Top 5 Upsets of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games

The 2016 Rio Olympics were host to one of the most exciting international swim meets in recent memory, with never-ending drama throughout the eight days of competition.

There were many events where the winner was all but a sure thing, such was the case in the races of Katie LedeckyAdam Peaty and Katinka Hosszu in the IM events. But along with those slam dunks there were also races that featured massive upsets, where those expected to contend for the win fell short while some other unexpected names came to the forefront to claim gold.

Below is a countdown of the five biggest upsets of the meet.

5. Maya Dirado Triumphs In 200 Back

Coming into the meet the women’s 200 back looked to be between two women for gold: Emily Seebohm of Australia and Katinka Hosszu of Hungary. Seebohm won the 2015 world title and was on fire afterwards on the World Cup circuit, and Hosszu had shown great form over the last year after winning bronze in the event in Kazan. Defending gold medalist Missy Franklin and Australian Belinda Hocking were considered outside threats for a medal, but unlikely to be in the race for the top spot unless they showed up on top form.

Franklin’s American teammate Maya Dirado certainly had to be considered for a podium spot after winning the U.S. Olympic Trials in a personal best of 2:06.9, but is known primarily as an IMer. The 200 back seemed to just be an bonus event for her, as she had never competed in it internationally.

Early in the meet it became clear Seebohm and Franklin were off form and Hosszu and Dirado were on. When the 200 back rolled around, it was still a big surprise to see both Seebohm and Franklin miss the final. After winning both IM events and the 100 back, the gold looked to be Hosszu’s for the taking, but Dirado had other ideas.

Her 2:07.53 from the semi-finals put her in prime position to battle for the silver medal, but the gold looked out of reach with Hosszu clocking back-to-back 2:06.0s in the prelims and semis. In the final, Hosszu took the lead as expected, but tired on the final 50 and Dirado capitalized, touching out the Hungarian by six one-hundredths for a gold in 2:05.99. One of the more shocking upsets of the Games, no doubt.

4. Florent Manaudou Loses 50m Free Crown To Ervin

France’s Florent Manaudou won an unexpected gold medal in the 50 free four years ago in London, and really asserted himself as the fastest man in the world in the years leading up to Rio. His winning time of 21.19 at the 2015 World Championships was the fastest ever in a textile suit, and labelled him as the clear favorite to repeat heading into Rio.

That narrative didn’t change heading into the final, as Manaudou took the top spot in the semis in 21.32.

However, in the final, Manaudou didn’t assert himself as the clear leader early in the race like he did in Kazan. The field was much more bunched up. He and 35 year-old Anthony Ervin were visibly the leaders late in the race, and a perfect touch saw Ervin, the 2000 Olympic champ, out-touch the heavy favorite Manaudou by just one one-hundredth of a second to win gold. It was an amazing gold medal story to win gold again 16 years after initially doing it as a teenager back in Sydney.

Ervin, regarded as one of the most naturally talented swimmers in the world, took ten plus years off of competitive swimming and came back to qualify for the 2012 Games. Ervin’s gold medal is equally as surprising as Manaudou’s silver, as Ervin failed to even final just last year in Kazan while Manaudou went nearly a full second faster than Ervin at the same meet to win gold.

3. McEvoy Falters In 100 Free, Fellow Australian Chalmers Claims Gold

Despite them being the two shortest events (in terms of time) on the program, the two events on the men’s side that appeared to have the biggest locks for gold (outside of the 100 breast with Peaty) were the 50 and 100 free. As mentioned above, Manaudou was the heavy favorite in the men’s 50 free, as was Australia’s Cameron McEvoy in the 100.

Like Manaudou did in the 50, McEvoy posted the fastest textile time in history in the 100 free at the Australian Olympic Trials in April. His time of 47.04 stood as the fastest time in the world for the year by seven tenths of a second, a massive margin in such a short race.

Suspicions about McEvoy’s form came up a bit in the 400 free relay, where he split just a 47.00 with a relay takeover, though it was still the second fastest split in the field and he had a relatively slow reaction time of 0.42.

He qualified 4th out of the prelims and in a tie for 3rd out of the semi-finals in the 100 free, and looked to be in a good position to take the gold that was expected. However it didn’t come together in the final at all, as McEvoy turned 4th and ultimately fell to 7th, swimming over a full second slower than his time from April in 48.12.

Any sort of slip-up by McEvoy would be expected to result in a gold medal for 2012 champ Nathan Adrian of the United States, who had to be considered his biggest competition in the event. Instead, it was McEvoy’s 18 year-old Australian teammate Kyle Chalmers who came through, claiming gold in a time of 47.58 after a blistering back half of 24.44.

Adding to the surprising final was Belgian Pieter Timmers, who took silver over Adrian, Caeleb DresselSanto Condorelli and the other more established names.

Chalmers was expected to final but wasn’t necessarily expected to medal, and Timmers was basically left out of the conversation with so many heavy hitters in this event. But in the end, it was those two in the top two spots, while the heavy favorite McEvoy was back in 7th. Adrian wound up taking bronze.

2. Pernille Blume Shocks Big Names For 50 Free Gold

Just like it was for the men, the sprint freestyle events on the women’s side had a clear favorite in both events. That favorite was Australian Cate Campbell, who was definitely the front-runner in both events but more so the 100, as the 50 was bit more open.

Along with Campbell, the list of contenders in this event included her sister Bronte Campbell, Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom, Great Britain’s Francesca Halsall and defending Dutch gold medalist Ranomi Kromowidjojo.

Other than Sjostrom, the main contenders advanced to the final on the eighth and final day of the competition. However, it was up in the air how they would do for two reasons. One, none of them, shockingly, made their way onto the podium in the 100 free just two nights prior. And two, a new woman had emerged as a top contender from the heats and semis.

Denmark’s Pernille Blume, who finished 26th in this event four years ago in London and in a tie for 13th last year at the World Championships, posted times of 24.23 and 24.28 to take the top spot in the first two rounds of the 50 free.

Despite Blume’s quick times, it was still expected that one or more of the Campbells, Halsall and Kromowidjojo would reign superior in the final.

In the final nothing changed, as Blume powered her way to a surprising gold medal in 24.07, with Simone Manuel of the United States taking silver and Aliaksandra Herasimenia of Belarus taking bronze. Shockingly, the five women expected to fight it out for the medals were all left off the podium.

Blume’s win gave Denmark their first Olympic swimming medal since 2008. She would go on to anchor the Danish medley relay to another medal, a bronze, later that same night.

1. Campbell Sisters Off Podum In 100 Free, Manuel & Oleksiak Tie For Historic Gold

Among all the upsets that took place over the eight days of competition, none were as big or dramatic as the one that went down in the women’s 100 free final.

Like the 50 free, Cate Campbell was the favorite, although even more so in this event as she broke the shiny suit world record of 52.07 just a month prior to the Games. Bronte was the defending world champion, and was expected to battle for silver with Sjostrom, Kromowidjojo and her Dutch teammate Femke Heemskerk.

Campbell took the top time in the semi-finals in 52.71, and everything looked to be on course for gold. Canadian Penny Oleksiak nearly ran down Campbell in their respective semi and qualified 2nd overall in 52.72, and Simone Manuel won the other semi-final, adding their names to the list of swimmers who would be expected to battle for silver behind Campbell.

In the final Campbell went out fast as expected, twelve one-hundredths under her own record pace at the 50 in a blistering 24.77 and Bronte sat 2nd in 25.04. Down the last 25m it became clear Cate was starting to fade, and Manuel caught both of the sisters. It looked as though Manuel was about to steal the gold, until Oleksiak charged home to bring herself in contention. Manuel and Oleksiak stormed into to the wall and tied for gold in 52.70, and Bronte (4th) and Cate (6th) were amazingly left off the podium.

Sjostrom was the only expected medalist who actually medaled for bronze in 52.99, while Cate’s Olympic disappointments continued. She came home in 28.47, 1.30 seconds slower than she did just a month prior breaking the world record. It was clear nerves had gotten the best of her.

Manuel’s gold was the first ever by a black woman in swimming, and Oleksiak’s was her fourth medal of the meet, making her the most decorated Canadian at a single summer Olympics ever at just 16 years of age.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Co-favorite Mitch Larkin missed the podium in the men’s 100 back in 4th place. He was also considered the main favorite in the 200 back, where he just missed gold to Ryan Murphy taking the silver.
  • Joseph Schooling won Singapore’s first ever swimming medal in defeating pre-race favorites Michael PhelpsChad Le Clos and Laszlo Cseh in the men’s 100 butterfly. Schooling ended Phelps’ streak of three consecutive gold medals in the event, and handed the greatest Olympian of all-time his first and only loss of the 2016 Games and just his fifth individual loss on the Olympic stage in his career. After the NCAA season he had, it wasn’t a huge surprise to see him drop so much time, but it was a surprise that neither of the aforementioned three were even close to him in the final (they all tied for silver three-quarters of a second behind him).
  • The only gold medal won out of lane 8 in Rio, Dmitriy Balandin won Kazakhstan’s first ever swimming medal claiming the men’s 200 breast in 2:07.46. Though this race had to be considered one of the most wide open on the schedule with so many men capable of going 2:07, Balandin was certainly not on many people’s radar for gold. He topped pre-race favorites Marco KochJosh Prenot and Yasuhiro Koseki, among others, for gold in the final.
  • The men’s 200 fly wasn’t a surprise for gold, as Phelps reclaimed his title, but the other two spots on the podium were a huge surprise. With Phelps expected to battle it out with Le Clos and Cseh for gold, it was Japan’s Masato Sakai and Hungary’s Tamas Kenderesi who emerged, earning surprise silver and bronze medals over Le Clos (4th) and Cseh (7th). The duo nearly ran down Phelps on the last length as well.



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He Gets It Done Again
4 years ago

Balandin winning the 200 breast was a WAY bigger upset than Ervin winning the 50 for the 2nd time.

Pau Hana
Reply to  He Gets It Done Again
4 years ago

I think Ervin’s win in bigger because he beat such a heavy favorite in Manandou. As mentioned above, the 200 breast was more open.

He Gets It Done Again
Reply to  Pau Hana
4 years ago

I guess it depends how you define upset. Do you look at how unlikely it was that the winner won? Or how unlikely it was that the favorite lost? Ervin’s win was a surprise, but did anyone outside of Kazakhstan pick Balandin to win? Plus it’s not like Manaudou is infallible. He didn’t even medal in 2013, and he was only .18 faster than Adrian last summer. The 50 free is so close these days, I don’t think anyone can be considered too heavy of a favorite.

Reply to  He Gets It Done Again
4 years ago

Balandin was 2:07 mid in 2014. He was a perfectly reasonable choice for people out of Kazakhstan.

For comparison–
2014 world rankings: Ervin- T4th Balandin- 3rd
2015 world rankings: Ervin- 16th Balandin- 14th

In the past 2 years, Balandin has been ranked higher in his event than Ervin. Furthermore, the 200 breast was wayyy more wide open, and Ervin is 35, and expected to be declining, while Balandin is only 21, and expected to be improving. Ervin was a much bigger upset.

He Gets It Done Again
Reply to  mcgillrocks
4 years ago

Lol, hindsight is 20/20.

7 people in the Pick Em picked Ervin to win. 0 picked Balandin. If you still want to pretend Ervin was the bigger upset, go ahead.

p Man
4 years ago

I think McEvoy was the biggest fail of the games. How do you add over a second in a 100 free?

Reply to  p Man
4 years ago

He was sick during the games

p Man
Reply to  Jdsmitty1
4 years ago

Excuses, excuses. Remember when Kerri Struggle stuck her landing back in ’96 after she stepped on a bear trap, then a land mine and then had the same foot run over by a tank?

Reply to  Jdsmitty1
4 years ago

The Australian Head Coach confirmed he was not sick but his nerves got the best of him.

4 years ago

obviously it’s all just opinion, but I would take both 50 Frees off the list (because it’s the 50 free and anything can happen); I think the men’s 100 fly deserves to be top 5

About James Sutherland

James Sutherland

James swam five years at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, specializing in the 200 free, back and IM. He finished up his collegiate swimming career in 2018, graduating with a bachelor's degree in economics. In 2019 he completed his graduate degree in sports journalism. Prior to going to Laurentian, James swam …

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