Lame-ducks, also-rans, epic Olympic failures – as we know it’s all about taking part. Hapless and hopeless, they run and jump and sledge and swim without any chance of winning but still, they try, accepting defeat as gracefully as possible.
Yes, not everyone can be an Olympic athlete but that doesn’t stop some people trying.
But just who are the all-time great Olympic failures who captured our hearts?
Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards
Eddie soared to glorious failure in the 1988 Winter Olympics as Britain’s only ski-jumper. There’s no doubt that Eddie was a good skier, narrowly missing selection for the British downhill skiing team in the 1984 Games and he could ski-jump.
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At the time of the 1988 Winter Olympics, Eddie held the British ski-jumping record. He was ninth in the world for amateur speed skiing reaching speeds of over 100 miles an hour, and the stunt skiing world record holder after jumping 10 cars and 6 buses.
But ski-jumping requires snow and although he trained at Lake Placid it just wasn’t enough to make him a serious contender. Eddie came last in the event, causing the Olympic Committee to reconsider the entry requirements.
Even so, he did set a new British record of 73.5m for one of his Calgary jumps. It’s a long way behind the World Record 253.5m jump made by Stefan Kraft in 2017.
Nevertheless, even though he did not win any medals, Eddie, the passionate underdog, certainly won the hearts of the world. Many people argued that this displayed the true spirit of the Olympics.
Eric ‘The Eel’ Moussambani
Australia went all out to put on a show when they hosted the Olympics in Sydney in 2000.
Enter Eric Moussambani Malonga, the 100m swimming representative of Equatorial Guinea, and next up on our Olympic failures list.
With limited training and experience in competitive swimming, he had never seen an Olympic-sized pool until he arrived in Sydney for the Games.
Due to financial constraints and lack of resources, Moussambani had only learned to swim eight months before the Olympics, in a 20-meter hotel pool.
With a lack of competitors from his country, he was given a wild card entry, allowing him to participate despite not meeting the qualifying standards.
During his qualifying heat, Moussambani faced some challenges. His competitors in the adjacent lanes were disqualified for false starts, leaving Moussambani to swim alone in lane five.
The pressure and lack of experience took a toll on him, and he struggled to complete the race. Despite his difficulties, he managed to finish with a time of 1 minute and 52.72 seconds.
Nevertheless, his determination and spirit won the hearts of spectators and viewers worldwide. The crowd cheered him on as he fought to finish the race, and he became a symbol of perseverance and courage.
The media dubbed Moussambani “Eric ‘The Eel'” due to his unique swimming style, which involved a combination of doggy-paddle and freestyle strokes.
His story resonated with people as an embodiment of the Olympic spirit, where participation and personal achievement were celebrated regardless of the final result.
The Jamaican Bobsleigh Team
This is a story that most of us will be familiar with because the Jamaican Bobsleigh Team at Calgary 88, inspired the hit movie Cool Runnings.
Not surprisingly, this was the first time that a Jamaican team had entered the Winter Olympics.
Oddly, it was Americans, George B. Fitch, and William Maloney, who were responsible for the founding of the team.
During a visit to Jamaica, they witnessed a pushcart derby and, realising that pushcart racing was very similar to bobsledding, a legend was born.
The four-man team included Dudley Stokes, Devon Harris, Michael White and Chris Stokes. Their ‘ultimate underdog’ status soon made them a firm favourite with the fans.
Unfortunately, they didn’t officially finish after losing control of the sled and crashing during one of their four runs.
They did however manage to walk to the finish line unscathed; deafened by the cheers and tumultuous applause of the adoring crowd.
This may have been their debut but the Jamaican Bobsleigh Team has gone onto play a part in no less than five more Winter Olympics.
Luvsanlkhündegiin ‘Luvvy’ Otgonbayar
Back in 2004 at the Athens Olympics, Mongolian women’s marathon runner, Luvsanlkhündegiin Otgonbayar, struggled almost as much with her running as race commentators did with her name.
Poor ‘Luvvy’, as she became simply known, eventually crossed the line in a losing time of 3 hours 48.42 seconds. She finished 56th in the last position and over 30 minutes behind the next to last finisher.
Whilst she didn’t win any medals, she did win the admiration of the crowd who stayed around waiting for her to finish and then brought her home to deafening applause and chants of “Go, Luvvy, go”.
But it seems the crowds inspired her as much as she did them. She kept on running and represented her country in four World Championships and another Olympic games held in London 2012.
She did get better and in the 2011 World Championships, she clocked an impressive 2.45:58. Knocking over an hour of her time in Athens.
Mala Sakonninhom from Laos came last in the women’s 100m when she clocked an Olympic worst time of 15.12 seconds in Seoul in 1988.
The time, over four and a half seconds slower than Florence Griffith Joyner’s gold medal-winning run in the final, could probably have been beaten on most high school running tracks.
Even so, Mala finished the race in good spirits, smiling and telling reporters that she was: “Pleased to be taking part and proud to run for her country”.
Now that is the true Olympic spirit and the epitome of a lovable loser.
At only sixteen, young Fumilay was the standard-bearer for her country at the 2004 Summer Olympics and also competed in the 20K women’s walking race.
The young woman from São Tomé, a Portuguese speaking island in the Gulf of Guinea and the second smallest country in Africa, did her best but maybe a tiny volcanic island isn’t the best place to train.
Fumilay finished the Women’s walk with one of the worst times on record – 2 hours 4 minutes and 54 seconds. She was almost 36 minutes behind the winner and about 15 minutes behind the next-to-last finisher.
Not even this crushing defeat though could dampen Mala’s spirit; the following year she walked in World Youth Championships coming in 24th. Now you could say that she is an Olympic failure, but hey she’s a winner in our eyes.
Last but not least on our Olympic failures list is Margit Appelt. With long brown hair, a winner’s smile, and a beautiful white mount, she certainly looked the epitome of the equestrian filly at the Athens Olympics in 2004.
Unfortunately, her performance didn’t live up to her polished image and Austrian, Margit, came 68th in the individual equestrian event.
Eventually, Margit and her horse, Ice on Fire, finished with 271.80 penalty points after making mistake after mistake; failing and refusing jumps and generally making a horse’s ear of the whole competition.
She managed to finish an incredible 230.2 points behind controversial British winner, Leslie Law (with just 41.60 penalty points).
The Olympic Spirit
Everyone loves a winner, but it seems that they love a loser just as much and perhaps it’s the losers, those sportsmen and women who despite coming to the last pick themselves up and try again, that embody the true spirit of the Olympics.
The term “Olympic spirit” is often mentioned but lacks a precise definition. It is frequently linked to Pierre de Coubertin’s famous statement:
The important thing is not to win, but to take part
Some media outlets consider athletes who give their best but finish last as the embodiment of the Olympic spirit.
They emphasise that true Olympic spirit is often found in those who are not gold medalists with lucrative endorsement deals, but rather in individuals who demonstrate unwavering determination and sportsmanship, regardless of their placement in the competition.
Eric Moussambani, Paula Barila Bolopa, Abdul Baser Wasiqi, Pyambuugiin Tuul, Charles Olemus, Mala Sakonninhom, Luvsanlkhündegiin Otgonbayar, Mira Kasslin, and Samia Hireche have been cited as examples of athletes who personify the Olympic spirit.
These individuals have captured the imagination of the public due to their perseverance, resilience, and unwavering commitment to their sport.
Overall, the concept of the Olympic spirit is often associated with athletes who demonstrate a deep love for their sport, exhibit unwavering dedication and sportsmanship, and inspire others through their passion and perseverance, regardless of their position in the competition.
These individuals may be considered Olympic failures in terms of medals, but they capture the essence of the Games and serve as role models for embodying the true spirit of the event.