Great Britain, the US, China, Russia … yeah, yeah, they can fight over their gold medal tallies all they like. What I’m interested in are those countries that don’t garner so many Olympic headlines. The ones that you may not have even realised actually compete. The ones that, basically, don’t stand a chance of winning. I present to you, five Olympic underdogs that I will personally be rooting for in these games, if I ever manage to catch any event they’re in that doesn’t coincide with working hours, sleeping, or just generally being elsewhere. I’m nothing if not committed.
After watching the documentary The Vice Guide to Liberia a while back, I knew two things for certain. 1) That country has some serious, serious issues. 2) I can safely say it’s not a destination that will ever end up on my must-visit list. Let me just throw a few words out there that spring to mind when thinking of Liberia: Devastating civil war. Child soldiers. Drugs. Prostitution. Cannibalism. War lords. CANNIBALISM. Random bonus depressing statistic: the average life expectancy in Liberia is 57.4 years. Jesus.
I’m stoked Liberia is at the Olympics. I think they could really use some good news over in that neck of the woods. Go team!
- Number of athletes: 4
- Sports competing in: Athletics, judo
- Chicks to dudes athlete ratio: 2:2
- Medal history: Nuthin’ so far
I’ve had a soft spot for Moldova since reading about its ranking as one of the unhappiest places on Earth, in Eric Weiner’s excellent book, The Geography of Bliss. What can I say, I’m a sucker for a sad ending. The reasons for the Moldovan malaise are many, from its struggle to re-establish itself after communist rule, to its crippling economic situation, to its general lack of any kind of national cultural identity. They say sports are a great way to lift the spirits, so Moldova should be away laughing, with a total of nine different sports represented at the games. C’mon Moldova, crack a smile for us!
- Number of athletes: 22
- Sports competing in: Athletics, swimming, boxing, cycling, wrestling, weightlifting, archery, judo, shooting
- Chicks to dudes athlete ratio: 10:12
- Medal history: Two silvers (1996; 2000); three bronze (1996; 2000; 2008)
Little ol’ unassuming Nauru has a couple of claims to fame (and yet, you’ve still probably never heard of it). It’s the world’s smallest republic, at 21 square kilometres. It has been called, fondly, bird shit island, after its once-massive phosphate deposits (courtesy of said birds). This, in turn, made Nauru — for a brief period in the 60s and 70s — a very rich island. Until they mined the literal crap out of it. It’s also served as a tax haven and money laundering base, plus housed a detention centre for Australian illegal immigrants. That’s quite the resumé! These days, somewhat less glamourously, life in Nauru is pretty bleak. Unemployment stands at a whopping 90%, diabetes is endemic thanks to a lack of natural resources and therefore local food supplies, and Nauruans hold the title of being the most obese people in the world.
Why am I rooting for Nauru? I was born there. That’s right people, Nauruan-born and proud. I won’t hear anyone trash-talking the place, okay?
- Number of athletes: 2
- Sports competing in: Weightlifting, judo
- Chicks to dudes athlete ratio: 0:2
- Medal history: A big fat zero
I can’t lie. A substantial part of why I’m backing Nepal has to do with its national flag. Just look at that thing — how can you not get behind a country that’s so blatantly non-conformist? Forget a crummy rectangle. Two triangles, man, that’s where it’s at. Speaking of peaks, Nepal boasts a fairly substantial one, too. Mount Everest in all its almost-9,000-metre glory stands formidably in the Himalayas, just waiting to claim the lives of careless climbers. It’s thought that over 200 people have died attempting the momentous climb, but you know who survives a lot of those treks? Sherpas. Sherpas from Nepal. Just like Tenzing Norgay. So, basically, those guys are pretty badass. I don’t think many people consider Nepal much of a threat in the Olympics, but maybe they should …
- Number of athletes: 5
- Sports competing in: Swimming, shooting, athletics
- Chicks to dudes athlete ratio: 3:2
- Medal history: Any day now
Ouch, Haiti, where to start? Never particularly stable following years of civil unrest and a coup d’etat, things went from bad to devastating for the Caribbean country when the 2010 earthquake hit and demolished Port-au-Prince, wiping out up to 316,000 people, and leaving 1.6 million homeless. Add to the mix a deadly outbreak of cholera, violent attacks on aid workers, rape in refugee camps, child abandonment, phoney charity aid and more, and I think it’s safe to say that we all suddenly feel a whole lot better about our own lives. Thanks Haiti! The fact that five Haitian athletes even made it to the games is an achievement in itself. But I won’t patronise them by saying that means more than any medal. They deserve a shiny prize!
- Number of athletes: 5
- Sports competing in: Judo, athletics
- Chicks to dudes athlete ratio: 2:3
- Medal history: One bronze (1924); one silver (1928)