By Professor Tommy Koh: Can small countries win medals at the Olympic Games?

August 11, 2021

The 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games which played out before an audience of mostly empty seats ended on Sunday in a ceremony that echoed the restraint of the two-week long games. We must thank the Government and people of Japan for delivering on their promise to hold a safe and secure Olympic.
Singapore sent a team of 23 athletes to compete in 12 events at the 32nd Summer Olympics in Tokyo. All the athletes did their best. They deserve our gratitude for their sacrifices and best efforts. However, the Team Singapore did not win any medal, prompting some Singaporeans to ask the question: Can small countries win medals at the Olympic games?

I have therefore decided to look at the final medal tally of the Tokyo Olympic for an answer.

First, I should explain that one does not have to be a member of the United Nations to participate in the Olympics. Thus, Puerto Rico (part of the United States), Bermuda, Hong Kong (part of China), Chinese Taipei (Taiwan) and Kosovo (not a member of the UN), were allowed to participate in the games.

By small countries I mean countries whose populations are below 10 million. This is the criterion used by the Forum of Small States, an informal grouping established by Singapore at the UN in 1992, to define who are eligible to join the grouping which has 108 members today.

A surprising discovery
I was surprised to discover that 25 small countries and territories had won a total of 113 medals in Tokyo. I decided to dig deeper and separate them into three divisions: those with a population below one million; (ii) those whose populations are between one million and five million; and (iii) those whose populations are between five million and 10 million.

If size is destiny, the countries and territories whose populations are below one million should have no chance of winning any medal. I am vindicated in my belief that size is not destiny. There are five medal winners in this division.

Bahamas, with a population of only 389,000 people, won two gold medals. Sprinter Steven Gardiner won the gold in the men’s 400 metres, while Shaunae Miller-Uibo took the gold in the women’s 400 metres. Fiji, with a population of 889,000, won the gold in rugby, defeating New Zealand in the final. Bermuda has a population of 63,000 people and still managed to win a gold medal in the women’s triathlon. Grenada, with a population of 112,000, won a bronze medal in the men’s 400 metres. San Marino, a tiny landlocked European country surrounded by Italy, has a population of only 34,000 and yet won a silver and two bronze medals.

There are 13 countries and territories in Division II.

The most successful country is New Zealand. With a population of 4.9 million, it won seven golds, six silvers and seven bronzes, a total of 20 medals.

Jamaica has a population of 2.9 million. It won four gold, one silver and four bronze medals, a total of nine medals. We will remember for a long time the astounding sight of seeing three Jamaican women, winning the gold, silver and bronze medals in the women’s 100 metres.

Slovenia has a population of two million. It took three golds in canoeing, cycling and sport climbing, a silver in judo and a bronze in cycling, a total of five medals.
Ireland (4.9 million population) won two golds in rowing and boxing and two bronzes in rowing and boxing.

Qatar (2.8 million population) went home with two gold and one bronze medals in Tokyo. Qatar’s famous high jumper Mutaz Essa Barshim graciously decided to share the gold medal with his Italian rival Fianmarco Tamberi, in one of the most emotional and heartwarming moments in Olympic history. Qatar’s weightlifter Fares Elbakh, also known as Meso Hassouna, won the second gold medal.

The other medal winners in this division were from Kosovo, Latvia, Puerto Rico, Bahrain, Lithuania, Namibia, Botswana and Kuwait.

In Division III, there were six countries and one territory: Norway, Sweden,Switzerland, Denmark, Jordan, Finland and Hong Kong.

Norway (5.3 million population), won four gold, two silver and two bronze medals, for a total of eight. Norway won gold in the triathlon, men’s 400 metres hurdles, men’s beach volleyball and men’s 1,500 metres. Norway’s Karsten Warholm smashed his own world record and set a new record for men’s 400 metres hurdles. Another Norwegian, Jakob Ingabrightsen, won gold in the hotly contested men’s 1,500 metres.

Sweden (10 million population) won three golds and six silvers, taking a total of nine medals. Sweden’s gold medal winners - Daniel Stahl in men’s discus, and Armand Duplantis in pole vault - were much admired. The third gold was won in the equestrian team jumping event.

Switzerland (8.5 million population) won three golds, four silvers and six bronzes, making a total of 13 medals. The three gold medals were won in cycling (mountain bike), shooting and tennis. The Swiss female tennis player, Belinda Bencic, won the gold medal in the women’s tennis singles. The more celebrated tennis stars, such as Naomi Osaka and Ashleight Barty, were eliminated in the early rounds.
Denmark (5.8 million population) won three golds, four silvers and four bronzes, making a total of 11 medals. The gold medals were won in sailing, cycling and badminton. China’s world Number One badminton player, Chen Long, was defeated in the final in Tokyo by Denmark’s Viktor Axelsen. After losing the match, Chen Long graciously told Axeleen that he deserved to win.

Hong Kong (7.5 million population) gained one gold, two silvers and three bronzes. It won a gold in men’s fencing, two silvers in women’s swimming, and three bronzes in women’s cycling, table tennis and kata (a karate form). Hong Kong’s Grace Lau put up a very good performance, winning a bronze medal in the women’s solo kata match.

Small countries can win medals
From the results of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic games, the answer to the question which I posed at the beginning of this essay is a resounding yes. The lesson for Singapore is that small countries can win medals in the Olympic games.

What can Singapore learn from the successful medal-winning countries? I urge the Singapore Olympic Committee and our Sports Council to set up a committee to look into this question.

I offer the following three hypotheses for discussion. First, we should have an ecosystem which systematically spots talent among our students. Second, we should offer the talented students, if interested, a programme of training, coaching and mentoring, for free. Third, our society must truly value excellence in sports and make it possible financially for talented athletes to pursue their passions.

We must also develop a culture of supporting our athletes, in good times and in bad times. 

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