Olympic medal is priceless when it’s a country’s only one

August 12, 2012

Montenegro’s Olympic athletes won’t arrive in the capital city of Podgorica until about 11 p.m. Monday, but thousands are expected to wait for them in the city’s main square to celebrate the country’s biggest medal haul ever: one.

More than half of the 204 countries that competed in the London Games are returning home without a single medal. Those delegations would best understand what a seismic event it was for Monte­negro, which just four years ago competed as an independent nation for the first time, to even reach the final in women’s team handball.

After Montenegro lost a thrilling gold medal match to Norway on Saturday night, Prime Minister Igor Luksic declared he was one of the proudest prime ministers in the world. Montenegro’s Bojana Popovic, one of the best women’s handball players in the world, clutched her silver medal and said, “This is like gold for us.”

Most attention at the Olympics is devoted to the top of the medal table, where the United States returned to the top by supplanting China. U.S. wrestler Jordan Burroughs said he downloaded a cellphone application to help him keep constant tabs on the medal standings and said of his gold medal, “That was something big for me. I wanted to pass China.” And some countries, such as Australia and Canada, are already engaging in a bout of soul-searching after disappointing medal hauls.

But for most of the countries in the world, especially those without swelling funds for sports programs and world-class coaches, a lone medal is enough to trigger an explosion of national joy.

When Kirani James won Grenada’s first-ever gold medal with a stunning performance in the 400 meters — an event dominated by Americans for nearly 30 years — the island nation declared a half-day holiday in honor of James’s crowning moment.

Uganda wasn’t on the medals table at all until Sunday, when Stephen Kiprotich burst past his two rivals from Kenya in a gutsy run that saw him take gold in the men’s marathon.

Speaking after the race, which finished near Buckingham Palace, the 23-year-old runner said that Ugandans were “ very happy because we haven’t won a medal in marathon races.” In fact, the East African country has only won seven Olympic medals ever.

In a phone interview, Alan Kasujja, host of Uganda’s leading morning radio show, said the country had zero expectations of winning any medals in London, but now Kiprotich’s name is literally “resonating around the country.”

“Not even the combined medals of U.S.A., China and Britain can begin to tell you how important it is for us to win a medal,” he said.

Overall, 18 countries won a single medal in London, including Venezuela, which nabbed its first gold in more than 40 years thanks to fencer Ruben Limardo, who was later paraded around the streets of Caracas where he waved to throngs of well-wishers from the top of a truck.

President Hugo Chavez hailed Limardo a “national hero” and presented him with a replica of a sword of Simon Bolivar, a key figure in South America’s struggle for independence.

Back at the Olympic Park, Boban Savovic, a 34-year-old basketball coach from Montenegro who watched every single game the women’s handball team played in London, was able to put a positive spin on his country’s loss in the women’s gold medal final.

“We won the silver,” said Savovic, clutching a railing overlooking the handball court where the Norwegian team was unfurling their national flag. “But for us, for our country, it shines like a gold.”

Karla Adam is a reporter in the Washington Post’s London bureau. Before joining the Post in 2006, she worked as a freelancer in London for the New York Times and People magazine.
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Medals
Gold Silver Bronze Total
Russian Federation 13 11 9 33
United States of America 9 7 12 28
Norway 11 5 10 26
See complete medals table
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