Series03 Apr 2020

10 of the greatest athletics moments of triumph over adversity


10 of the greatest athletics moments of triumph over adversity (© Getty Images)

Journeys towards sporting success can often get disrupted, but some athletes throughout history have overcome episodes of true adversity on their way to athletics triumphs.

Throughout the coming five days we will look back at 10 such athletes, unveiling two new moments each day.


Jesse Owens’ four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games

Jesse Owens in action in the 4x100m


Jesse Owens made headlines all around the world in 1935 when he set six world records within the space of an hour. His record-breaking feats at 100m, 200m, sprint hurdles and the long jump underlined his status as one of the expected stars of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

In the months leading up to the Games, Owens was under pressure in his home country to boycott the Olympics on the grounds that an African-American should not compete at an event run under Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime. Hitler, meanwhile, had hoped that German athletes would dominate at the Games and show the world a resurgent Nazi Germany.

Owens, however, pursued his Olympic ambitions and went on to win gold in the 100m, 200m, 4x100m and long jump. While Hitler refused to attend the competition sessions in which Owens achieved his gold medals, Owens later revealed that Hitler had acknowledged his success with a handshake.  


Betty Robinson’s 1936 Olympic gold after plane crash

USA's 4x100m quartet on top of the podium at the 1936 Olympic Games


Just four months after contesting her first official race, Betty Robinson became the Olympic 100m champion in 1928 at the age of 16, equalling the world record in the process.

Just three years later, however, Robinson was involved in a plane crash and was severely injured. Having suffered multiple injuries, she spent six months in a wheelchair. It would be another two years before she could walk normally again, meaning she had to forego the 1932 Olympics in her home country.

She persevered, though, and managed to regain fitness in time for the 1936 Olympic Games. She was unable to kneel for a sprint start and so could not contest for an individual spot on the team, but instead she formed part of USA’s 4x100m relay squad. Running the third leg, Robinson contributed to the USA’s victory and in so doing earned her second Olympic gold medal.


Sydney Wooderson’s 1946 European victory

The diminutive Sydney Wooderson of Great Britain emerged as one of the world’s top middle-distance runners in the mid-1930s when he earned Commonwealth silver in the mile in 1934.

An ankle injury prevented him from making the 1936 Olympic 1500m final, where he would have otherwise been among the medal favourites, but he rebounded and set a world mile record of 4:06.4 in 1937 and an 800m world record of 1:48.4 in 1938. Two weeks later, he won the European 1500m title in Paris with a championship record.

Due to World War II, Wooderson was denied the chance of Olympic redemption in 1940 and 1944. He worked as a firefighter during the Blitz and his running was further put on hold in 1944 when he spent several months in hospital suffering from rheumatic fever.

He recovered in time for the 1946 European Championships, though, and won the 5000m in a national and championship record of 14:08.6.


Kathrine Switzer’s run at the 1967 Boston Marathon

It might be difficult to believe now, but as recently as the 1960s, women were not allowed to compete in marathons.

Kathrine Switzer, a keen runner, entered the 1967 Boston Marathon under the name ‘KV Switzer’ and was offered a place. Once the marathon got underway, however, the race organisers realised the entry belonged to a woman.

Race official Jock Semple tried to physically stop Switzer running, shouting “Get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers!” Switzer’s boyfriend Tom Miller, who was running alongside her, shoved Semple towards the pavement, allowing Switzer to continue running.

“I knew if I quit, nobody would ever believe that women had the capability to run 26-plus miles,” she said. “If I quit, it would set women’s sports way back instead of forward. If I quit, Jock Semple and all those like him would win. My fear and humiliation turned to anger.”

Switzer went on to complete the race in 4:20:02. Race director Will Cloney said afterwards: “Women can’t run in the marathon because the rules forbid it. Unless we have rules, society will be in chaos.”

Five years later, however, the Boston Marathon finally allowed women to compete in the race.


Gail Devers’ 1991 world silver and 1992 Olympic gold

Gail Devers in the 100m hurdles at the 1993 IAAF World Championships


Just when it seemed as though Gail Devers’ career was about to take off, illness stopped her in her tracks.

The US sprinter and hurdler had won the 1987 Pan-American Games 100m title and reached the Olympic semi-finals in the 100m hurdles in 1988. But in 1990 she was diagnosed with Graves’ disease, an autoimmune condition that affects the thyroid and leads to muscle weakness, among other symptoms.

She underwent radioactive iodine treatment, followed by thyroid hormone replacement therapy, but began to develop blistering and swelling of her feet. At one point she was barely able to walk and so had to crawl or be carried around. Doctors, meanwhile, even discussed the possibility of amputating her feet.

Fortunately, once she stopped her radiation treatment, she was able to resume training and she returned to competition in 1991. She claimed silver in the 100m hurdles at the World Championships in Tokyo and reduced her PB to 12.48.

Her career then went from strength to strength and she went on to win Olympic 100m gold in 1992 and 1996, world 100m gold in 1993 and world 100m hurdles gold in 1993, 1995 and 1999.


Ana Quirot’s 1995 world title

Ana Quirot wins the 1995 world 800m title


Cuba’s Ana Quirot was one of the most versatile runners in the world in the late 1980s and 1990s.

Undefeated over 800m between September 1987 and August 1990, she set national records of 1:54.44 in her specialist event and 49.61 over 400m. She also earned world silver in 1991 and Olympic bronze in 1992.

But in 1993 she was involved in a domestic accident and was engulfed by flames from the kerosene cooker in her kitchen, suffering third-degree burns over 38% of her body. She was pregnant at the time and gave birth to her daughter prematurely in hospital while fighting for her life. Her daughter did not survive and died a week after she was born.

When she returned to consciousness on her hospital bed, she promised: “I’m going to run again.”

After undergoing seven skin-graft operations, she returned to action in 1995 and won the world 800m title in Gothenburg. She went on to claim Olympic silver in 1996 and then successfully defended her world title in 1997 at the age of 34.


Glory Alozie’s 2000 Olympic silver

Glory Alozie in the 100m hurdles at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games


Four years after their first trip to Sydney when they represented Nigeria at the 1996 World U20 Championships, sprint hurdler Glory Alozie and her fiancé Hyginus Anugo had been looking forward to returning to the Australian city in 2000 for the Olympic Games.

But one week before the Olympic opening ceremony, disaster struck when 22-year-old Anugo was killed while crossing the road to catch a bus in a suburb of Sydney. Alozie, who was in Japan at the time for what would have been her final pre-Games tune-up race, was understandably distraught.

She contemplated skipping the Olympics completely. But by the time the women’s 100m hurdles heats got under way, Alozie – who had won world silver indoors and out one year prior – had regained just enough composure to take to the start line.

She won her heat, placed second in her quarter-final and won her semifinal. After the gun went in the final, she led for most of the race and came away with the silver medal – an incredible achievement given what she had been through.

“This medal is very, very important to me, the most important in my life,” she said. “I’d enjoy it more if my fiancé Hyginus was still here.”


Aries Merritt’s world bronze in 2015

Aries Merritt in the 110m hurdles at the IAAF World Championships Beijing 2015


Aries Merritt was on top of the hurdling world in 2012.

The US athlete put together arguably the greatest ever season by a sprint hurdler, winning the world indoor title in March, the US Olympic Trials in June, the Olympic title in August and then capped it all off with a world record of 12.80 in Brussels.

But his form dipped in the years that followed and no one really knew why. Even Merritt himself was at a loss to explain it to begin with. After undergoing some tests at the end of the 2013 season, he was diagnosed with kidney disease, caused by a rare genetic disorder. His particular strain of the disease also got into his bone marrow and wreaked havoc on his body. Doctors warned him he may never be able to run again.

He spent six months in hospital, unable to do any training. The treatment was far from straight-forward, but he managed to recoup enough strength to resume training and racing in 2014. A solid block of consistent training helped get some of his speed back in 2015, but his kidney function was still far from perfect and he was scheduled to undergo a kidney transplant operation at the end of the season with his sister as his donor.

First, though, he had the small matter of the World Championships in Beijing. In a competitive final, he earned bronze in a season’s best of 13.04 – a performance that felt just as good as anything he achieved in 2012, given all he’d been through.


Yarisley Silva’s 2017 world bronze medal

Cuban pole vaulter Yarisley Silva at the IAAF World Championships London 2017


After winning the 2015 world pole vault title, Cuba’s Yarisley Silva went into 2016 with hopes of improving on the Olympic silver medal she won in 2012.

But just a few weeks into the year, she had to reassess her goals for the season after her boyfriend, 2014 Central American Games high jump champion Sergio Mestre, was involved in a freak accident.

While trying to lift heavy weights in a training session, Mestre slipped and fractured his back. He was paralysed from the waist down and spent months in hospital.

Silva skipped the 2016 World Indoor Championships and wasn’t at her best at the Olympic Games in Rio, finishing sixth. But one year later, she returned to the global championships podium and earned bronze at the World Championships in London.

“I’ve worked really hard to be here,” she said. “This medal means so much to me.”


Carolin Schäfer’s 2017 world silver

Carolin Schafer of Germany at the IAAF World Championships London 2017


German heptathlete Carolin Schäfer started 2015 in scintillating form, setting three PBs in the 60m hurdles and a PB in the high jump.

But less than two weeks before the European Indoor Championships, her boyfriend, volleyball player Dennis Hefter, was tragically killed by a train while attempting to cross the tracks.

Schäfer still competed at the European Indoors, but, understandably, lacked focus and did not finish the competition. Although she set a heptathlon PB of 6547 in May later that year, she still struggled throughout the season and fouled out of the heptathlon at the World Championships when recording three no-jumps in the long jump.

Two years later, however, she was in a much better place. Her preparation for that year’s World Championships still wasn’t ideal as her coach Jurgen Sammert developed cardiac arrhythmias and spent a considerable time in hospital.

Nevertheless, Schäfer was able to produce the form of her life, setting a PB of 6836 in Götzis and following it with the silver medal at the World Championships in London.

“I think only those very close to me know how much this medal means to me and how hard these past few years have been,” she said. “One of my biggest assets is my mental strength; there have been some events in my personal life I had to learn to fight back from.”

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