Uncovering the unsung heroes of the Olympics with data

In the Olympic Games, the focus is on a few champions. Looking at those who defied odds and even geography on their way to glory is also satisfying.

Published : Aug 11, 2021 13:32 IST

Alessandra Perilli won the first ever medal for San Marino despite setbacks in previous Games.

Alessandra Perilli won the first ever medal for San Marino despite setbacks in previous Games.

Despite the spotlight being constantly fixed on winners and record breakers, those that don’t make the podium form the backbone of the Olympics. Nearly 12,000 athletes traveled to Tokyo in 2021 to compete for only 1,080 medals. For most of the competitors, the trip to Japan was a journey to almost certain defeat.

Instead of writing one more story about the medal hoarders and their tales of triumph, DW decided to look at the (mostly) unsung heroes of Tokyo: the countries and athletes who won just a little and even those who lost a lot. Here are four reasons why they’re worth attention.

1. The ‘losers’ are catching up

While 113 of the 216 national teams that competed in Tokyo went home empty-handed, the top 10 medal-winners hoarded more than half of the honors. The raw numbers sound disheartening, especially if you root for the underdogs. However, there’s some reason for optimism.

The Tokyo Olympics continued a recent trend: with each edition of the games, a higher share of the medals have been awarded to nations who have not previously been prominent in the medal table. Ten countries won 55 per cent of all medals in Tokyo. This might seem like a lot, but it’s way down from the 70 per cent those top dogs used to get during the latter half of the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union fought tooth and nail for dominance in the sporting world.

Even more striking is the rise of nations that finished 40th or lower in the medal rankings. In Tokyo, they won a record-breaking 13 per cent of all medals – way up from the single-digit percentages they used to win two decades ago. Pay attention powerhouses: this means that nations that couldn’t even dream of Olympic laurels are getting a significant share of victories too.

And there’s more: depending on your perspective, countries like Fiji, Georgia and even the 60,000-inhabitant Bermuda are doing better than many Olympic giants.

2. It’s all about taking your chances

Whose national athletes won more medals in Tokyo, Japan’s or Bermuda’s? Wait for it! While Japan won more medals in this Olympics than the country has in any other – 58 in total – and Bermuda won just one, there’s a solid argument to put the small Caribbean archipelago at the top.

Japanese competitors are among the ones who lost the most at the Tokyo games. On their way to get those 58 medals, they blew almost 350 other opportunities, meaning Japanese athletes failed to medal in 85 per cent of their appearances. Bermuda, on the other hand, only had two shots at glory. Nevertheless, it won gold with triathlete Flora Duffy. Her success gave the tiny nation the best appearance to gold medal ratio in Tokyo, with 50 per cent.

When it comes to the victory ratios, Japan is no exception. The Russian athletes lost 80 per cent of their competitions. France and Germany were defeated almost 90 per cent of the time. Winning a lot, in the end, might just be a byproduct of losing a lot.

On the other side of that coin, athletes from less-successful nations often win more, proportionally, than their counterparts from powerhouse countries, just like Bermuda did. If we were to rank the Olympic nations for their victory ratios and not for the total medals that they amass, some unusual contestants would rise to the top.

San Marino, the 2nd place at this reimagined medal table, however, is also worth taking a closer look at. The oldest republic in the world, a micronation enclaved in Italy, is not only an example of making the most of limited chances. It is also a symbol of persistence.

3. Endurance will be rewarded

Sometimes the way to glory is more energy-sapping than running a marathon. And there are (still) a few countries that have been competing for decades without any sign of luck, from micronations such as Monaco and Liechtenstein to populous giants like Congo and Myanmar. But the wait sometimes pays off, just ask Alessandra Perilli.

The athlete from San Marino fought a long time for her bronze medal. In London 2012, she was one shot away from winning a podium finish in the trap shooting competition but ended in fourth. Four years later, another failure – this time finishing in 16th at Rio de Janeiro. It was only in 2021 that she finally got her victory. Those nine years of hard work, however, pale in comparison to how long her country was exercising patience for such a success.

The small country of 30,000 inhabitants has competed in every Olympic Games since 1968 without winning a single medal. San Marino’s big hour finally came in Tokyo: its athletes did not only win one but three medals.

Two more countries won medals for the first time in 2021: Turkmenistan, which has been competing since 1996, and Burkina Faso, biding their time since 1972. But there are other countries that have yet to be rewarded for their work: despite participating in the Olympic summer games for several decades, they haven’t won a single medal so far.

In the end, a country doesn’t need to become a sporting giant to win medals. Sometimes, the only thing that is needed is one exceptional person. Grenada can attest to that.

4. A single spark of talent can be enough

Approximately 100,000 people live in Grenada, an island country just off the coast of Venezuela. Judging by their population, the odds of one of the most dominant 400m sprinters of our time being born there weren’t too great. Defying statistics, however, Kirani James was born in city of Gouyave, home to a people more famous for their fishing skills than athletic prowess.

In Tokyo, he won his third consecutive Olympic medal: a bronze, which added to a collection that already boasted a silver and a gold. To this day, he is the only Grenadian to achieve victories at the Olympic Games. He is one of 22 athletes that are still the lone Olympic medalists from their countries. Apart from Kirani, the biggest winners on this list are Surinamese swimmer Anthony Nesty, Afghan taekwondo fighter Rohullah Nikpai and Mozambican 800m runner Maria Mutola, all of them with two medals each.

No matter how amazing they are, though, one thing is still undeniable: the world’s biggest sporting stage is still far from even. Some countries can afford to spend millions on their Olympic programs, preparing generation after generation of well-trained athletes. Others must rely solely on sparks of genius and endurance to win.

Despite this, it’s the contenders and the unexpected heroes that give the Olympic Games most of its charm, even when they fall short of their goals. After all, as they must have heard over and over in the last three weeks, it’s the taking part that counts.

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