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Tokyo 2020

Do you know about the traditional power houses of Olympic Sports?

From South Korea in Archery to USA in Basketball, here is all you need to know about the traditional power houses of different Olympic sports.

Indian Archer Deepika Kumari
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Indian Archer Deepika Kumari is currently the world No. 1 in the Recurve category. (Source: World Archery)

By

Ajinkya Jain

Updated: 2021-07-07T14:14:00+05:30

The greatest quadrennial sporting extravaganza will open its curtains on July 23, 2021 to the entire world after a delay of a year due to the ongoing pandemic. Even though the athletes will follow strict guidelines and health protocols, the usual sprit of Olympics will surely not be missed.

As per the IOC, Tokyo Olympics will feature 33 competitions and 339 events held across 42 competition venues during the 17 days of the world's greatest quadrennial sporting extravaganza. As many as 6 new games including Baseball, Karate, Skateboarding, Softball, Sport Climbing, Surfing will make their debut at Tokyo in less than a month's time.

However, there are few traditional sports in the Olympic Games, which have been heavily dominated by one or two countries; Be it Badminton dominated by Asian countries and more specifically by China or India dominating in Hockey when it was played on the natural grass or African countries ruling over long-distance races.

Few athletes get this advantage from the natural elements like genetic structure or body posture while some of these countries have been dominating these sports just because of a sound internal sports structure or may be an inspirational athlete rousing the generations to come. Here is look at few unique Olympic Sports and their traditional power houses:

1. Diving:

Diving made its Olympic debut in St. Louis (USA) 1904 with only 2 events "Platform" and "Plunge for Distance" that too limited for men. The Springboard event joined the Olympic bandwagon in 1908 while the entry for women divers in the games happened only by Stockholm-1912. Since then, Diving has been part of every Olympic Game. At Tokyo- 2020 (21), the sport will be contested across 4 categories each of men and women comprising of events like 3m-Springboard, 10m-Platform, Synchronized 3m Springboard and Synchronized 10m-platform.

Talking about the force to reckon, China has been the most dominant country in this sport. In last 40 years, since Moscow-1980, Chinese divers managed to win astonishing 67% of the overall Gold medals on offer (69 medals with 40 Gold, 19 Silver and 10 Bronze). The domination is currently so heavy that out of 8 Olympic Categories, Chinese Athletes currently hold No. 1 Ranking across 7 categories. At Rio-2016, it managed to bring home 7 out of possible 8 gold medals.

All this is made possible by China's well-oiled state funded athletic assembly line in the form of provincial swimming and diving academies spread all across the country. Groomed by the central government right from the age of 5, these children are then pushed into the government academies with only one aim at hand: bringing glory to the country. kids in China are then shaped up to practice with the highest intensity and thus it is no surprise that since 1984 Olympics, China always returned to the hero's welcome with at least one gold medal in this sport.

The Gold medal winning divers are nothing short of celebrity in the country. However, state may claim a significant chunk in the athletes' endorsement contracts in return for years of government-aided training. The share of this fame is then also distributed amongst the people who had contributed in his/her success right from Schools, teachers and coaches making it a value for hard work proposition for all the stakeholders and acts as an inspiration to develop next generation of successful athletes.

Dominant South Korea Archery team looking forward to dominate Tokyo Olympics (Source: Olympics)

2. Archery:

Even though Archery made its first Olympic appearance back in 1900, it became a regular feature only since 1972 Munich Olympics. At Tokyo-2020 it will be played across 5 categories (Recurve) including individual and team events for men and women along with a mixed team competition.

South Korea has traditionally been the strongest force in this sport with a Gold medal winning rate of whopping 64%. It managed to win a total of 39 medals (23 Gold, 9 Silver and 7 Bronze), out of total of possible 108 medals on offer in the sport since Moscow-1980. So heavy was its domination that at Rio-2016 that it made the clean sweep of the Gold medals. Korean Women team has not lost the Olympic Gold Since Seoul-1988.

Reasons for Korea's success could be attributed to its history and usage of bows and arrows by its military since 5th Century B.C. Before 1980, there was only traditional archery in Korea. In the early 80s, when they won the bid for the Seoul Olympic Games of 1988, the government wanted to have success and decide to fund several sports to get results and to show all over the world the power of the country and thus revived the modern archery in Korea.

Today also, utmost importance is given to Archery as a sport during the high school and college with a minimum 2 hour of training time every day. South Korea is composed of nine regions and seven major towns. In each of these 16 areas there is primary, middle, and high schools, but also university and business teams where it's possible to practice professional archery.

Even in a day to day social life, the competitions like Idol Star Athletics Championship are held twice a year on Korean Thanksgiving and lunar New Year of which Archery forms an integral part. It is said that a Korean archer practices more than 10 hours a day displacing over 2,500 arrows per week. With such hard work, success is bound to happen.

Indian Archer Deepika Kumari is currently the world No. 1 in the Recurve category, while Atanu Das (Husband of Deepika) is also a world no. 9. Both of them are strong contenders of a medal at the upcoming games in Tokyo.

U.S. women's basketball team have won the most number of Olympic gold medals (Source: New York Times)

3. Basketball

Prior making an Olympic Debut in Berlin-1936, Basketball was first demonstrated at Olympics at Saint Louis-1904 in USA. At Tokyo-2020, a younger and small version, 3*3 Basketball will also be marking its own debut.

The god-level domination of USA at the Basketball in the Olympics couldn't be possibly rivalled in any other sport. Since Moscow-1980, USA managed to lose out on only 5 Gold medals out of possible 20 it can win in both the categories (men and women) (winning 75% of the Gold medals on offer). Since 1984, USA has won at least one of the two medals on offer in this sport.

So high is USA's domination in this game that they enjoy the win-loss number of 138-5 in men's competition and 66-3 in women's competition at Olympics. Last time USA men's team failed to win a gold medal was way back in Athens-2004 (when Argentina emerged as a surprise champion). Since then, it managed to win gold in both the categories across all 3 previous editions.

One of the major factors that handed the success to the women's team has been the ability to form a young blooded team which relies on the core of veterans at the top of the roster and thus making the progression from a rookie to a leader plausible. While the success of Team USA's men's team can be attributed to a strong league structure and tradition at home which also happens to be the country of origin for this sport.

NBA (The US National Basketball League) is one of the largest and most followed sports leagues in the world has also acted as a feeder to USA Olympic squad since the NBA players were allowed to play the Olympics since 1992. Even in June-2021, USA Basketball announced a roster for Tokyo-2020 with all the 12 players from one or other NBA team.

4. Equestrian

Equestrian featured at Paris-1900 games for the first time however, it made its Olympic debut at Stockholm-1912. Since then, it has been part of every Olympics till date. It is the only Olympic Sport that involves an animal and the one in which men and women compete together on equal terms. Currently, the Olympic Equestrian disciplines include Dressage, Eventing and Jumping in individual and team format (total 6 formats).

Germany is one the strongest nation in the Equestrian world. It has managed to win 23 golds out of possible 60 (38%) on offer since Moscow-1980 games. The secret of its success lies in more than 10,000 horse clubs and 4,500 private Horse farms spread across the country which makes a unique sport like equestrian a mass culture rather than a class culture with which it is treated in the remaining world.

A study shows that that there are about 600,000 households in Germany that own horses and that there are about 920,000 households with people who actively or occasionally engage in equestrian sports. Altogether there are 1,247,000 registered horses in private ownership nationwide. The Equestrian Industry in the country generates 300,000 jobs and is a 6-billion-euro industry.

In Germany, young children who don't come from an equestrian family usually begin at a riding school, where they start with lunge lessons and eventually progress to group lessons. Germans have also created a highly systematic and universal riding code which all its trainers and riders are obliged to stick to.

India made its first appearance in this sport way back in 1980. At Tokyo-2020, India will be represented by Fouaad Mirza, who will take part in Individual Eventing.

Cuba has won 32 medals in boxing since 1972 (Source: Olympics)

5. Boxing

Men's Boxing has been a part of Olympic tradition since 1904, with women joining the force since London-2012. At Tokyo, Boxing will be competed across 8 categories for men and 5 categories for women (other than Light Heavyweight, Heavyweight and Super Heavyweight).

Typically, USA is considered as the country with most medals in Boxing at the Olympics. However, a closer look at the year-wise medal tally will show you that there is one small North American island nation who has been quietly dominating the ring at the Olympics. The country is Cuba.

Cuba has won 32 Gold medals in Boxing since 1972, which is more than any other country in the world despite not being present at 1984 and 1988 Olympics. Boxing is a traditional pastime of Cuban youngsters. It gained popularity in the country in the 1930s as Cuban boxers started clinching titles at Professional world boxing competitions.

In 1962, Fidel Castro banned the professional boxing in the country citing corruption and since then amateur boxing started gaining momentum. Successful amateur boxers are still considered as superstars in the country.

Many Sports researchers attribute the Cuban success to the genetic makeup aligned with volatile temperament, world class coaches and the disciplined dedication. In Cuba, Boxers are trained in an almost military like environment where discipline is given the utmost importance.

Cuban government is said to have an eye for identifying and cultivating emerging talent at a very young age. The Cuban boxing technique was often compared to a dance, as the focus was not on power but precision, tactics and movement.

6. Fencing

Fencing has been involved in the Olympic movement right from its inception in 1896. It is one of the 5 Sporting events that have been part of every modern Olympic Game along with Athletics, Cycling, Gymnastics and Swimming. Women Fencing made its debut at 1924-Paris Olympics.

At the games, Fencing is competed across 3 types in both individual and team format. These types include Foil (light weapon, valid target limited to the torso, no double touches), Epee (heavy weapon, target area of entire body, double touches allowed) and Sabre (light cutting and thrusting weapon, above waist target area and no double touches).

The Fencing as an art of swordsmanship is believed to have originated in Spain. During the conquest of Spanish Monarchs, it reached other parts of Europe and more specifically Italy and France which dominate the Fencing at the Olympics.

Since Moscow-1980, these two countries have accounted for nearly half of the overall Gold medals on offer. Art of fencing took its root in Italy and France when it was taught in the universities since the beginning of 16th-17th century. Cultural centers as Bologna and Venice soon started attracting students from all over Europe.

7. Swimming

Swimming, one of the oldest sports to be associated with the Olympic movement has been part of the event since very beginning. In 1912, women's swimming was added to the list. In Tokyo-2020, swimmers around the world will take part across 35 different events across the categories like Freestyle, Backstroke, Butterfly, Individual Medley, Freestyle Relays and Mixed Medley Relay. With so many events, it will be one of the longest sport spectacles in the Olympics.

If we look at the Olympic records in the Swimming, one and only one country has dominated the pool. United States of America has won more than 500 medals at the Olympic Swimming. The Gold medal haul of Team USA (246 Golds, 172 Silvers and 135 Bronzes) at the swimming is 44% of the total Gold medals on offer since the beginning of the modern Olympics and is more than 4 times the second best country which is Australia in this case.

At Rio-2016, USA managed to win 16 Gold, 8 Silver and 9 Bronze medals with an overall medal haul of 33% of all the medals on offer. Most celebrated swimmers at the Olympics Include Michael Phelps (USA, 23 Golds), Mark Spitz (USA, 9 Golds), Jenny Thompson (USA, 8 Golds), Ryan Lochte (USA, 6 Golds) and Ian Thorpe (AUS, 5 Golds).

United States of America has a strong swimming culture in the country which is backed by more than 3,100 clubs spread across all the 50 states which are servicing more than 400,000 active members. USA Swimming is the pinnacle governing body in the country. At a micro level, the whole country is divided into 4 zones viz. Western, Eastern, Central and Southern. And within each zone there are Local Swimming Committees (LSCs), which cater to the specific states within the respective zones.

LSCs are given mandate to register the members, scheduling competition and leading clubs on behalf of USA Swimming. From a toddler level, the progress of a kid is tracked and multiple opportunities are provided to her/him to move up to summer leagues, clubs, national junior team, collegiate and eventually the national team of the USA.

With such fierce competition, the level of athletes produced by this system is so strong that even the National Olympic Trials in USA produce world record breaking performances and in many cases the timings clocked at these trials are equivalent to medal winning time for the Olympic in the same year.

Since 1984, China has been on the medal tally clocking one or more medal each and every time. (Source: Olympics)

8. Weightlifting

Weightlifting made its Olympic debut in 1896. At Tokyo-2020, the event will be contested in total 14 categories, 7 across men's and women's section.

The domination in this sport can be broadly categorized into 2 time periods. One prior to 1980s and the other from Moscow-1980. Till 1980s Soviet Union was the international powerhouse in this Sport bagging most of the medals possible.

Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union however, this position changed significantly and China rose to the occasion. Since 1984, China has been on the medal tally clocking one or more medal each and every time. In fact, since Sydney-2000, China is winning at least 5 gold medals at each and every edition of the games.

In 1956, when a Chinese Weightlifter Chen Jingkai broke an American world record to become the first Chinese world record holder weightlifter, China started working on a national training program in the sport. By 1979, when China joined IOC, the training structure was in place and as a result China won its first Gold medal at Los Angeles-1984 games.

Since then, the Journey till now is the one backed by careful planning and management, state funding, effective recruitment backed by a ready supply of talent and more importantly the hard work that each athlete was ready to put in. A typical development plan in Weightlifting for a child in China starts at school at a tender age of 10.

There are 40-50 lifters per school who train after school hours and are given one piece of bread and a carton of milk for their training. In a Provincial training center, normally 2,000 to 3,000 children train regularly after school. So, the way up for a kid who is good at it will be from School to specialist sport school to provincial team with a final goal of reaching the national team. With such a tremendous amount of hard work and the state funding, no wonder that Chinese lifters are doing so well at the Olympics.

India will be represented by a lone ranger Mirabai Chanu at Tokyo in 49 kg category. Considering her world ranking of 2 in her weight category at the Tokyo Olympics, she is definitely a medal contender for India. But again, she will have to fight against the World No.1, Hou Zhihui, who is from China.


With less than 20 days to go for the curtain raiser, these power houses will be striving hard to bring in their A game at the quadrennial event. It will be very interesting to see if any other country can challenge these Goliaths on their favorite field or the stalwarts will be successful in maintaining their stronghold.

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