In 2002 at Salt Lake City I was approached by Rick Reilly, the well-known Sports Illustrated writer, who asked me if I knew who had come the closest to winning medals without actually ever winning one. He wanted to know who had been the unluckiest Olympian. Unfortunately, our database was not as strong then as it is now and I was unable to give him a quick and easy answer.
But now we can answer that question for you – who has been the unluckiest Olympian. It depends slightly on how you define “unlucky” but we’ll offer you a couple choices.
- If you want the Olympian without a medal and the most 4th places – that would be Mariya Itkina, an early Soviet-era sprinter who placed 4th four times at the Olympics, but never mounted the podium. Itkina was 4th in the 1956 4×100 metre relay, and three times in 1960 at Rome – in the 100 metres, the 200 metres, and the 4×100 relay again. She also finished 5th in the 400 at the 1964 Olympics. She only missed the top 5 once, failing to get past the heats in the 1956 200 metres.
- Itkina was better at other meets. She was a four-time European Champion, winning gold in the 200 and 4×1 in 1954, and winning the 400 in both 1958 and 1965. She was a 17-time Soviet Champion, and won the 200 metres at the 1957 Universiade. She also set multiple world records, especially so with 7 in the 400 metres, an event that was fairly new for women in the 1950s.
- If Itkina does not please you as a choice, how about Lisa Curry-Kenny, an Australian swimmer. Curry-Kenny also finished 4th or 5th in 5 Olympic events, as did Itkina. She was 4th in the 1984 200 IM and 4×100 free relay, while she finished 5th in the 1980 100 metre butterfly and 4×100 free relay, and in the 1992 4×100 medley relay. Curry-Kenny also claimed a 6th place in the 1980 medley relay. In all, Curry-Kenny competed in 13 Olympic events – 7 individual and 6 relays – at the 1980, 1984, and 1992 Olympics, but never mounted a podium. Shed no tears for Curry-Kenny, though. She was a 7-time gold medalist at the Commonwealth Games, and won 10 Commonwealth medals in all. She married Grant Kenny, an Ironman competitor who also competed at the Olympics in canoeing, and did bring the family an Olympic medal with a bronze in 1984 kayak doubles.
- Lisa Curry-Kenny became a well-known Australian television personality and product spokesperson, and has received numerous awards for her career. She has been named a Member of the Order of the British Empire, is a member of Sport Australia Hall of Fame and the Queensland Sport Hall of Fame, has received the Medal of the Order of Australia, the Australian Sports Medal, the Centenary Medal, and at the 2008 Australian Day Honours, was made an Officer of the Order of Australia.
- Danish badminton player Rikke Olsen also came close without mounting the Olympic podium. Olsen competed in 6 Olympic events, and finished 4th, or =5th (losing quarter-finalist), in all of them, all in doubles or mixed doubles. Maddeningly, she competed in three bronze medal matches (1996 women’s doubles, 2000 and 2004 mixed doubles) but lost all of them to finish 4th three times. Olsen was a nine-time Danish champion in doubles events, but internationally her major win was in the mixed at the 1995 Nordic Championships. She also never managed a World Championship medal, but did win three medals at the All-England Championships, a major championship in badminton.
- Another option could be Tie Ya Na, a Hong Kong table tennis player. She competed in 6 Olympic events from 2004-2012 and finished =5th fully five times, although in table tennis, that means she was a losing quarter-finalist each of those times. Still a frustrating Olympic career. A native Chinese who emigrated to Hong Kong, she still competes as of 2014 and has won 9 medals at the World Championships, all in doubles or team events, but all silver and bronze, never managing a world title. Her biggest international victories have been at the Asian Games, with titles in mixed doubles in 2002 and the team event in 2005.
- Going way back, we can also mention Greek shooter Frangiskos Mavrommatis, who competed at the Olympics in 1906, 1908, and 1912. Because of the plethora of shooting events in that era, Mavrommatis competed in 24 different Olympic events (1906-9, 1908-4, 1912-11). He finished 4th twice, 5th twice, and 6th twice, for 6 appearances in the top 6. But he never managed an Olympic medal.
- At the Winter Games, we have two athletes who have finished in the top 6 six times at the Olympics, but never won a medal. Japanese short-track speed skater Satoru Terao finished 4th in the 1994 1,000 metres, 6th in the 2006 500 metres, and 5th four times – the 2002 500 metres, and the 5K relay in 1994, 1998, and 2002. Because of the wild nature of short-track, Terao was twice eliminated in preliminary rounds because of disqualifications or falls when he and another skater collided.
- Marie Johansson-Risby was a Swedish cross-country skiier who had two 4th-place finishes – the 1976 4×5 km relay and the 1984 5 km; two 5th-place finishes – the 1984 20 km and 4×5 km relay; and two 6th-place finishes – the 1980 4×5 km relay and the 1984 10 km. But she never managed to win an Olympic medal. Johansson-Risby was a solid international competitor for years but was never quite at the highest level. She won one World Cup race in her career, a 5 km race in Finland in 1985, her final year in competition.
So there you have it. Great competitors all, but never had the luck to win an Olympic medal, despite coming close multiple times. Salute them for their great careers nonetheless.