How these Olympic underdogs became sporting heroes at Rio

Story highlights

  • For the first time in history, refugees competed as an Olympic team
  • Fiji and Singapore won their first gold medals
  • Social media turned Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanui into a viral meme

(CNN)It's often the household names that dominate Olympic coverage.

But this year, a group of relatively obscure Olympians grabbed headlines, becoming the unlikely champs of the Games in Rio and stealing the limelight with their dogged ambition and sheer charm.
    We take a closer look at the underdogs of the Rio Olympics who emerged victorious.

    Refugee Olympic Team

    For the first time in history, 10 refugee athletes competed in the Olympics Games, representing all of those around the world who have no nation.
    They proved that despite having faced famine and war, they'd never give up on a sporting dream.
    Syrians Yusra Mardini and Rami Anis both escaped the ongoing deadly conflict in their home country to compete in the swimming competition.
    Olympic refugee team swimmers Yusra Mardini and Rami Anis pose for a photo in front of the Christ the Redeemer statue on in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
    Anis received a standing ovation after setting a personal best of 54.25 seconds in the men's 100-meter butterfly, but fell short of winning any medals. Mardini won her women's 100-meter butterfly heat, but she wasn't fast enough to make it further.
    Yiech Pur Biel, Anjelina Nadai Lohalith, James Chiengjiek, Paulo Amotun Lokoro, and Rose Nathike Lokonyen all grew up and trained in Kenya's Kakuma refugee camp.
    South Sudan's athletes James Nyang Chiengjiek (L), Yiech Pur Biel (2nd L) and Rose Nathike Lokonyen.
    "The life in Kakuma camp was so hard," says Rose Nathike. Thirteen years ago, she was running from soldiers in Chukudum, South Sudan. This year, incredibly, she competed in the 800 meters, finishing seventh in her heat.
    Yolande Mabika and Popole Misenga left a life of hardship and abuse when they abandoned the Congolese judo team during the 2013 world championships in Rio to seek asylum in Brazil.
    Refugees and judo athletes from the Democratic Republic of Congo Yolande Mabika, center, and Popole Misenga, right, take in the view from their future apartment at the Olympic Village.
    By competing under the flag of the International Olympic Committee, they entered history, despite getting knocked out of the judo competition in the earlier rounds.

    New nations on the world stage

    After 16 appearances in the Olympic games, the Pacific island nation Fiji won its first ever gold medal.
    The country thrashed Great Britain 43-7 to win the rugby final and make Olympic history.
    Fiji's players pray after victory in the men's rugby sevens gold medal match between Fiji and Britain during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Deodoro Stadium in Rio de Janeiro.
    Rugby is Fiji's national sport and as the men's sevens team clinched their medal, Fijians erupted with joy, using the hashtag #Tosoviti -- which means "life is good'"-- on social media. The sevens format was reintroduced for the 2016 Olympic Games.
    There was also only one gold medal for Taiwan, or "Chinese Taipei," the name under which Taiwan is permitted to compete in the Olympics.
    While Taiwan has participated in every Olympics for the past three decades, the compromise never sat well with many at home, and has grown more controversial as Taiwanese politics shifted in the direction of full independence from mainland China.
    Gold medalist Hsu Shu-ching of Chinese Taipei; silver medalist Hidilyn Diaz of the Philippines; and bronze medalist Jin Hee Yoon of Korea celebrate on the podium after the Women's 53kg Group A weightlifting contest.
    The gold medal win from female weightlifter Hsu Shu-ching was much celebrated; her victory was reportedly watched by family and friends in their hometown of Lunbei, a rural area in central Taiwan, with local politicians even coming out in support.
    Father Hsu Yung-ming said the family was not well off and the prize money was going to be a great help. He and his wife used to make their living by sending produce to local wet markets, but they were forced to quit four years ago after he underwent surgery.
    The athlete also plans to donate a portion of her winnings to her high school.

    Singaporean stunner

    Both Singapore and the world were stunned when Singaporean athlete Joseph Schooling beat 23-time Olympic gold medal winner Michael Phelps in the 100-meter butterfly on August 13.
    Singapore's Joseph Schooling celebrates after the men's 100m Butterfly Final during the swimming event at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
    Schooling won his country's first gold medal in an Olympic record time of 50.39 seconds.
    Since winning his medal, the humble athlete has downplayed his success, asserting that he's no "superstar" but just a "kid who beat Phelps that one time."
    Though Schooling emerged a victor at Rio, he had already shown promise by beating Phelps in the 100-meter butterfly semifinals.

    Rising internet star

    She might not be a gold medal winner, but Chinese Olympic swimmer Fu Yuanhui has won the admiration of fans world over with her goofy antics and outspoken style.
    Chinese swimmer praised for challenging taboo
    Chinese swimmer praised for challenging taboo


      Chinese swimmer praised for challenging taboo


    Chinese swimmer praised for challenging taboo 01:05
    On August 15, she charmed over 11 million fans during an hour-long broadcast on Inke, one of China's most popular video live-streaming platforms.
    And August 14, she smashed taboos about menstruation by openly admitting that her stomach hurt because she was on her period during the race.
    She said she felt drained after finishing in fourth place in the women's 4x100-meter medley relay, but that that was not an excuse for performing badly.
    Her candid comments won the admiration of many on the internet.