This month, Leicester City Football Club pulled off what many consider to be the impossible. At odds of 5000-1, they won the Premier League.
Achievements that see the unlikely occurring and the outsider winning the day always capture the public’s imagination. There is something heartening and hopeful about the underdog winning the day.
Leicester City Football Club are not alone in achieving the seemingly impossible, however. Famously, Greece won the 2004 European Championships at odds of 150-1, with no star players in their team – the football world was left reeling. And Denmark won in 1992 without even qualifying, following Yugoslavia’s expulsion from that year’s tournament. In other sports, there was shock when the Indian cricket team took the World Cup in 1983, at odds of 50-1 against the West Indies, who were riding high at the top of their game. Unfortunately, they were to set themselves a task they could not repeat again until 2011! In tennis, Goran Ivanisevic triumphed at Wimbledon only after entry via a “wild card”.
Such against the odds achievements are not confided to the realms of sport, though. When J K Rowling was sat, penniless, in the corner of a cafe in Edinburgh writing the draft to the first Harry Potter story – carrying on even though she’d already been turned down by ten publishers – she never dreamed that one day she would be credited as having created the most successful children’s story of modern times. Back in the Midlands, when it was suggested that the archaeologists of the University of Leicester had found King Richard III in a car park in the city of Leicester, mathematicians calculated that there was only a 1% chance of it being him. DNA testing went on to prove that it was indeed the missing king.
It is within the horror of war that perhaps the most phenomenal accounts of success against the odds can be found. Throughout history, there are many accounts of heroism, of large forces of men being defeated by smaller battalions. One of the most extraordinary of these victories occurred in 1939, during the Battle of Tolvajärvi. This little known battle was part of the Finnish counterattack at the start of the Winter War against the Soviet Union. The 20,000 men of the 139th Soviet Division, with their 45 tanks, and 150 artillery engines, had been forcing the 4,000 Finns holding the Tolvajärvi area to retreat. However, Colonel Paavo Talvela of the Finnish army took a calculated gamble, divided his already outnumbered forces, and launched attacks over two frozen lakes. Despite the massive disadvantage of fewer men, less equipment and less food, the Finns fought their way to success, losing only 100 of their men, and taking nearly all of the Soviets supplies along with the territory they held.
Whether fuelled by luck, determination, or a desperation to survive, against the odds achievements have added periodically their magic to history, and – hopefully- always will.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.