Nick Butler
Nick Butler in the Olympic StadiumIn contrast to the predictability of other areas of life, one reason why so many of us are enthused by sport is in its ability to produce shocks and upsets as well as opportunities for that most athletic of concepts - the underdog.

While history documents several remarkable near-misses - the 19th century Zulus against the might of the British Empire and the Abyssinians against the Italians several decades later for example - a Darwinian concept of "survival of the fittest" inevitably prevails in war and conflict.

Similar traits can be found in both business and politics and, while the reality-television driven entertainment industry today revels in a "rags to riches" underdog storyline, it tends to do so in a far more artificial, clichéd and manufactured way than that found on a sporting field.

I was reminded of this by the remarkable success of Stanislas Wawrinka in slaying the three giants of Novak Djokovic, Tomas Berdych and Rafael Nadal to win the Australian Open yesterday, and also by last week's announcement that the Jamaican bobsleigh will revive their Olympic journey in Sochi for the first time since Salt Lake City 12 years ago.

An underdog story does not get much better than a tropical country competing at a Winter Olympic Games and this particular one was made particularly famous by the wonderful Disney film Cool Runnings.

Loosely based on the true story of the Jamaicans' Olympic debut at Calgary 1988, Cool Runnings chronicles four failed sprinters who convert to bobsleigh to pursue an Olympic dream and are gradually transformed from no-hopers into respectable medal contenders who miss out only when reality dawns in the form of a devastating crash.

The real Jamaican bobsleigh team compete at their first Winter Olympics at Calgary in 1988 ©Getty ImagesThe real Jamaican bobsleigh team compete at their first Winter Olympics at Calgary in 1988 ©Getty Images

Another of my all-time favourite films is the equally entertaining, if slightly sillier, sporting underdog story DodgeBall. Members of a struggling and dilapidated gym enter a tournament in Las Vegas in a desperate attempt to win the finances necessary to survive a rival taking over the gym. Despite their seeming lack of athletic ability they learn the "five d's of dodgeball" - "dodge, duck. dip, dive...and dodge" - and improve to win the tournament in exhilarating fashion.

Of course in real life sport, as with other fields, produces shocks much less often and in the professional world of today it is the teams or individuals with the best support, finance and opportunities who prevails most of all.

Most Winter Olympians from tropical countries, for example, will finish well behind the European and North American powers because they simply do not have the facilities, coaches and, dare I say it, snow to compete at that level. Even Jamaican bobsleigh's best success came only in the relative height of 14th place at the Lillehammer 1994 Games.

Some of the most famous Olympic underdogs, Equatorial Guinean swimmer Eric "the Eel" Moussambani and British ski-jumper Eddie "the Eagle" Edwards for example, are celebrated for their bravery and pluckiness but also for, arguably more than anything else, their sheer uselessness.

Another Calgary Olympian in ski-jumper Eddie "the Eagle" Edwards has made a career out of being a plucky, if unsuccessful, underdog ©AFP/Getty ImagesAnother Calgary Olympian in ski-jumper Eddie "the Eagle" Edwards has made a career out of being a plucky, if unsuccessful, underdog ©AFP/Getty Images

To bring in a personal example my illustrious sporting career peaked with somewhat fortuitous qualification for two English Schools Championships in table-tennis and cross country running. Despite doing my best on each occasion, I was duly batted out of site by opposition exhibiting a different stratosphere of talent, training and experience.

The second half FA Cup comeback this weekend by Manchester City to win 4-2 from 2-0 down against lowly Watford exhibited a similar trait of reality trumping romanticism after false hope for the underdog.

When shocks do happen there are often mitigating circumstances.

Although it takes nothing away from the achievement, Wawrinka's victory at the Australian Open final came only when Rafael Nadal was shone of his best form due to injury, while cup upsets today in football tend to come when top flight managers adopt that peculiar tactic of resting their best players.

Underdog stories can also be, for want of a better term, a fluke. A great example of this being Australian short track speed skater Steven Bradbury's transition from last to first in the 1,000 metre final at Salt Lake City 2002 when all of his opponents crashed on the final corner.

It is also a sad but valid point today in sport that some shock victories have to be taken with a large pinch of salt. Quite aside from the possibility of results being fixed I have lost count of the amount of times, in cycling and athletics particularly, when someone has come from nowhere to win only for lingering doping suspicions to be belatedly confirmed in the form of a positive test result.

To return to DodgeBall it is a sad irony that when lead character Peter La Fleur is at his lowest ebb he is encouraged to soldier on by a chance encounter with none other than Lance Armstrong.

"Quit? You know, once I was thinking about quitting when I was diagnosed with brain, lung and testicular cancer, all at the same time," said the now disgraced former cyclist in the 2004 film before adding: "but with the love and support of my friends and family, I got back on the bike and I won the Tour de France five times in a row."

The likes of Lance Armstrong cast an element of doubt over all sporting underdog performances today ©AFP/Getty ImagesThe likes of Lance Armstrong cast an element of doubt over all sporting underdog performances today ©AFP/Getty Images

But, and to return to a positive theme of a different kind, the sheer perseverance of shock results in the professional sporting world of today is remarkable and remains a top attraction of sport.

In recent years we have had Greece triumphing out of nowhere at the 2004 European Football Championships and Iraq doing the same at the Asian version three years later. Goran Ivanisevic winning Wimbledon after qualifying only as a wildcard in 2001, and Russian wrestler Alexander Karelin losing to the United States Rulon Gardner at Sydney 2000 after 13 undefeated years at international level.

Underdog stories can also come in the form of great champions of the past rolling back the years - think Muhammad Ali ousting George Foreman in the "Rumble in the Jungle" in 1974. Or they can be great comebacks in a particular match - think Manchester United and Liverpool in their respective Champions League Football triumphs of 1999 and 2005.

With a failed drugs test an obvious exception, it is also true that neither mitigating circumstances nor fluke results really detract from the glory of a great underdog victory.

Neither does the underdog have to win for their legend to be set. By finishing 14th the Jamaican bobsleigh team had upset the odds in 1994 and, by beating squads from the US, France, Russia and Canada they proved that they could compete on a level with the world's best even if they could not beat all of them. That respectability despite the vast catalogue of adversity will be the aim for most of the tropical participants at this year's Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Stanislas Wawrinka's victory at the Australian Open provided a first real underdog triumph for 2014 ©AFP/Getty ImagesStanislas Wawrinka's victory at the Australian Open provided a first real underdog triumph of the year...and has set the tone for Sochi 2014 ©AFP/Getty Images

So in reality sport can, like other areas, be driven by the "survival of the fittest", with the best prepared, financed and supported prevailing. But its great attraction is that this is not always the case.

There is no script more precarious to predict than a sporting one, and while Hollywood may glamour and exaggerate the underdog template the success of Stanislas Wawrinka, hardly a real underdog but certainly one in comparison with those four giants of men's tennis, shows that the concept is alive and well in 2014.

And with the Sochi Games barely a fortnight away, and the precarious nature of most Winter sports deeming it particularly partial to an upset, one of the attractions ahead is the prospect of finding another great underdog story. 

Nick Butler is a reporter for insidethegames. To follow him on Twitter click here