Who will dominate what, and why? The clues are often in the history of the country and the sport.
Utter domination from the start
From their Olympic debuts through Rio de Janeiro 2016, some events have (almost) always ended with the same anthem.
Fittingly, the country has more Olympic archery medals (39) than any other, including all four gold medals from Rio in 2016.
While the men’s team is consistently strong, the women are the definition of dominant. The one time the individual gold slipped through their finger tabs, in 2008, Korean women still won silver and bronze.
When physical education instructor James Naismith drew up the rules for “basket ball” in 1891, he just wanted to give his students a game to play when the weather in New England was too lousy for baseball and football. He ended up giving the United States a sport that it would reign over well into the 21st century.
The only time either U.S. team failed to win a medal since basketball was added to the Olympic program in 1936 (men) and 1976 (women) was during the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Games in 1980.
However, basketball’s growing popularity around the world has made the competition spicier. Nigeria and Australia stunned the men’s squad in pre-Olympic tuneups this month.
Judo’s roots date to the ancient samurai hand-combat art of jujitsu. In the late 19th century, martial arts scholar Jigoro Kano drew heavily from its methods to create a competitive sport, adding positive philosophical principles and omitting the fight-to-the-death aspects. Judo emphasizes smarts and technique over brawn, and it includes tenets such as respecting the opponent — even while you’re throwing them around a mat.
Only one athlete per weight class can represent each country, yet Japanese athletes have won medals in at least half of the weight classes in every Olympics they’ve participated in since the sport’s debut at the Tokyo Games of 1964.
Table tennis originated in the late 19th century as an after-dinner game for bored Victorians in England, and it caught on in China in the early 1900s. By the time it was added to the Olympic program in 1988, table tennis was considered China’s unofficial national sport.
After China swept the individual medals in 2008, countries were limited to two athletes in each singles competition so that at least bronze would be up for grabs.
China has so many Olympic-level table tennis players that it exports them. At least 44 of the 172 table tennis competitors at the Rio Games were born in China, the New York Times reported.
A few countries
The easiest way to dominate is if no one else competes.
In the trial-and-error period of the early modern Olympics, some sports appeared just once, giving one country — usually the host nation — an easy medal haul. This was especially true during the somewhat sketchy 1900 and 1904 Olympics that were attached to World’s Fairs.
For instance, when croquet was contested at the Paris Games of 1900, France swept all seven medals because no one outside France competed. In St. Louis four years later, the U.S. team staged an Americanized version called “rocque” that featured only U.S. players.
Great Britain scored seven medals with a racquetball precursor called “rackets” in 1908. And Spain didn’t even have to play to win the gold in a type of Basque pelota (a.k.a. jai alai) in 1900. No opponent showed up.
Utter recent domination
Because the Olympics took a while to catch on around the world, all-time medal tables in some sports are skewed toward the mostly Western countries that participated early and faced relatively little competition. As the Games grew from 13 countries in 1896 to more than 200, newcomers have toppled some traditional powers.
Two countries besides Russia have won gold in what used to be called synchronized swimming, but Canada’s last one came in 1992, the United States’ in 1996. Since then, it has been all Russia.
The country’s choreographers draw from the long Russian ballet tradition for this discipline, which is basically costumed dancing and gymnastics in more than nine feet of water.
Duet favorites Svetlana Romashina and Svetlana Kolesnichenko won the 2019 world championships with a routine set to the Japanese song “Fantastic Tokyo,” which probably would’ve endeared them to the home crowd at the Olympics, if there were going to be a home crowd.
Romashina, who already has five gold medals, lamented in a recent FINA interview the bad manners of people assuming they will win again: “Sometimes [media] ask how we shall spend our prize money before the competitions launch.”
Kenya’s athletic bread and butter is distance running — most of its 103 medals are for races of 800 meters or longer — but Kenyans have taken over no event as thoroughly as the men’s 3,000-meter steeplechase.
In the early days, it appeared Finland might be a perennial force in the event as it grabbed eight medals by 1936; other European countries won a few as well.
Then in 1968, Kenya’s Amos Biwott won the final in unorthodox style, leaping over the water jump like a hurdler rather than propelling himself off the barrier. Another Kenyan, Benjamin Kogo, took silver. Four years later, Kenyans placed first and second again, led by Kip Keino, a policeman and world record holder who became the country’s first athletic superstar.
When Kenya returned after boycotting in 1976 and 1980, its steeplechasers began an unbroken string of gold medals they hope to extend in Tokyo.
Cuba is second to the United States in boxing medals (73 to 113), even though it didn’t enter Olympic boxing until 1960. Since 1972, Cuba has won more boxing medals than the Americans in every Olympics in which both countries participated.
Boxing dates back to the ancient Olympics and reappeared in the modern Games in 1904, but the sport didn’t really take off in Cuba until after a riveting world heavyweight title match was fought in Havana in 1915. When Fidel Castro took power in 1959, he banned pro boxing but poured resources into developing amateur programs.
Teófilo Stevenson won Cuba’s first heavyweight boxing gold medal in 1972 and eventually added two more. Because he couldn’t turn pro and remain in Cuba, he reportedly passed on several big-money offers, including a chance to fight Muhammad Ali. “What is a million dollars against 8 million Cubans who love me?” Stevenson said in 1974.
He stayed, was in fact loved and helped grow amateur boxing even more. The sport accounts for a third of Cuba’s 220 Olympic medals.
Men’s water polo
Great Britain and Sweden were early water polo powers, but Hungary’s silver medal in 1928 ignited a run in which the team won gold in nine of the next 18 Olympics.
On the way to the gold in 1956, the country won the most notorious water polo contest in Olympic history, a semifinal known as the “Blood in the Water” match.
Hungarian-Soviet games were often ugly, but this meeting came just weeks after Soviet forces crushed a revolt in Budapest.
Throughout the match, players traded blows, insults and underwater headlocks. With about a minute left and Hungary leading 4-0, a Soviet player rose out of the water and cold-cocked 21-year-old Ervin Zador, who had scored two goals. As blood poured from a gash that would require eight stitches near Zador’s eye, the largely pro-Hungarian crowd rushed the pool deck. The referee stopped the match to prevent an all-out melee. Zador defected, landed in the United States and eventually coached a teenage Mark Spitz.
Hungary finished fifth in the past two Olympic tournaments but is still among the favorites in Tokyo.
The United States ruled what used to be called “fancy diving” from its beginning at the 1904 Games until legendary U.S. diver Greg Louganis hung up his Speedo after 1988. Team USA still sits atop the all-time medal table with 135. But Chinese divers, who first competed at the 1984 Games, piked, tucked and twisted their way to dominance soon after, with signature precision in movements and body positions that were hallmarks of their gymnasts.
In one newer event, synchronized platform, Chinese men and women have won nine of the 10 golds. The men’s pair took silver behind Russia in 2000.
Sometimes, a sport dominates a country
Some nations maximize their Olympic success by putting most of their athletic eggs in one really competitive basket.
Doctor-to-be Arthur Wint became Jamaica’s first Olympic sprint star by winning gold in the 400 meters and silver in the 800 in 1948.
His victories fired up the sport-loving country, including kids for whom running was often part of the school day. Soon Jamaica began churning out champion sprinters, including a guy named Bolt.
“Jamaica is perhaps the only country in the world where a track and field meet is the premier sporting event,” Jamaica native Orlando Patterson wrote in a 2016 New York Times opinion piece.
Wint won two more medals before returning to medical school, and his two 800-meter silvers are the country’s only medals in distances longer than 400 meters. Jamaica has one non-running medal, in the track cycling 1,000-meter time trial — which is a bit like sprinting on a bike.
China tops the all-time badminton medal table by far with 41, but Malaysia is tied with Denmark for fourth in total medals — respectable for a country that generally sends only about 30 athletes to each Olympics.
The country won its first medal in men’s doubles in 1992 and settled into a shuttlecock-shaped niche. Silver medals in men’s singles the past three Olympics made Lee Chong Wei the country’s biggest sports star.
Michelle Chai, former general manager of the Badminton Association of br, told Nikkei Asia last year that past success powers the sport’s huge popularity in the country: “We all want to be involved in something we are good at.”
Except for the 1900 Games, wrestling has been in the Olympic program since 708 B.C. Sparta rocked it back then. (Oddly, the 1900 Games had tug-of-war but not wrestling.)
But the Turks have also wrestled for centuries, and matches were once part of victory celebrations, holidays, memorial vigils for fallen warriors and even weddings(!).
The national sport is oil wrestling, in which shirtless participants in leather pants are covered in oil to make gripping difficult. About 2,400 wrestlers used more than three tons of olive oil in a 2019 tournament that dates to 1362.
In (modern) Olympic competition, the country stands fifth all-time in gold medals.
An old joke in Brazil is that volleyball is the country’s favorite sport because futebol is a religion.
Originally called “mintonette,” volleyball was invented in 1895 by William G. Morgan in Massachusetts as a less taxing alternative to that crazy new game of basketball.
No country truly dominates the Olympic game, but Brazil has matched the two behemoths, the Soviet Union and the United States, as the only teams that have won men’s indoor gold medals three times since the event’s 1964 debut.
On the sand, Brazilian men and women have won at least one medal in every Olympics but one since beach volleyball was added in 1996.
The men in both disciplines are going into Tokyo on a bit of a hot streak. The indoor team has won gold or silver in the past four Olympics, including gold in front of home fans in Rio, and they lead the world rankings.
Normally a molecule, or an ocean full of them, would not qualify as a niche. But domination comes in all forms, right?
The island continent’s medal count is tilted toward sports that take place on or in water, including swimming, rowing, sailing, canoeing, diving, triathlon, water polo and modern pentathlon (there’s a swim portion). Sadly, Australia has never won a medal in steeplechase.
Youjin Shin contributed to this report.
Medal counts come from the International Olympic Committee’s Olympic Information Service, Olympedia.org and, in some cases, governing bodies of individual sports.