the world stage is still quite staggering.

In the end, the team crashed before the end and had to carry the sled over the line, but then again, you already knew that, didn’t you?

If you’re a fan of Jamaican bobsledding, we’ve got some good news for you. Jamaica has a four-man team competing at Beijing 2022, their first appearance in over 20 years.

Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards (Calgary, 1988)

Time for a little national flag waving as we discuss arguably Great Britain’s most recognisable Winter Olympic figure of all time. Step aside Jane Torvill. Move along Christopher Dean. The real star of British Winter Olympics history is, to our minds, the soaring figure of Michael David Edwards. Or ‘Eddie the Eagle’ to give him his proper title.

Eddie’s story of ski-jumping in Canada in 1988 has shades of the Jamaican bobsled team about it. Unprecedented, he decided to try out and - in the end - found himself jumping a British record of 71 metres at the games. The trouble is, a British record is a British record, and unfortunately not anywhere near an Olympic record. It’s all about context. Edwards, an upbeat and loveable type that the world took to with glee, finished 58th. Out of 58 competitors.

Another way in which his story mirrored the Cool Runnings guys was that The Eagle’s charming and heartwarming story was made into a film, the 2016 biopic cleverly titled ‘Eddie the Eagle’.

Patient Steven Bradbury (Salt Lake City, 2002)

Now here’s one we especially like. Unlike the previous three picks, Steven Bradbury’s underdog story isn’t quite world famous. But just watch back how he won gold at the 2002 games and you’ll wonder why the clip isn’t shown on television more often. Like the colour of the medal the Australian speed skater won 20 years ago, it makes for TV gold.

Bradbury made it all the way to the 1,000m short track final in 2002, his fourth games. The man was a pro, but something of a veteran and an unlikely finalist. In fact, he’d only made it that far due to a competitor’s disqualification in the quarter finals and a crash that wiped out the three leading skaters in the semi. Getting to the final was almost embarrassing.

Bradbury knew he had no chance of beating his rivals in an out-and-out race for speed. What he’d learned though, from the previous heats (and his 11 year career), was that crashes happen. Lurk around behind them and you can steam through and snatch wins. So that was his game plan. It was either unsportsmanlike or wily. Unambitious or genius.

You can predict the rest. 950m into the race, the Aussie was fifth of five competitors. Until the leading pack became entangled and all of them collapsed into a heap of skates and Lycra-coated flesh. Bradbury, 15m off the pace, slid through, straight past the winning line. He’d won gold.

In doing so he became the first person from a southern hemisphere country to ever win a Winter Olympic event. And he did so in the most incredible way imaginable.

Ester Ledecká (PyeongChang, 2018)

Ester Ledecká is a snowboarder. A really rather good one at that. The Prague-born Olympian had won golds in the parallel slalom at the World Championships, that’s how good she was. Ester Ledecká was not, however, a skier. Not until she decided to try her hand at it. She was, of course, capable. But a rank outsider when she got selected for the Czech team at the 2018 Winter Olympics.

The defending champion, Austrian Anna Veith, recorded an impressive time of 1:21.12 in the Women’s Super-G. It looked like a winning time. Until Ledecká stepped up. Starting 26th, she was - effectively - a no-hoper. The gold medal was surely Veith’s. Ledecká descended down the mountain at an almighty pace. It wasn’t a flawless performance, by any means. But it was quick. Very quick.

She finished and looked at the scoreboard. She looked. And looked. Afterwards, the 22 year-old admitted she thought she was looking at someone’s else’s time. She wasn’t. The 1:21.11 was hers. By 0.1 of a second she had won an Olympic gold in alpine skiing.

Oh, and she also won gold for snowboarding. Making her the first person ever to win two gold medals at the very same Winter Olympics using two different types of equipment.

Beijing 2022 may not see a little guy win big or a huge outsider capture the world’s imagination like in previous Winter Olympics, but we can hope. We’ll certainly be tuning in, hoping for a few surprises. After all, every underdog has its day.