Its roots are Biblical (and also recounted in both the Koran and Torah): the account of a boy's slingshot slaying of an apparently invincible, armoured giant warrior. It has become a metaphor for sporting upset, but was almost certainly predated by Aesop's fable of the tortoise and the hare. The tortoise won what must have been the original no-contest.
Berwick Rangers' cup success over Rangers is of that ilk, and has achieved iconic status in Scottish football history, mirrored at international level by victories like that of the USA against England in the 1950 World Cup, or North Korea v Italy in 1966. And, dare we suggest it, by Scotland beating France in Euro 2008 qualifying.
The latest manifestation was the closing stages of the Barclays Premier League, which prompted us to review the nature of favouritism. This finale, perhaps the most gripping in an English football season, involved Manchester City, despite being behind after 90 minutes, clawing back two goals in added time to deny their greatest rivals with just 13 seconds to spare. United, of course, had been almost unbackable favourites when they went eight points clear in April. When their last match kicked off they were again underdogs, yet they were favourites by the final whistle. It was excruciating for supporters of both sides, but compelling for the uncommitted.
As in life, so in sport; it is how we respond to the greatest challenges which define us. City faced what must have seemed impossible, needing two goals in stoppage time, but proved equal to the challenge.
In golf, we had the enigma of Jean Van de Velde: needing only a 6 to win the 1999 Open, and taking 7, and of Colin Montgomerie winning the European order of merit seven times, yet never a major. Boxing has countless examples: think Sonny Liston v Cassius Clay, and Buster Douglas, a 42-1 shot when he beat Mike Tyson.
The failure of great champions often seems inexplicable. Seb Coe had gone 19 races and almost two years undefeated at 800 metres when Steve Ovett beat him in Moscow. Colin Jackson went to his final two Olympics as world record-holder over 110 metres hurdles, but did not reach the podium either time. He held the world best for 13 years: in four Olympics appearances, his best was silver.
Jonathan Edwards went to the 1996 Olympics as the hottest favourite: world record-holder in the triple jump, more than a foot further than any rival, but did not win. Unlike Jackson, though, he managed Olympic gold before retirement. I've been privileged to witness a few of these upsets. Up among my favourites was the US basketball team, unbeaten in 62 Olympic matches, overturned by the Soviet Union, 51-50, on the final buzzer of the 1972 Munich final.
So what does separate winners from losers in those contests which defy credibility? There are countless theories. Positive thinking is certainly right up there, which is why psychologists are integral to modern sport. Sports journalists are often sceptical at what often seem arrogant claims by sportsmen. In reality, the final component of a competitor's talent package is never to acknowledge the possibility of defeat.
So I love this little poem, first quoted to me by my late father-in-law, more than 40 years ago. Old Hugh was a big Arnold Palmer fan, and had read that Arnie hung this on his wall. I've since learned it was probably an extract from Thinking, attributed to Walter Wintle, but a longer, slightly modified version certainly appeared in a Christian tract, without attribution, around 1905. Palmer's version is as follows:
If you think you're beaten, you are.
If you think you dare not, you don't.
If you'd like to win, but think you can't,
It's almost certain you won't . . .
Life's battles don't always go
To the stronger or faster man,
But sooner or later the man who wins
Is the man who thinks he can.
The more I cover elite sport, and the more appreciation I have of the competitive mindset, the more convinced I become that self-belief – the mind – is ultimately what defines winners. In golf, it was beautifully expressed by Bobby Jones, who reckoned that in a sport obsessed by distance, the five inches between the ears were the most important.
When great sporting talents – athleticism, technique, fitness, preparation – are effectively equal, it is the competitor with the strongest belief who prevails. Not arrogance, belief: the conviction of a golfer or tennis player for example, that he or she can make an outrageous shot. You must believe you can execute it to play it.
The common denominator in great upset results is belief: not that the loser lacks it, simply the winner has it in greater abundance.
In team sport, repeated defeats undermine belief, sometimes equated with confidence. That is why losing runs are so hard to break. The All Blacks, though routinely hailed as the world's best international side, won the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987, yet only won their second last year.
They should have been unbeatable, but when even multiple sprint world record-holder, Usain Bolt can be brought down, as he was when disqualified in last year's world 100m final, it demonstrates there are no certainties.
The favourite tag will be hung around many competitors' necks in the coming weeks. Treat this with scepticism. City's escape to victory was just the start of a compelling Olympic summer.