In Beijing, they will play an essential role on the world's greatest sporting stage. Without them, the show could not go on.
So let's hear it for the losers -- and especially those who do it in style, creating memorable Olympic moments for us all.
True Olympians all of them!
THE SLOWEST EVER MARATHON
With a best time of 2:33, 21-year-old Abdul Baser Wasigi from Afghanistan was all set to compete in Barcelona when an inconvenient war intervened.
Four years later, he damaged a hamstring shortly before arriving in Atlanta, but nothing was going to stop him this time. Two miles into the race, Wasigi was already a full kilometre behind the field. When South Africa's Josia Thugwane crossed the finish line, our hero had just passed the 25 kilometre mark. Along the route, he was attracting attention.
When Wasigi finally limped into the Olympic stadium, volunteers cut a piece of white plastic tape, wrote "Atlanta 96" on it and stretched it across the track. Hundreds of volunteers lined the track and applauded him while he inched painfully to the finish. His time of 4:24.17 was the slowest in Olympic history.
PAPA DOC'S HAITIAN HEROES
Haiti's Anilus Joseph was running his first ever 10,000m race when he lined out in the Munich Games of 1972. He took off as if running an 800m, covering the first lap in 59.6 secs. After two laps, he was still leading, but 200m later, was losing touch with the back markers.
By the eighth lap, he had been passed by all the other runners, and by the 12th was passed a second time. When the bell went for the leaders, Joseph broke into an enthusiastic sprint, but when told by an official that he still had a mile to go, dropped out in despair.
Four years later, another Haitian, Dieudonne Lamothe, recorded the slowest ever time for the 5000m and in 1984, was 78th and last in the marathon with a time of 2:52.18. Only after the fall of dictator Papa Doc Duvalier did Lamothe reveal that Haitian Olympic officials had threatened to kill him if he didn't finish. There is a happy end to this story: in 1988, Lamothe clocked a respectable time of 2:16.15.
THE WORST TEAM -- EVER
The modern pentathlon is a unique event, allowing a chosen few to demonstrate how useless they can be not just in one sport but in five. Though many have tried (including an Irish team that finished 12th of 12 in Moscow), none come close to the Tunisian team of 1960. In the riding competition, the entire team of three fell off their horses. Encouraged by this rousing start, where they scored an historic "nul points", they moved on to the swimming pool.
There, one of their members almost drowned. On to the shooting range, where they were removed from the competition when it looked like they might kill an official.
Next was the fencing and since only one member of the team had ever fenced before, they decided to keep sending him out, figuring that in the funny clothes and masks, no-one would notice. Only in the third and final bout were they rumbled. Quite what happened on the cross-country run is unrecorded. Suffice it to say, the Tunisians finished an emphatic 17th out of 17 teams, and recorded the lowest ever team pentathlon score.
LIBYA'S MINUS SCORE
Vying for the title of least successful team are the volleyball players of Libya. In 1980, many nations boycotted the Moscow Games, including the USA. It meant Libya, not best known for its volleyball prowess, got a late entry. The Libyans grasped their moment enthusiastically but completely without success, losing their five matches without so much as taking a set and scoring a miserable 30 points to the 225 stacked up against them. Their points difference of minus-195 remains an Olympic record.
UPSIDE DOWN SLALOM
At the Barcelona 1992 slalom canoeing, Gilda Montenegro of Costa Rica accumulated 470 penalty points on her first run and then spent most of the second upside down. While spectators watched in horror, Montenegro hit her head on the bottom of the course with such force that her helmet split.
Gilda had been working as a raft guide for the Costa Rican canoe team manager, and when a wild card entry for slalom came in just a month before the Games, he gave it to her, although she had never trained for slalom. So shaken was she by her experience that she refused to get in a slalom boat for almost two years after Barcelona.
But this is another story with a happy ending. Not only did our Gilda qualify for the Atlanta games and achieve her ambition of making it down the course without hitting a gate, she married the men's gold medal winner Oliver Fix of Germany. Good on ya Gilda!
DAVID THE HEAD BANGER
Weightlifter David Rigert from Kazakhstan was an excitable man. A clear favourite to win the middle heavyweight class at the 1972 Olympics, he started well with an Olympic record in the press. But it all went wrong in the snatch, when he failed all three of his attempts at 160kg. So upset was Rigert that he tore his hair out -- literally -- and banged his head against a wall. He was finally restrained by a colleague and put on the first plane home to recover what was left of his wits and his dignity.
ERIC THE FISH
For the Sydney Olympics, each nation was allowed to enter two swimmers, regardless of standards. In the Equatorial Guinea, 20-year-old Eric Moussambani (pictured), who had started swimming a few weeks earlier, won two of three trial races held in a 20m hotel pool. In Sydney, he was told to swim in the 100m freestyle rather than the 50m free as expected. Eric managed the first 50m without too much drama, but over the second half of the race, slowed drastically and, with 10m to go, looked alarmingly like he might need rescuing. By now the crowd had taken him to their hearts and buoyed by their shouted encouragement, Eric made it to the finish.
He ended up a true Olympic hero, with his goggles auctioned off on eBay and his own website.
AND FINALLY - CHINA'S SLOW START
In 1932, the Olympic organisers sent out an invitation to China, figuring that among its population of 500 million, there must be one person at least with an interest in sport.
An enthusiastic letter of acceptance arrived, followed by complete silence until the arrival of one Cheung Chun Liu in Los Angeles. Speaking not a single word of English, an interpreter had to be found before it was established that Liu wasn't just the manager, coach and delegate for China; he was the entire team.
What's more, he wanted to compete in the sprints. Three days later, he lined up in the heats of both 100m and 200m, taking on some of the fastest men in the world. His Olympic experience lasted no more than 40 seconds as he came last in both events.