In need of Olympic medals? If you’re British, you call on track cycling or sailing. You might add rowing to that list and, after this summer, maybe triathlon will be up there too. The point is that Team GB has become so dominant in a handful of sports that medals, even Olympic titles, in those disciplines can be all but guaranteed at London 2012.
By contrast, sports like handball and water polo had almost entirely passed Britain by until a home Games came around, while Greco-Roman wrestling still remains so obscure to us that not a single Briton has been entered. Somewhere, however, there is a nation rubbing its hands with glee in anticipation of Greco-Roman wrestling, in exactly the same way as an expectant home crowd will throng London’s velodrome.
Which is that nation? What about archery, slalom canoeing, modern pentathlon, table tennis – who cleans up in those sports and beyond? Here is your definitive guide, based on past Olympic form, to the sporting monopolies of the Games.
ARCHERY – Nation to beat: South Korea
If there’s an Olympic archery final, chances are a South Korean is in it. South Korea has won 16 of 32 gold medals on offer since the reintroduction of archery to the Olympics in 1972. The US has won a further eight golds, while no other nation has won more than one Olympic title in that time, and Brits have picked up four bronze medals. At Beijing 2008, the Koreans again won half of the four gold medals available, with China and Ukraine picking up the other two, in both cases at the expense of Korea. Unsurprisingly, Korea is among the 10 nations to have qualified the maximum six archers for London 2012.
ATHLETICS – Nation to beat: United States
It’s not all about Jamaica – athletics forms such a broad church that medal micro-climates exist within its various disciplines. For example, Kenya sits sixth in the all-time athletics medal table, but half of the nation’s 22 gold medals in athletics came in distance events of 3000m or farther. It will be no surprise that the United States dominates, having won more than 300 gold medals in athletics. Even the combined tally of the Soviet Union and Russia can only produce 82 golds, with Britain third on a total of 49. Finland, by virtue of gold-medal gluts during the Games’ adolescence in 1920 and 1924, occupies fourth place with just one athletics gold medal fewer than Britain. And yes, in recent history, Jamaica has carved out a niche as a rising athletics power. All of Jamaica’s 13 gold medals in Olympic history have come in athletics, and eight of those have come from Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008. The US finished with seven athletics gold medals inside Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium, with Russia, Kenya and Jamaica all taking six. Ethiopia’s distance runners make them the other major medal factor in athletics, winning four golds in 2008.
BADMINTON – Nation to beat: China
Badminton has been dominated by Asian nations since its introduction to the Olympics in 1992. Eleven of the 24 gold medals contested in that time have gone to China, with South Korea and Indonesia accounting for another six each. Completing a varied collection of nations, Denmark – which has a strong badminton heritage – is the owner of the one remaining gold, won in the men’s singles at Atlanta 1996. Were badminton and weightlifting removed from the Olympics, Indonesia’s medal hopes would be devastated. Of the 25 Olympic medals Indonesians have won in history, 24 have come in those two sports (18 in badminton, six in weightlifting). Archery accounts for the 25th, a silver medal at Seoul 1988.
BASKETBALL – Nation to beat: United States
American dominance in this sport is unlikely to shock anybody. The nation whose NBA league monopolises global interest in basketball has racked up 19 gold medals, of which 13 came in the men’s event and six were won by the women. Historically, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia were both major basketball powers with Olympic titles to their name. However, the break-up of both has handed dominance to the United States. In the last 20 years, the only Olympic title not won by the US was the 2004 men’s event, where Argentina knocked the defending champions out at the semi-final stage before going on to win. Basketball-mad Lithuania will be worth watching at London 2012, its national side having come through a qualifying tournament held in Venezuela earlier this month. The Lithuanian men won a world bronze medal in 2010 but failed to reach the European final on their own soil last year, squandering an early chance to reserve their place at the Games.
BOXING – Nation to beat: Cuba
Cuba comes into its own in boxing. The Communist nation’s love affair with the sport is reflected in its Olympic prowess: Cuba’s medal record in boxing is second only to the United States, with 32 gold medals to America’s 48. Cuba topped the boxing medal table at every Olympics from 1992 to 2004, enduring a frustrating succession of silver medals at Beijing 2008 but still earning a medal in eight of the 11 events, even if none were gold. Now, men’s boxing is wide open as a sport. Ten different nations were represented among the 11 winners in Beijing, including Britain (James DeGale won middleweight gold), with only China picking up two titles. In women’s boxing, new to the Games at London 2012, the story is different. China looks set to become the dominant force: at both the 2008 and 2010 women’s World Championships, Chinese boxers reached the final in each of the three weights to be contested at the Olympics.
CANOEING – Nation to beat: Slovakia
Slalom canoeists are among Slovakia’s greatest exports. Though the nation has only competed at the Olympics as a separate entity since 1994, the year after the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, it has won seven slalom canoe gold medals in that time – Slovakia’s only summer Olympic titles. Four people are responsible for those victories: Michal Martikan won the men’s canoe single (C1) title in 1996 and 2008, Elena Kaliska has won the last two women’s kayak single (K1) titles, and the Hochschorner brothers – Pavol and Peter – are three-time Olympic champions in the men’s canoe double (C2), winning in Sydney, Athens and Beijing. Sprint canoeing is largely the domain of Germany and Hungary, who each picked up six gold medals at the sport’s 2011 World Championships, though Poland may be one to watch at London 2012 despite indifferent showings in Athens and Beijing. Britain has been building a strong sprint canoeing programme and GB will want more than the one gold medal won (by Tim Brabants) in Beijing.
CYCLING – Nation to beat: Great Britain
Great Britain dominated track cycling at Beijing 2008, but France has traditionally been a strong cycling nation at the Olympic Games. The French won five cycling gold medals at both Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000, then placed second behind Britain in Beijing – albeit some distance back, picking up two gold and three silver medals to Team GB’s eight gold and four silver. France has won the last three men’s mountain bike Olympic titles courtesy of Julien Absalon, finishing with a one-two in the event at Beijing 2008, while France’s women also took first and second as women’s BMX made its debut at the same Games.
DIVING – Nation to beat: China
The United States may be top of the all-time diving medal table, but that does not reflect the near-total dominance of China since it began taking the lympic Games seriously. China’s first major presence at a summer Olympics came in 1984. Four years later, only American Greg Louganis stopped the Chinese from sweeping the board in the Seoul 1988 diving competition. Since then, only eight of the 32 diving gold medals on offer have been won by a nation other than China. Australia’s Matt Mitcham was the sole non-Chinese competitor to win a gold in the eight diving events contested at Beijing 2008, and China’s divers will be similarly hard to beat at London 2012. China has won more gold medals in diving – 27 in total – than in any other sport.
EQUESTRIAN – Nation to beat: Germany
Germany is the undisputed equestrian powerhouse of the Games, producing 37 gold medallists in its various guises over the course of Olympic history. These days, the medals in showjumping and eventing could come from any of several nations. Alongside Germany, you can expect strong challenges from the likes of Britain and the United States. Dressage, on the other hand, has been a closed shop for decades. Not since Moscow 1980 has a nation other than the Netherlands or Germany won either the individual or team dressage Olympic titles. However, the British team for London 2012 looks strong enough to threaten that hegemony.
FENCING – Nation to beat: Italy
Between them, Italy, France and Hungary account for more than half of the near-600 fencing medals awarded since the dawning of the modern Olympic era. Fencing has provided each of those three nations with more gold medals than any other sport. Italy has 45, France 41 and Hungary 34. However, while the Hungarians’ glory days came largely in men’s sabre fencing during the first half of the 20th Century, the Italians and French are still leaders in the sport, occupying the top two places at both Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008. At the 2011 World Championships, held in Sicily, the Italians won four titles in Olympic events while Russia, increasingly a fencing force, won three.
FOOTBALL – Nation to beat: Spain
An impressive spell in the 1950s and 1960s saw Hungary win three Olympic men’s football gold medals, enough for them to remain the most-decorated men’s Olympic football team to this day. Uruguay, by dint of back-to-back successes in the 1920s, has two titles and lies joint-second on the all-time men’s list alongside the Soviet Union and Argentina. Argentina won the men’s title at Beijing 2008 but the team failed to qualify for the London Olympics. It is hence difficult to say with any certainty who the favourites for the men’s title in London are, particularly with the reintroduction of a British team for the first time since 1960. Spain and Brazil are among the strongest teams to have qualified. The United States has dominated the women’s event since its introduction at the Americans’ home Games of 1996 in Atlanta, winning three of the four Olympic titles (the other going to Norway, who beat the US in Sydney). It is hard to see past them for gold at London 2012.
GYMNASTICS – Nation to beat: China
Gymnastics has traditionally had a strong association with Romania and, up until the 2008 Beijing Games, that remained the case: Romania topped the medal table for gymnastics at Athens 2004 and had been prominent at most Games since the 1980s, off the back of Nadia Comaneci’s famous successes in Montreal and Moscow. However, 2008 saw host nation China burst onto the scene, rocketing from one gold medal in Athens to 11 in Beijing, nine more than either the United States or Russia. Do not expect a repeat of that stunning margin of victory at London 2012. While China still topped the medal table with four golds at the artistic gymnastics’ 2011 World Championships in Tokyo, the US won as many titles and hosts Japan, led by men’s superstar Kohei Uchimura, weighed in with two. The Japanese look to be a nation on the rise in the men’s sport. Russia is the unquestioned star of rhythmic gymnastics, and look out for Canada in the trampoline events. Though the Canadians have yet to win an Olympic gold medal, they have won more medals – five – in the sport than any other nation and have a strong team for London 2012.
HANDBALL – Nation to beat: France, Norway
As holders of the Olympic, world and European titles, Norway’s women are the clear favourites for the handball gold medal at London 2012. Handball is popular throughout Scandinavia and continental Europe, with Denmark winning women’s Olympic gold three times in a row prior to Norway’s victory at Beijing 2008.
The men’s Olympic champions are France who, having won both of the intervening world titles, are – like Norway’s women – on track to successfully defend their title.
HOCKEY – Nation to beat: Germany, Netherlands
Field hockey proved India’s only source of Olympic gold medals for many years, but modern-day hockey has been the playground of Germany , Australia and the Netherlands. Every hockey gold medal has gone to one of those three nations since Barcelona 1992, when hosts Spain dislodged the Germans after extra time in the women’s final. Britain’s men and women are both dark horses for gold in 2012 but Argentina may be overdue an Olympic title. Women’s hockey is hugely popular in Argentina and the World Cup winners, who beat Britain to the Champions Trophy title in January, are favourites to win gold this summer.
JUDO – Nation to beat: Japan
As you might expect, Japan is the leading judo nation in the world. You have to go back to Seoul 1988 to find the last occasion on which Japan did not top the judo medal table – in Seoul, hosts South Korea won two gold medals to Japan’s one. Japan has won more gold medals in judo (35) than in any other sport, a figure comfortably higher than that won by the second most successful nation in the sport’s history, France. China has recently emerged as a growing force in judo while Cuba often bubbles under at the Olympics. Cubans won six medals at both Athens 2004 and Sydney 2008, but failed to come home with a single gold medal from either.
MODERN PENTATHLON – Nation to beat: Russia
Combining fencing, swimming, riding, running and shooting into one sport, men’s pentathlon has been the province of Russia in recent times. Russians won the men’s Olympic title in Sydney, Athens and Beijing, only missing out to Kazakhstan in 1996. On the women’s side, Britain has proved a world power since a women’s event was introduced to the Games at Sydney 2000. Four of the subsequent nine women’s medals have been won by Britons, including gold for Steph Cook in Sydney. However, Hungary is without doubt the world’s biggest pentathlon nation. Pentathlons staged in Hungary draw huge crowds, local pentathletes gain celebrity status, and Beijing 2008 marked the first Olympics since Los Angeles 1984 – boycotted by Hungary, among others – in which no Hungarians won a pentathlon medal.
ROWING – Nation to beat: Great Britain
The peerless medal-winning efforts of Sirs Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent, among others, have established Great Britain as a great among rowing nations. But outsiders may be surprised to learn of Romania’s proud recent tradition in the sport. Only gymnastics has proved more lucrative than rowing for Romanians at the Games. The nation topped the medal table at Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004, but slipped to ninth in Beijing 2008 with one gold and one bronze, while Britain and Australia finished first and second respectively with two gold medals. That downward trend has continued in the world championships since 2008, with Romania picking up just one bronze medal in the past two years. The temptation may be to look to New Zealand in 2012. The Kiwis have hovered near the top end of the sport for much of the last decade, finishing second behind Britain at the 2011 World Championships.
SAILING – Nation to beat: Great Britain
Britannia currently rules the waves, Great Britain having finished first among sailing nations at each of the last three Olympic Games. The British have won 24 gold medals in the history of sailing at the Games, five more than the second-placed United States, and GB nosed ahead of Australia by four gold medals to two at the Beijing Games four years ago. Australia has been Britain’s closest rival of late, and the Aussies took three gold medals to Britain’s one at the 2011 ISAF World Championships off the coast of their home city of Perth.
SHOOTING – Nation to beat: China
The United States has a proud shooting history and tops the overall Olympic medal table, but not since Los Angeles 1984 has the US actually finished top in shooting at an individual Games. Given the LA Games were also subject to a boycott, you have to go back to Munich 1972 to find an Olympic shooting medal table led by the Americans. China , again, is increasingly the major player. Although they were vying for top spot as far back as LA (China and the US both won three gold medals, but China won fewer silver), since the year 2000 the medal table has been dominated by the Chinese, winning 12 gold medals at the last three Games.
SWIMMING – Nation to beat: Michael Phelps
Michael Phelps has, on his own, won more Olympic swimming titles than all but seven nations – and that’s adding up every single Olympics. It should hence be little surprise that the United States is far and away the most successful swimming nation, with almost 500 medals accrued. But in terms of importance to a nation’s Olympic heritage, swimming means much more to Australia. Australians have won 56 gold medals in the pool – athletics, far behind with 19, is the nation’s second-strongest sport. Australia has finished a proud second to the US in each of the last three Olympic swimming medal tables.
SYNCHRO SWIMMING – Nation to beat: Russia
There is no doubt about the ruling nation in synchronised swimming. Since Sydney 2000, Russia has won both the team and duet titles (the only two gold medals available in the sport, which is only open to women) at every Olympics. The production line continues, too: none of the nine-woman team which won gold for Russia at Beijing 2008 had been in the title-winning team eight years earlier. At last year’s World Championships, which offered a larger programme of events than the Games, seven gold medals were up for grabs. Russia won the lot by comfortable margins over China and Spain.
TABLE TENNIS – Nation to beat: China
Is it worth any nation other than China entering the Olympic table tennis tournament? In the last 20 years, Chinese table tennis players have won 18 of the 20 Olympic titles on offer. Only South Korea in 2004 and Sweden in 1992 have managed to stand in the way of the Chinese. At their home Games in Beijing, China managed a one-two-three in both men’s and women’s singles. No nation other than those mentioned has ever won a table tennis gold medal. China’s total of 41 medals is more than every other nation combined. At the Olympics, this sport is theirs.
TAEKWONDO – Nation to beat: South Korea
In the decade for which taekwondo has been an Olympic sport, South Korea has stamped its authority on the medals. Half of the eight gold medals on offer at Beijing 2008 went to Koreans, split equally between their male and female athletes. Mexico were an impressive second place with two golds. Korea maintained their run during the 2011 World Championships, which the country hosted, but Iran – winners of two Olympic gold medals to date – made noteworthy progress, taking three world titles in the men’s events to finish in second place.
TENNIS – Nation to beat: United States
It may come as a surprise to learn that Britain are second in the all-time Olympic tennis medal table, with 15 gold medals. The problem? All 15 came during the sport’s first stint in the Olympic programme, from 1896 to 1924. Tennis was subsequently dropped from the Games and did not make a reappearance until 1988, after which point Britain’s sole medal dates to Atlanta 1996, won by Neil Broad and Tim Henman in men’s doubles. Olympic tennis is now quite an open field, not least because the doubles events create new national partnerships not found elsewhere on the pro tennis scene, which can throw up shock results. The United States , however, has been the most prevalent name on the podium in recent years – in particular the Williams sisters, Olympic champions in women’s doubles at both Sydney 2000 (where Venus won the singles) and Beijing 2008.
TRIATHLON – Nation to beat: Great Britain?
Triathlon made its Olympic debut at Sydney 2000 and, since then, a different nation has won every gold medal on offer: one each for Australia, Austria, Canada, Germany, New Zealand and Switzerland. That may change in 2012, as Britain enters its home Olympics with not one but two world champions: Alistair Brownlee in men’s triathlon (with younger brother Jonny ranked second in the world) and Helen Jenkins in the women’s race. It is feasible, though by no means certain, that Team GB could win both Olympic titles this summer and consequently leap to the top of the overall triathlon medal table. Equally, a strong Australian women’s team might extend the lead their nation currently holds by virtue of its two silver medals.
VOLLEYBALL – Nation to beat: United States
Brazil and the United States traded blows at Beijing 2008 for indoor volleyball supremacy. The two met in both finals, the US emerging with men’s gold and Brazil winning the women’s Olympic title. Previously, the Soviet Union had been a volleyball superpower and, in the vacuum after its demise, Cuba took over in the women’s sport, winning three successive Olympic golds. Brazilians have featured in six of the eight Olympic beach volleyball finals ever contested, but they emerged from Beijing with no gold medals as the US swept the board. Adding together the medal tables for beach and indoor volleyball, the US is on top with eight golds, ahead of Brazil’s five.
WATER POLO – Nation to beat: Hungary
Hungary , famously, are the custodians of Olympic water polo, ever since the country’s notorious skirmish with Soviet opponents in their semi-final at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne (Hungary, incidentally, having beaten Great Britain in the group stage en route). The Soviet Union lost one of the Games’ most ill-tempered encounters 4-0, a match later commemorated in the documentary Freedom’s Fury, and the Hungarians claimed what was already their fourth Olympic title. After a barren period in the 1980s and 1990s, Hungary has now pushed that up to nine titles, including the last three in the men’s event. Their women are yet to win a title, there having been three separate champions – Australia, Italy and the Netherlands – since women’s water polo was introduced at Sydney 2000.
WEIGHTLIFTING – Nation to beat: China
Weightlifting was the domain of the Soviet Union before its demise. Nowadays, China has taken up the mantle, topping the medal table at the last three Olympics after a brief period of Greek success in the mid-90s. Compared to some sports, weightlifting offers an impressive array of medals – 15 golds are available, eight of which were won by China at Beijing 2008. South Korea, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Russia and Armenia all picked up three or more medals at those Games. Notably, this is one of the few sports almost devoid of American success. Tara Nott Cunningham is the only United States weightlifter to win an Olympic title in the last half a century, and only then after a Bulgarian athlete had been stripped of gold for doping offences. The US team has sent more than 30 weightlifters to the Games of the past two decades, but Cunningham’s gold is their only return in that time.
WRESTLING – Nation to beat: Russia
The United States takes its wrestling very seriously and finishes high up the medal table at each Games, but it is telling that its last appearance at the very top – a superb nine-gold haul – came at its home Los Angeles 1984 Games, boycotted by the Soviet Union. Now, Russia is dominant. Russians won 21 gold medals at the last four Olympic Games, 12 more than the United States, including six at Beijing 2008. Wrestling in Beijing marked a rare example of a sport where the hosts failed to make much of a mark. Although China finished fourth in the medal table for wrestling, they won only a lone gold medal, identical to their tally from Athens four years earlier. Oh, and that nation that looks forward to Greco-Roman wrestling? Azerbaijan. Medals at every Games since 1996, contributing two of the four golds the country has won at the Olympics in that time. – BBC