How nations dominate niche sports
Why does China crush opponents in diving? How does South Korea do so well in archery? Excellence in an Olympic sport can be a result of traditions or serendipity.
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While China’s lead in the gold medal table is emphatic, it is but the agglomeration of dozens of different Olympics.
At the Velodrome, the British planted their flag in track cycling. At the archery range, Korean fans sang through the rain. And Friday, the Hungarian men’s water polo team are expected to advance to a final that would be little less than a Super Bowl for the Magyars.
Dominance in an Olympic sport can often be the outcome of traditions that have evolved over generations, making one nation the preeminent force in its most cherished sport. Yet it can also be a moment of serendipity, when everything comes together as it never has before.
How Hungary became a world power in water polo, no one is quite sure. But it has been almost from the beginning, success breeding success. Hungary took its first Olympic title in 1932 and has since added seven more – twice as many titles as second-placed Britain, which hasn’t won since 1920. Hungary has won the last two Olympic titles and will play in the semifinal Friday.
Track cycling finished its program Tuesday, and as if to leave Blighty in no doubt that cycling is now the “it” sport on the British Olympic schedule, former Prime Minister Tony Blair was in the Laoshan Velodrome.
Like the hundreds of Britons in the stands, he surely came hoping for a British sweep of the three medals on offer that night. Unlike British cycling fan Alistair Cross, however, he did not come draped in a Union Jack, however much he might have liked to. Neither could stop smiling, though.
This is a new thing, Britain’s rule of the velodrome. Even 10 years ago, British cycling was “pretty poor,” Mr. Cross says. But there are millions of pounds available now, thanks to a new sports lottery, and the governing body of British cycling has “used it very wisely,” says Alistair’s brother, Duncan.
In addition, a golden generation of British cyclists has matured at precisely the right moment. Londoner John de Oliveira is wearing his Union Jack like a scarf as Hoy circles the track in a victory lap, whooping madly. The British didn’t sweep the three events, but they took two golds, and in Hoy’s event, a Briton also took silver.
“It illustrates the depth that British cycling has at the moment,” Mr. de Oliveira says.
With 12 medals in 10 races, Britain averaged more than a medal per event. That is a select club. So far, only three other nations – China, Germany, and Korea – have a sport in which they average at least a medal per event.