The Olympics were based on ancient games staged in Olympia, Greece from 776 BCE to 393 CE. The trials were meant to honor Zeus, who ruled over all the other Greek gods and goddesses. The trials returned to common practice in 1896, at the proposal of Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin. Ever since, they have been a reason to unify all the countries of the world in efforts to prove who is the best athlete.
However, just because the festival was meant to create gods of idyllic men (and women) doesn’t mean that these athletes are perfect. Whenever something goes wrong at an Olympic event, fans are always shocked: “How could this have happened to these perfect beings?” These Olympians are human and they make mistakes, just like the rest of us. Whether those mistakes cost them a little embarrassment and pride or health and youthful qualities, they are mere mistakes that come with the territory of being a professional, life-long athlete.
As time has passed, Olympians have gotten stronger, tougher, and much more talented. Whereas gymnasts in the 1950s were lauded for landing slow paced floor routines with only a few difficult moves, they are now required to perform gravity-defying stunts and land gracefully on their feet if they hope to achieve a medal. The chances that someone will get injured in the games today are the highest they’ve ever been.
So let’s take a look back through the history of Olympics at some of the most serious injuries ever incurred. While embarrassing, some of these Olympians are lucky to have survived.
15. Kerri Strug Works Through Torn Tendons
Back in the 1996 at the Atlanta Olympics, a young, ambitious, and promising Kerri Strug took to the Olympic stage. She marched with her Olympic gymnastics teammates, bags on shoulders and coaches trailing after, “as if to war” the commentators noted. USA was determined to bring home the gold. After one of her teammates slipped and fell after her vault (twice), Kerri must have been shaken. On her first vault, she almost stuck the landing, but fell backwards. She limped off the stage and scared everyone in the audience; something was wrong. Turns out she had torn tendons in her ankle; no wonder it hurt. Yet, she refused to stop. She ran the vault again, nailed the landing on one foot, and, as soon as she was no longer required to stay standing, dropped to her knees and started inching off the stage. Though she was no longer able to compete in the all-around competition or event finals, she persevered long enough to bring gold home.
14. Lazaro Borges’ Pole Breaks
Cuban Lazaro Borges made no mistakes when preparing for his pole vaulting event in the London 2012 Olympics. When he made a run at the standard, his strides were wide and strong, though they weren’t the fastest fans had ever seen. He landed his pole exactly where he ought to have, perfectly placed between the two cushy purple mats. However, despite doing everything right, fate was out to get him. Just as Lazaro made his attempt to launch himself into the air, the pole snapped in two places, seeming to explode as Lazaro’s unsupported weight was dropped back towards the mats. Lazaro landed uncomfortably on his neck, but seemed otherwise fairly unscathed. As if it were part of his normal routine, he picked up some shards of the broken pole and left the staging area to prepare himself for another run! Unfortunately, Lazaro didn’t perform well enough to medal and his Olympics continued in a rather dismal fashion.
13. Stephan Feck Back Flops
Olympic divers make it all look so easy. Sure, when they launch themselves off of the diving board, they’re able to complete multiple tumbles and turns midair before dropping into the water with minuscule splashes. But when WE try diving, we can barely complete a standard dive without hurting ourselves.
Well Stephan Feck revealed he was truly human after all in the 2012 London Olympics. After losing his grip on his legs in a tight roll, he accidentally released one of his legs. The diver lost his focus, overcompensated on his dive landing, and completed a painful back-flop. He emerged from the pool quickly, embarrassed. He wasn’t the first to flop on his landing and he wasn’t the last; the 2016 Olympic fans made fun of the Filipino diving team for their embarrassing back-flops as well (yes, there were multiple), saying that at least they “scored a free trip to Rio.”
12. Nastia Liukin Face Plants on Bars
Anastasia “Nastia” Liukin, Russian-American gymnast, won gold in 2008 for her unparalleled skill and athleticism. Everyone expected her to walk into the Olympic qualifying trials and take the competition by storm. Unfortunately, Nastia didn’t even end up competing in the London 2012 Olympics; why’s that? Due to this horrible slip on the bars.
Nastia’s routine was going well, until a slip on the high bar. She released her grip on the bar and, when she went to grab it again, missed. She face-planted onto the mat and daintily kicked up her back leg to notify her coach and fans that, despite the fall, she was alright and not in need of assistance. She got back up and finished the routine, knowing fully well that her fall would keep her out of the 2012 Olympics, and was answered by a standing ovation from the crowd. “They still supported me and loved me for who I am as a person,” Nastia smilingly reported. “It was really heart-warming.”
11. Katie Glynn Clubbed in the Head
Yes, yet another injury at the 2012 London Olympics! Katie Glynn, field hockey player from New Zealand, incurred one of the most frightening injuries of the Olympics that year. A ball had been hit to a Netherlands player and Katie darted forward, sticking her hockey stick between the player’s legs to try to retrieve the ball. However, she didn’t see the Netherlands player rear back to hit the ball away; when the stick came down, Katie Glynn incurred a direct hit to the back of the cranium. Katie staggered away and collapsed to the side. When her coach helped her up and brought her, stumbling and weak, to the sidelines to be examined, we could see blood covering Glynn’s head; we were concerned Glynn may have had a serious concussion. However, true to the spirit of field hockey, Katie was stitched, stapled, and wrapped up, and returned to the game as if nothing had happened!
10. Hiroki Ogita Pokes the Pole
Centuries have gone by when men insisted they were better athletes than women because their bodies were built for athletic endurance, unlike a woman’s delicate physique. Try telling that to some of the toughest chicks from this year’s Olympics, like Gabby Douglas, Kerri Walsh Jennings, and Simone Manuel. Also try telling that to poor Hiroki Ogita, Japanese pole vaulter. As the pole vaulter was competing, he launched himself up to the standard and expected to go over. If he were a woman, he would have merely bumped the standard and therein missed, disqualifying himself. However, Hiroki has the misfortune of being a man and possessing the unique tools only men have. As he skimmed close to the standard, his genitalia got caught against the pole and, in an embarrassingly hilarious display, knocked the standard down. Darn that thing, it’s always getting in the way! If you didn’t get a chance to see the video, it’s definitely worth a watch.
9. Angel Valodia Matos Kicked Ref in the Face
While Hiroki Ogita couldn’t do much to control his member getting in his way and Katie Glynn couldn’t stop the Netherlands player from striking her in the back of the head with a wooden club, Angel Valodia Matos was entirely in control of his fate and he chose to ruin his own career when he decided it was a good idea to kick the referee in the face on global television. In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Angel was disqualified from his bronze medal match on the grounds that he had exceeded the one-minute injury treatment time allotted for competitors. Angel had hurt his foot and those helping treat him didn’t get him back to the mats, so the referee (who was just doing his job) was forced to award bronze to Kazakhstan’s Arman Chilmanov. Angrily, Angel kicked the referee in the face. Matos and his coach have both been forever banned from participating in any World Taekwondo Federation championships.
8. Adrienne Nyeste Slips Off the Bars (2000)
In the 2000 Olympic preliminary trials, Adrienne Nyeste of Hungary was hopeful she would go to Sydney to represent her country and their fine athleticism. She was performing a fantastic and difficult bars routine and had almost made it all the way through. When picking up speed for her final move and dismount, Adrienne spun around the bar once, then twice, and then she lost her grip and the speed and force of her turns flung her from the bars. She seemed to launch away from the bars and down the mat in a painful twist that made us all grimace; the crowd resounded with a groan of empathetic pain. She collapsed and didn’t move for at least thirty seconds after the fall, causing coaches and fans to believe she may be unconscious. In truth, the young woman and sensational athlete was only in considerable pain and was disappointed with herself.
7. J.R. Celski Slices Himself to the Bone in Trials
J.R. Celski is a short track speed skater native to the United States. A very young athlete, he confessed that his goal “went from winning a gold medal in the Olympics to being able to walk again.” In fact, J.R.’s injury was quite bad. At the final day of Olympic preliminary trials, J.R. had already qualified to compete in the Vancouver Olympics; he was racing to attempt to compete in another length of race, but reports that he didn’t need to be on that ice. When he lost his footing in the final lap of the race, the blade of his right skate had lodged itself into the thigh of his left leg. When he pulled the skate out, it had been revealed that the skate had hit an artery; blood gushed over the ice, and J.R. said he could see his femur. The Olympian healed and trained hard to fix his body after the career-threatening injury and managed to still bring home bronze.
6. Greg Louganis Bumps the Board
Diving is a very difficult sport. The athleticism requires keen attention to detail, and all of the sport goes by in less than five seconds! It takes intense awareness and focus to succeed in diving. Greg Louganis was a renowned diver from the United States, respected and believed in by fans everywhere.
However, at the 1988 summer Olympic games in Seoul, South Korea, Greg Louganis was very nervous. He was attempting a dive that many of his peers consider a reverse three and a half somersault. When completing the dive, he was so focused on completing the finesse of the move that he failed to jump far enough away from the board. He hit his head on the board upon his descent. While he managed to maintain consciousness, medical and emergency staff surrounded the pool, ready for the worst. Louganis wound up getting some stitches, competing in more dives, and winning gold for the U.S!
5. Annemiek van Vleuten Tumbles in Road Race
Female Dutch cyclist Annemiek van Vleuten suffered one of the most gruesome Olympic injuries this summer at the Rio Olympics. In the women’s road race, which took place on August 7, Annemiek was leading a pack of cyclists and looking like a top pick and a possible medalist. She only had six miles to go till the finish line when the 33-year-old skidded a bit off the side of the road and her bike flipped wheels over handles. Her body was flung off the bike and into a ditch on the side of the road. Annemiek was rushed to the hospital and, though her injuries were clear and severe, has been able to recover well from the traumatic accident. Her Dutch teammate was able to win gold in her place, though she may be taking a long break from Olympic cycling, especially on Rio’s dangerous and ill-kept courses.
4. Paul George Breaks Leg in USA Scrimmage
Well this didn’t happen during any Olympic event, but it happened to the USA team during a 2014 scrimmage so we’re going to count it!
In the fourth quarter of the scrimmage, Paul George leaped towards the hoop to try to swat away a layup. His speed propelled him past the net and landed him at the base of the hoop; upon landing, his leg visibly snapped and crumbled. George collapsed to the ground in pain and agony as fans that saw the horrifying accident groaned in empathy. He was taken out of the stadium on a gurney and splint, and the game ended early to pay homage to the player’s injury. The coaches even delayed announcing the final roster for Team USA until they learned the extent of Paul’s injuries. Paul actually stayed on the team and, after extensive rehabilitation and physical training, helped to lead the U.S. to victory!
3. Janos Baranyai Dislocates Elbow
In the 2008 London Olympics, Hungarian weightlifter Janos Baranyai suffered a very painful elbow dislocation. The lifter was attempting to lift a barbell of 326.3 pounds when his right arm buckled under the weight and flipped around backward. The break tore ligaments and muscle and the lifter couldn’t manage to put the weight down in a safe fashion; he dropped the barbell onto himself, having it land uncomfortably on his back. The accident left the lifter writhing in pain on the Olympic stage. The arm didn’t require surgery, luckily, and was reset by Chinese medical staff. He had to spend three weeks in Hungarian hospitals rehabilitating the fractured arm. “I’ve never felt such pain,” he told Associated Press. “I’m not a delicate kid, but that was brutal.”
Janos is far from being the only heavy lifter to have injured his arms on the Olympic stage. South Korean lifter Jaehyouk Sa broke his arm in the London 2012 games and Armenian lifter Andranik Karapetyan dislocated his elbow at the Rio 2016 Olympics.
2. Samir Ait Said Snaps His Leg
At the 2016 Rio Olympics, Samir Ait Said suffered one of the most gruesome and painful injuries throughout the history of the Olympic games. He actually had managed to injure himself on the same event in 2012, but of course not to the extent as the 2016 Olympics. During his qualifying events, the French gymnast prepared for his vaulting stunt. He ran forward, launched into the air, completed an amazing routine, and crumbled upon landing. The force of impact upon landing snapped his leg and, though it was an internal fracture, it was one of the most obvious and painful breaks we’d ever seen. To add insult to injury, Rio Olympic staffers that escorted his gurney to the ambulance dropped him! Fortunately, Samir was strong enough to keep himself composed after the injury, stayed in Rio long enough to support his teammates, and is on the course to a full recovery.
1. Nancy Kerrigan Attacked by Jealous Rival
Ah, the most iconic injury the Olympics might have ever seen. Though it wasn’t an injury suffered recently, or in a complicated routine, or even in front of an Olympic audience, it’s one of the craziest, most outlandish, and heart breaking injuries ever encountered.
Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding were rivals on the ice. While most Olympic rivals hold deep respect for each other and are at least outwardly proud when a competing athlete from the same country wins, these two were not. Tonya Harding was jealous and knew that Nancy Kerrigan was apt to defeat her in the 1994 in Lillehammer. She hired a man to assault Nancy once she left the ice during training, and the metal baton wielding man damaged her knee horribly. Kerrigan luckily recovered in time to compete in the 1994 Olympics and won silver, and Harding was soon thereafter caught for her plot to rid herself of Kerrigan. Her husband and accomplices served time, though Harding herself weaseled her way out of it.