What makes a great Olympic athlete?

Written by Alana Leabeater, current UTS Bachelor of Sport and Exercise Science / Bachelor of Arts in International Studies student

Everyone knows that to be an Olympian, you need to be physically and mentally fit.

You need to achieve the highest level of performance by being the quickest, strongest, most enduring, or a combination of all three.

But what other, lesser-known qualities can lead an athlete to Olympic stardom?



Eric Moussambani was a swimmer in the 2000 Olympics who had never seen a 50m pool in his life. A wildcard entry into the Games, Eric was the only swimmer in his heat after his competitors were disqualified for false starts.

With only eight months training under his belt, the crowd rallied behind Eric – later to be called ‘Eric the Eel’ – as he dog paddled to the finish, a lone figure in the Olympic pool.

Eric may not have fit into the standard description of a great Olympic athlete, but his perseverance and determination earned him a special place in Olympic history.


Usain Bolt is one of the world’s most well-known athletes, and while that may be because of his dominance in athletics, it also comes down to his light-hearted, personable nature that makes him relatable to the everyday person.

And, it certainly makes him an athlete of choice for big brands like Puma, Virgin Media and Visa.


Photo: drcliffordchoi on Flickr

Without sponsorship, athletes have very few options to earn a living without working a job as well, which adds extra pressure to their already busy schedules.

Bolt’s charismatic personality has not only brought him enough income to never have to work a day in his life again, it has also brought the fun back to athletics after the sport’s reputation took a hit with numerous doping scandals.

It has also made him the household name of the century across the globe.


Surya Bonaly was a French figure skater who consistently placed second at world championships, despite what many felt were perfect presentations on the ice.

In her last Winter Olympics, Bonaly was injured but knew this was her last chance to make a name for herself on the world stage, so she performed an illegal backflip on the ice, landing on one skate.

The breathtaking move earned her a deduction from her points, but ensured she would be remembered as a daring and adventurous athlete for years to come.


This year’s Australian flag bearer, Anna Meares, a track cyclist, is one such athlete who has shown great tenacity throughout her Olympic career.

In January 2008, Meares suffered a horrific crash at the World Cup where she broke her neck and dislocated her shoulder.

Despite this, she was back on the bike 10 days later and was able to qualify for the Beijing Olympics, where she finished second in the sprint to Briton Victoria Pendleton.

Four years later, Meares again faced Pendleton in the final of the 2012 Olympics and came home with the gold.

Many athletes would have retired from the sport after a crash like Meares’, but she used this bad experience to fuel her recovery and return to form.


While the Olympics may appear to be a contest of physical fitness, this is not always the case; sometimes it is an athlete’s intrinsic qualities that immortalise them in the record books.

Find out more about sport and exercise at UTS

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