The dominance of the United States for much of modern Olympic Games history has continued unabated, with Americans enjoying some level of success in virtually every sporting discipline.
Yet there are three events coming up in London this summer where the U.S. has drawn a complete blank, with no medals won, by men or women, in any Olympics. Ever.
While American athletes have been largely unrivalled on the track, in the pool and on the basketball court, the Star Spangled Banner has never been hoisted to celebrate overall glory or even a top three finish in badminton, table tennis or handball.
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Barring a major upset with paddle or shuttlecock, that barren run is likely to continue in 2012. The U.S. has solid teams competing in table tennis and badminton, but the almighty Asian countries, led by China, are expected to fill up the medal positions.
As for handball, neither the U.S. men’s or women’s teams will be competing, having been eliminated in regional qualifying.
So why has a nation of 300 million people been unable to create champions, or even a bronze medalist, in those sports when it has proven so successful elsewhere? Most will point to social factors; table tennis and badminton are largely – and perhaps unfairly – seen as recreational sports in this country.
The Olympic version of handball, a team sport played with a mini-version of a soccer ball and netted goals, is virtually unknown in the U.S., with most Americans identifying the name handball with the park game of walls and a ball struck with an open palm.
“A lot of it is cultural,” said Bill Mallon, past president and co-founder of the International Society of Olympic Historians. “There are some sports that are barely played in America. But things can change quickly. We had hardly any tradition in volleyball some years ago, but now the U.S. is considered a power.
“Table tennis and badminton came into the Games in 1988 and 1992 respectively, so they haven’t been around so long and the Asian countries are completely dominant. If the United States dominated a sport in the same way that China has dominated table tennis they would kick it out of the Olympics. That is what they did with softball, and what they are talking about doing in the Winter Olympics with women’s [ice] hockey.”
Elite level sports can operate in cycles, however, and patterns of success can alter quickly. Until the retirement of Greg Louganis after Seoul 1988, Americans enjoyed a glut of gold medals in Olympic diving, but since then China has shut them out.
Hope, therefore, is not lost for aspiring badminton, table tennis and handball hopefuls in America, but it may take some initial success to spark a boom in popularity and generate the requisite participation numbers for future improvement.
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“If you get one person [to] break through, people will watch them on television and be inspired to take up the game themselves,” said Mallon. “Some of them will come through and hopefully become champions.”
In many sports, the U.S. may hold a competitive advantage, with some of the best training facilities and competitions taking place on American soil, and the college system providing an outstanding breeding ground.
In others, not so much.
“It is difficult,” said Timothy Wang, the U.S.’ only male table tennis representative in London. “The players in Europe and Asia have more opportunities for world class training, tournaments and leagues to play in. There are extra challenges if you are an American player, but if you work hard and make sacrifices you can be successful.”
Perhaps, as Bill Mallon suggests, what is needed is for some of America’s physical specimens from more traditional sports to shift their focus to Olympic pursuits.
“When you have so many people and so many good athletes the possibilities are endless,” Mallon said. “If the U.S. took some of its second-tier basketball players and started training them at handball I would think they could do very well.”
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