Countless media reports on the Rio Olympics have focused on all the potential problems. But forget all the horror stories about the Zika virus, crime, pollution, and other issues. Most athletes are far more concerned about something else — losing. And to be sure, there will be plenty of sad athletes returning home from Rio, separated from a medal in some cases by a few hundredths of a second, a couple of inches, or a missed shot at the buzzer. Here’s a look at some of the closest finishes in Olympics history.
10. Michael Phelps’ ‘Mistake’ Helps Him Win Gold (2008)
Serbian Milorad Cavic told a reporter it would be good for swimming if he beat the seemingly invincible Michael Phelps in the 100-meter fly in Beijing. And in the finals of the event, Cavic appeared set to back up that remark. He led Phelps on the start, and at the 50-meter mark. But coming to the wall, Cavic timed his last stroke to glide into the finish, good technique for swimmers; Phelps misjudged his last stroke and took an extra half stroke to reach the wall. That’s normally enough to cost a swimmer the race, but it allowed Phelps to touch the wall in 50.58, just ahead of Cavic’s 50.59 time. The Serbian team protested the finish, but officials upheld Phelps’ victory.
9. Devers Wins Gold in 100 Meters (1996)
American Gail Devers and Jamaican Merlene Ottey finished with identical 10.94 times in the 100 meters, but Devers got the gold medal in Atlanta. Devers had also won gold in the event in the 1992 games. Not bad for someone who began her athletic career as a hurdler.
8. Photo Finish Shows … Really Bad Photo Technology (1960)
Watching a young Jim McKay try to analyze the photo finish of this race is almost comical; the primitive state-of-the-art technology of the era produced photos as murky as an image of the Loch Ness Monster. This remains one of the most controversial Olympics finishes ever. All three timers clocking Australian John Devitt (top lane) had him at 55.2 seconds; American Lance Larson’s timers clocked him at 55.0, 55.1 and 55.1. But the place judges declared Devitt the winner, and after a protest, the decision was upheld. The controversy ultimately led to the introduction of the electronic timing and touch-pad system used in competitive swimming today.
7. Nathan Adrian Closes Fast to Win 100 Free (2012)
American Nathan Adrian closed fast to beat Australian James Magnussen by 1/100th of a second for the gold medal in 100 free in London. (Race starts around the 3:00 mark).
6. Americans Tie For Gold Medal in 50-Meter Freestyle (2000)
Anthony Ervin and Gary Hall Jr. were not only teammates on Team USA in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, they trained together in Phoenix. The two turned in a time of 21.98 to share the gold medal in the 50 free. In case you’re wondering, according to Olympstats.com, there have been 26 events in summer Olympics history that ended in a tie and two athletes sharing the gold medal.
5. Gatlin Wins 100 Meters By Hair (2004)
Team USA’s Justin Gatlin runs a 9.85 seconds in the 100 meters to edge Portugal’s Francis Obikwelu for the gold in Athens, winning by 1/100th of a second.
4. Women’s Cycling Event Ends in Photo Finish (1984)
In the first-ever women’s cycling event in the Olympics, Americans Connie Carpenter-Phinney and Rebecca Twigg crossed the finish line only inches apart — remarkable considering they’d just raced more than two hours and almost 50 miles. Carpenter-Phinney earned the gold medal. She had actually competed in an Olympics 12 years earlier — as a 14-year-old speed skater.
3. Women’s 100 Free Ends in Tie … and Two Gold Medalists (1984)
It doesn’t get any closer than this: American teammates Carrie Steinseifer and Nancy Hogshead touch the wall at exactly the same time (55.92) in the 100-meter freestyle in L.A. After glancing at the scoreboard, Steinseifer said she saw a “2” beside her name and assumed she had won silver; Hogshead turned to her and told her they had tied. They both won a gold medal for their effort. (The race starts at 5:30 in the above video.)
2. Race Winner Announced Hours After Event (1932)
When Ralph Metcalfe and Eddie Tolan represented the U.S. in the 100 meters in the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, it marked the first time the top two American sprinters were African-American. In the finals of the event, Metcalfe actually reached the finish line first; by today’s standards, he would be the winner. But officials reviewed film of the finish, and several hours later awarded the gold medal to Tolan (who has both arms raised in the video) for having his torso past the line first. They both were credited with a time of 10.38 seconds.
1. Five Sprinters Cross Finish Line at Almost Same Time (1992)
This video (the finals begin at the 1:30 mark) is fascinating, as the top five sprinters in the 100 meters flash across the finish line separated by a mere 6/100ths of a second. American Gail Devers won the gold with a time of 10.82 seconds, while teammate Gwen Torrence narrowly missed bronze with her time of 10.85. Torrence would win gold in those Barcelona games in the 200-meters event as well as in two relays.