Discounted: The Winter Olympics’ greatest underdogs

CNN  — 

Some Olympians are destined for greatness, others are there just to make up the numbers, but some manage to defy expectations or even shock the world.

More than a century of Olympic competition has provided no end of heartwarming tales, and the Winter Games are no exception.

Here are some of the greatest underdog moments at the Winter Olympics:

1980: Miracle on Ice

The idea of the USA being underdogs in pretty much any Olympic sport – let alone ice hockey, where the country is a traditional powerhouse – is a faintly ridiculous prospect.

But at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York, the USA entered the Games seeded seventh out of 12 teams.

The team was made up primarily of college and amateur athletes but they surprised many by cruising through the preliminary rounds against more fancied opposition.

But it was in the medal round when the Americans really shone.

They were up against the legendary Soviet team, which had won gold in the previous four Olympics. It didn’t look good for Team USA – their then-Cold War foe had wiped the ice with the Americans 10-3 in an exhibition match earlier that month.

However, the sides were tied 2-2 after the first period, before the Soviets edged ahead in the second. When Mark Johnson brought the scores level in the third period, the scene was set for one of winter sport’s most memorable triumphs.

In a made-for-movie finish – the triumph got the Hollywood treatment with a made-for-TV film in 1981 and again with the release of “Miracle” in 2004 – captain Mike Eruzione scored the famous fourth and winning goal to seal the unlikeliest of triumphs.

The USA beat Finland to win gold but it was the semifinal victory over the Soviets that was the stuff of miracles.

1988: It’s bobsled time

The Jamaican bobsled team at Calgary in 1988 inspired the film "Cool Runnings."

No Olympic underdog story would be complete without the inclusion of arguably the greatest underdogs of all time – the Jamaican bobsled team from the Calgary Games.

The novelty of four Jamaicans swapping their tropical Caribbean homeland to become their country’s first bobsled competitors at a Winter Olympics resonated around the world.

The quartet started the sport from scratch, coached by a former US Olympic bobsledder, and five months later made their splash in Calgary.

They famously crashed before the line, but their tale was the inspiration for the 1993 Disney film “Cool Runnings.”

After a 12-year absence, Jamaica returned to the Olympic bobsled arena in the two-man event when Winston Watts and Marvin Dixon crowdfunded their way to Sochi in 2014.

The first Jamaican women’s team of Carrie Russel and Jazmine Fenlator-Victorian is set to keep the tradition moving forward in Pyeongchang, though their time in South Korea has not been without incident following the departure of driving coach Sandra Kiriasis.

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The Jamaican women evoking 'Cool Runnings'

READ: Jamaican women’s bobsled’s Olympic teething problems

1988: The Eagle soars

Another Winter Olympian immortalized on the silver screen – for his unlikely contribution to the pantheon of athletes, rather than his towering achievements – was Michael “Eddie” Edwards, subject of the 2016 film “Eddie the Eagle.”

Edwards became famous in Calgary as the backstory came out of a struggling skier desperate to become an Olympian despite a lack of ski-jumping experience, money, trainer, kit or facilities.

“Eddie the Eagle is quintessentially British,” former Olympian and Edwards’ countryman Kriss Akabusi said in a documentary about the ski jumper.

“Eddie the Eagle could not be a star in any other country than the United Kingdom. He had a go. He dared to go where most of us won’t. He stood on the top of a precipice and said, ‘Geronimo!’”

While his jump at Calgary – 71 meters – was a British record, it placed him 58th out of 58 competitors. But he remains one of the sport’s most-beloved competitors – and the only one to have a movie made about them.

2002: The ‘Accidental Hero’

Name a country regarded as a speed-skating powerhouse, and Australia is unlikely to come to mind.

However, it clinched gold in the 1,000-meter short-track final in Salt Lake City in 2002 through a remarkable set of circumstances.

Steven Bradbury, then 28 and in his fourth Games, was something of a veteran in the world of short track, but he reached the final courtesy of a disqualification to another racer in the quarters and a crash taking out his three of his rivals in the semifinal.

In the medal race, Bradbury knew he couldn’t match the pace of the other finalists, so he stuck to his cautious gameplan of staying at the back out of trouble.

But when the four skaters in front of him, including US star Apolo Ohno, went down in a pile-up on the last bend, the incredulous Bradbury glided past for an improbable victory.

It was the first gold medal for Australia at a Winter Olympics and cemented Bradbury’s place in history as the “accidental hero.”

2018: This year’s underdogs

Who says you can’t swap the Summer Games for the Winter ones?

Tonga’s Pita Taufatofua, a former taekwondo practitioner who set hearts aflame in Rio with his oiled-up opening ceremony appearance, became only the second Tongan to appear at the Winter Olympics when he strapped on his cross-country skis this month.

The athlete, who reportedly had only seen snow once before he took up the sport, qualified for the tournament last month with only one day of qualification left.

The Tongan finished just under 23 minutes behind gold-medal winner Dario Cologna from Switzerland.

Taufatofua then waited at the finish alongside fellow stragglers Sebastian Uprimny of Colombia, Morocco’s Samir Azzimani and Portugal’s Kequyen Lam as they welcomed Mexico’s German Madrazo who finished in 119th and last position.

“Everyone was at the front racing to come first, we were racing not to come last, but we’ll have a good laugh over dinner,” Taufatofua later joked.

“I’d rather be finishing towards the end of the pack with all my friends than in the middle by myself. We fought together, we finished together,” he added.

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Shirtless Tongan makes Olympic return

Taufatofua is not the only outsider aiming for that fairytale win.

Thirty years after the Jamaican bobsled team captured hearts around the world, three women from Nigeria will make history of their own in the same event.

Driver Seun Adigun and brakewomen Akuoma Omeoga and Ngozi Onwumere have qualified for Pyeongchang and will be the first athletes from an African nation to compete in bobsled at the Games.

Elsewhere on the ice, the men’s ice hockey tournament will look very different this time around, given that the National Hockey League announced that it would not send players to Pyeongchang.

The requirement for a 17-day break in the NHL’s February schedule was cited as one of the reasons by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.

It is the first time in six Winter Games where players from the world’s strongest – and richest – league will not compete.

The lack of some of the world’s best players, including a disproportionate number of US team players, means the field will be more open – and the US potentially considered an underdog for the first time this century.