Worst Olympic nations

Dalai Lama and BA Baracas

It might be considered smug, now that Britain has won enough gold medals at Beijing 2008 to make BA Baracas look like the Dalai Lama, to try to work out the least successful Olympic nation ever.

But what the hell.

There are 74 nations that, at the beginning of this year’s Olympiad, had never won an Olympic medal of any colour. The reasons are various, although none is, on its own, enough to guarantee failure.

Poverty, for example, is a huge impediment to producing sporting champions, but Kenya (where the average wage is $5 per day) has won eight medals so far in Beijing, bringing its all-time total to 69. Other important factors are war (although Ethiopia has won 34 medals to date despite being at war for more than half of its 52-year Olympic membership) tiny populations (although Luxembourg has three medals despite a population of 486,000) and short existence (not a problem for Armenia, which has won eight medals since it began competing 12 years ago).

Some nations are dogged by a combination of these factors, but the ability of other countries to overcome similar difficulties suggests that genetics and culture are significant. Some peoples, to be blunt, are just bad at sport – or at least those disciplines deemed worthy by the International Olympic Committee.*

Caveats aside, the question remains: which country is the worst Olympic performer? Depending on which method you choose, it’s a toss-up between Monaco and Bangladesh, but it’s worth taking an in-depth look before leaping to any conclusions. Click on the link below to make up your own mind.

If you rank by population, the least successful Olympic nation is Bangladesh. Sport is never going to be a priority for a country stricken so regularly by natural disasters, but the bald fact remains that after 24 years of competition it has been unable to find within its population of nearly 154 million a single medal-winning competitor. The runners up in the top ten most populous medal-free countries are:

2. Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire)
(best position: 16th in the men’s marathon in 1996)
3. Burma
(best position: fifth, in flyweight weightlifting and featherweight boxing in 1972 and 1964, respectively)
4. Sudan
(best position: fifth in triple jump in 2004)
5. Nepal
(best position: eighth equal in light welterweight and flyweight boxing in 1964)
6. Yemen
(no achievements of note)
7. Madagascar
(best position: eighth in men’s 100m in 1968 )
8. Burkina Faso
(no achievements of note)
9. Cambodia
(no achievements of note)
10. Malawi
(best position: fifth in flyweight boxing in 1984)

If, however, you rank by how long countries have been competing, Monaco is rock bottom after 88 years of fruitless athletic pursuit. To be fair, it only has a population of 33,000, but its entrants have had all the advantages of wealth. Princess Ann of Monaco was part of its equestrian team in 1976, for example. The runners-up are:

2. Malta
(population: 404,000) has been competing since 1928 without success, even in its national sport of shooting
3= Bolivia
(pop: 9.2 million) first participated in 1936
3= Liechtenstein
(pop: 34,000) also a participant since 1936
5. Burma
(pop: 48 million) first competed in 1948
6. Guatemala
(pop: 32 million) reached the semi-finals in Taekwondo in 2004, but is still medal-free since 1952
7= Cambodia
(pop: 14 million) has had an empty trophy cabinet since 1956
7= Liberia
(pop: 3.3 million) has also competed since 1956, boasting its best result of 9th equal in flyweight boxing in 1988
7= Fiji
(pop: 930,000) has also competed since 1956

If you aggregate those two lists then Burma comes out worst. But none of these countries should be ashamed. The most unimpressive performance, in my opinion, belongs to Singapore. It now has two silver medals to its name after a victory in table tennis this year, but no gold medals despite being very wealthy, having a population of 4.6 million, and competing for 60 years.

Lest I’m accused of seeing the worst in people, I’ll end with some good news: Panama won its first gold medal this year (its first accolade since one of its sprinters won a pair of silver medals in 1948 ) when Irving Jahir Saladino Aranda leapt to victory in the men’s long jump. Tajikistan is celebrating its first medal in 12 years of competition – a bronze for Rasul Boqiev in judo. And, I learnt tonight, Afghanistan has broken its duck with a bronze medal in Taekwondo, the end of a 72-year barren patch that included a policy, under the Taleban, of insisting that its boxers wear beards.

*Britain has a massive advantage, of course. Not only has it been competing since the beginning, when competition was scarce (in 1908, when tug of war was still considered a sport, we won all three medals because nobody else entered) but it also dominates in sports that the poorest nations simply cannot afford. It is a reasonable guess that there are no velodromes in Malawi or marinas in land-locked Swaziland.

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8 Responses to “Worst Olympic nations”

  1. Jenny Says:

    the ranking standards topic arise recently, because western counties became envious about China’s goldmedals. Listen to what the chinese authorities say about it. They are really general and open minded. People who proposed so many ways to ranking result should feel shamed about that. What’s the most important thing is not the ranking itself. Enjoy the spririt of sports.

  2. pouletnoir Says:

    I’m not saying it is important to know which nations are the lowest achievers – indeed it should be pretty clear from my post that I acknowledge that sport is utterly frivolous compared to poverty and war – but it is still interesting.
    You seem to suggest that it is not even worth discussing it. You entreat me to enjoy the spirit of sports. I respond that you should enjoy the spirit of intellectual inquiry.

  3. KE Says:

    I’m impressed that you found all the free time necessary to carry out a study like this. Are you by any chance a freelance writer on a deadline?

  4. pouletnoir Says:

    You’re not far off. I got through most of the research before realising that no publication would run it.

  5. disgruntled Says:

    Swaziland may not have a marina, but it does have a merchant navy. Or it did, until it got stolen when they foolishly moored it in Mozambique without paying a boy 5 rand to watch it for them overnight.

    I think you should adjust for altitude as well as wealth/population/civil war-i-ness. Why aren’t the Nepalese doing better at all the endurance sports?

    And obviously any ranking table should be adjusted carefully to ensure that Britain comes out above Australia however they’re counted.

  6. pouletnoir Says:

    Those Nepalese. Why don’t they stop faffing about on mountains and run round in circles like real sportsmen?

  7. disgruntled Says:

    Probably because they’re carrying all the real sportsmen’s bags for them.

    If there was an olympic sport of climbing up mountains carrying someone else’s luggage, they’d be a shoo-in

  8. pouletnoir Says:

    The 1500m porters steeplechase, you mean? Start lobbying the International Olympic Committee now. And, while we’re at it, we could campaign for the return of the Tug of War and Real Tennis (or, as the French would have it, Jeu de Peau) to enhance further the fortunes for Team GB (and Northern Ireland, but not really).

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