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.



In This Story


  1. He Gets It Done Again says:

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

    • Pau Hana says:

      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 says:

        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.

        • mcgillrocks says:

          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 says:

            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.

  2. p Man says:

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

  3. Hambone says:

    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

  4. DDias says:

    Balandin was quite the upset.Not even his team members were expecting his win.I was in the press tribune when two of Kazakhstan members went wild when he touched first.They shouted, jumped and finally run away like two mad men.It was very fun to watch(and I was sorry to let my cam turned off).

  5. Baker\'s Pearl Earrings says:

    1 Women’s 100 free. Penny and Simone beat the world record holder and the reigning world, Oympic, European, and U.S. Trials champions.
    2. Women’s 50 free. Similar to 100 free but not as dramatic.
    3. Women’s 200 back. Maya upset the arguable swimmer of the meet Hosszu along with the biggest 200 back names of this century Franklin, Coventry, and Seebohm
    4. Men’s 100 free. Was anticipated to be Cam’s show with Adrian and Zetao possibly making it a race. 2 “no-name” swimmers with no senior international medals going in got gold and silver
    5. Men’s 100 fly. Wasn’t even close between Schooling and the 3 butterfly beasts who got silver

    • weirdo says:

      I agree with all but Maya’s win. Coming into the meet, Katinka was only seeded a tenth or two faster than Maya at most. Everyone knows that Katinka goes all out in prelims and finals… I was glad Maya won for sure, but I wasn’t surprised at all. Many more surprises for me that week.

      • Prickle says:

        Agree. There was no upset at W200BK. Yes it was a close race but not an upset. The only way Hosszu kept on in the race with Maya because of strong off-the-wall. Her stroke was weak and she didn’t have enough power at the end of the race. All season long she was one good race of the meet swimmer. The Olympic Games wasn’t an exception. After the fireworks at 400IM there was a decline in her form. She skipped 200BU and work hard to secure the win at 200IM. The race that was expected to be the walk at the park for her. Should 200back be her first race she would win it easily. Should the 400IM be her last race she would lose it to Maya. Her amazing world record at the first day of competition made someone to believe that everything that follows will be of the same quality. But she is not Ledecky who starts the meet with the world record and finishes with the world record. So it wasn’t an upset but pretty much expected outcome.

        • yozh1k says:

          I agree!
          Hosszu is a one trick pony, while Ledecky is Life, Ledecky is Love!

          • bootsncats says:

            Hosszu a one trick pony? In my opinion she is one of the most versatile swimmers of the century. World class and finaling in so many events and strokes. No hate on Ledecky though, she’s amazing.

          • bootsncats says:

            Hosszu a one trick pony? In my opinion, she is one of the most dominant versatile swimmers out there right now. She is finaling and medaling on the world stage in multiple events and strokes. Though I do agree about Ledecky though, she’s amazing, no doubt about it!

          • bootsncats says:

            Well I didn’t mean to do that twice. Don’t mind me, I’m a klutz.

          • Prickle says:

            Hosszu’s versatility is completely different discussion. My point is that on the moment of racing 200BK final Hosszu wasn’t at her best conditions. If the underperforming in case of Cate Campbell was definitely an upset then in Hosszu’s case such situation with her form was expected (based on last six months observations) and therefore cannot be considered an upset. Sure she was upset but there was no surprise with such her race.

          • ERVINFORTHEWIN says:

            stop repeating yourself LOL

          • iLikePsych says:

            The reason why the 200 bk was such a surprise was the ease that Hosszu displayed in prelims and semi finals (plus the less likely 100 back win). She cruised to a 2:06 low in prelims and semis, so I almost expected her to break Franklin’s WR. Yet she did not drop any time in finals, and Dirado swooped in with a 2:05.9. I’m super glad she won, but even two weeks later I’m surprised Hosszu went pretty much the same time.

  6. bobthebuilderrocks says:

    This is off-topic, but does anyone know why Missy isn’t back with the women’s Cal team yet? Do we know if she’s going with Teri or Dave?

  7. luigi says:

    I will brag about a little bit here. I have been talking about Ervin as a medal threat since 2012. He has been defined a nothing-swimmer or a spent swimmer by some on this website, especially after Kazan 2015. Yet he came back as fast as ever and not only did he help the relay squad to get that gold medal with a sterling 100 free leg in the preliminaries (and he deserved to be in the final, but the coaches deemed otherwise), but he won gold in the 50. To me he is now the best sprinter ever. Yes, Popov and Hall both won gold twice in the 50, but Ervin never went to the Olympics in his 20s. To be the best again after 16 years, a geological era in sport, is something akin to a miracle.

    • Prickle says:

      The feat that will never be repeated. It wasn’t like he just wanted to be on the U.S. Olympic team one more time and didn’t care much what will happen in Rio. As he said at post-race interview: there was some part of me that wanted this medal. Many people wished him to win and actually believed in that. Not an upset.

      • DDias says:

        The thing with Ervin was more about delivering when it counts than anything.Ervin and Tandy were the only ones to make a PB in the final.

        • Prickle says:

          You just prove my point. Sure he not only won the gold Olympic medal being 35 yo, but did it with PB. How many elite swimmers do we know who made pb at 35? I think even Hosszu will fail to do so 🙂

        • Luigi says:

          He was fast at Trials, fast in heats, fast in finals. Basically he was fast. He always is when he is in the right place mentally and do not mess his start.

  8. Kordez says:

    Kevin Cordes getting 8th in the 200 and 4th in the 100?

  9. NSwim says:

    I honestly find it more shocking that the WR in the 200 breast for men did not go down. A lot of people seemed to have predicted it. Also, the men’s 100 fly was a shocker, no one saw the 3 favorites tying for silver.

    • weirdo says:

      I agree about the 200 breast. After semis, I would have put a lot of money on one or two of the swimmers breaking the world record. To me that was one of the biggest surprises….the entire field was studly. Great race to watch….so many different strokes and race plans!

    • iLikePsych says:

      TBH I’m more surprised the 100 bk WR didn’t go down during the event than the 200 BR. Sure, Murphy got it in the relay, but the fact that the one-hit wonder WR lasts while a previous backstroke GOAT went down is funny.

    • mcgillrocks says:

      I think sometimes if a race is too wide open then it becomes harder to break the record. The 200 breaststroke was one of the most open, unpredictable events in the field. In the past 4 years, 4 men have led the world rankings. Going into Rio, there were 9 men who had been between under 2:08 in the past 3 years, but no one under 2:07.

      There were easily 3 or four athletes in the field with the potential to go 2:06. But swimming a world record requires a bit of risk, an aggressive strategy where you gamble that your training will fully pay off. Going in, it might have been very possible for Prenot to have gone 2:06.7. But on the other hand, if he swam that kind of race and found in the last 50 he doesn’t quite have it in him, he could easily have faded to 2:08 and totally missed the medals. It’s safer to swim a slightly more conservative race and compete for gold, and maybe win silver…than to try and annihilate the field but risk missing out on the medals entirely. With everyone so close, I don’t think anyone wanted to take that risk and go for the record (or alternatively maybe they did, but ended up fading down the stretch).

  10. Jim C says:

    How big of an advantage do swimmers have in the various breast stoke and IM events under the new rule allowing two butterfly kicks?

  11. Neverwas says:

    BIGGEST UPSET: Blowman pulling Conger off the 800 relay for Phelps.

  12. Track says:

    Upset for all sports in my book, Almaz Ayana, who destroyed an infamous record which no one had gotten within 20 seconds of for almost 23 years in her second 10000m race ever to get gold, loses her better event, the 5000m, to Veteran Vivian Cheruiyot, who wins her first Olympic gold at age 32.

  13. Liam says:

    Don’t care about open field. Balandin won from lane 8 as a relative unknown from a country that’s not known as a swimming country at all. Even if the field was open, people still had favorites and Balandin was not one.

  14. Sportinindc says:

    Ervin’s win made me scream louder than the others.

  15. phelps swims 200 breast rio says:

    Certainly not the biggest upset, but I was really surprised when Lochte went 1:57 in the 200 IM final.

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About James Sutherland

James Sutherland

James is currently a university swimmer for the Laurentian Voyageurs in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada. He is studying economics. Along with swimming, he also loves hockey. He's in his 14th season as a competitive swimmer. Best Times - SCM (LCM) 50 FR - 24.56 (25.12) 100 FR - 53.58 (56.70) 200 FR - 1:56.07 (2:04.29) 1500 …

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