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.

Laszlo Balogh/Reuters
Top of their game: Zoltan Szecsi of Hungary defends the goal during a water polo match last week. Hungary has won eight Olympic titles since 1932. It plays Montenegro in the semifinals Friday.

Something strange happened when track cyclist Chris Hoy crossed the finish line. For a few minutes and in this one place, the Olympics were no longer in China.

Union Jacks danced in uplifted arms, and for the seventh time in 10 races, “God Save the Queen” swelled beneath the latticed steel ceiling. Great Britain had conquered the Laoshan Velodrome.

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.

The United States comes close in swimming, where there are 33 events, and it finished with 31 medals.

For its part, Germany has won five medals in five equestrian events – three gold, one silver, and one bronze. One event remains Thursday. After winning gold in the three-day individual eventing competition Aug. 12, Hinrich Romeike, a dentist, told all the employees back home in his clinic on national television that they should take the day off and “go to have an ice-cream.”

South Korea took six medals in the four archery events – two gold, two silver, and two bronze. A greater measure of its dominance, however, is in one of its silver medals.

The second-place finish in the women’s individual is the first time since 1984 that South Korea did not take gold in the event. It took silver and bronze.

There is no great mystery to their dominance. “The talent pool [in Korea] is wide because everyone does it at school,” says Australian Olympic archer Alexandra Feeney. “Other countries have hundreds of archers to choose from; they have thousands.”

At the Olympic archery range last week, Koreans filled an entire section, with one rain-suited fan standing before them like a conductor, orchestrating the Korean contingent through songs individual to each Korean archer.

“It’s like soccer in Australia,” says Feeney.

Even before these Olympics, China was a force in diving, gymnastics, badminton, and table tennis. Now, China’s massive outlay of money for Olympic sports has made the country virtually untouchable in these sports.

It has swept the six diving events so far, winning six golds and two bronzes. That was hardly unexpected. It won seven of the eight titles at last year’s world championships. The only event where it did not win gold – the men’s 10 meter platform – it won silver and bronze. Here, the event will be held Saturday night.

In women’s weight lifting, it also won gold in all the weight classes it entered.

A sweep across all women’s weight classes was a Japanese hope, too – but in wrestling. Minori Kojima and her co-workers came from Japan to China to see only two events: baseball and women’s wrestling.

On this day, she has helped to make the wrestling arena a pixilated picture of red dots on the white field of the Japanese flag. “It’s not like baseball [in terms of popularity], but it’s getting strong,” she says. “People are watching [this event] on TV right now.” The reason is success. Asked if Japan can sweep the medals, Kojima looked shocked. “Of course!” she laughed. They won two golds, a silver, and a bronze in the four weight classes in Athens.

Here, they ended up with the same result.

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