Olympic underdogs: The ones to watch in London 2012
Javier Culson will try to win Puerto Rico’s first ever gold medal. But it’s a tough draw.
By MANUEL RUEDA
One of the best things about the Olympics are its bountiful underdog stories. Sure, all the cameras will be pointed at the 534 athlete strong US delegation. And of course, news reports will focus on superstars like Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, and his gold-covered shoes.
But what about Vanuatu’s delegation of five, which includes two ping-pong players? Or how about those two lonesome athletes who will run for Equatorial Guinea? (the only country in Africa where Spanish is the official language by the way.)
Here are my favorite Olympic underdogs.
Team Puerto Rico
It’s been a US territory since 1898 and its residents American citizens since 1917. But Puerto Rico has participated independently in the Olympics since 1948, when London last hosted the games. So this return to London is very significant for the Island of Enchantment, whose 25 athletes will be wearing white uniforms that recreate the first Puerto Rican Olympic team uniform. Puerto Rico is hoping to get their first gold medal ever, through the legs of Javier Culson, who will participate in the 400m hurdles race.
Boricua journalists have noted that the recent financial crisis on the island has hurt the local budget for sports, making this Puerto Rican delegation the smallest one since 1956. The island’s Sports and Recreation Secretary Henry Neumann, recently said it was “a big achievement,” to take 25 athletes to London and “have the possibility,” of winning a medal.
If you think Puerto Rico has a small delegation, take a look at Bolivia, a country of 8 million people, which will only take 5 athletes to the games. Only one of the Bolivian athletes actually qualified to the Olympics by complying with the minimum record required for her sport, the other four athletes (including 2 swimmers) made it to London through special wild card programs that are designed to help out under-represented countries.
Bolivian newspapers say their country is going to London “only to participate.”
(Photo: screenshot La-razon.com)
Bolivia’s top athlete is 28-year-old Claudia Balderrama, who was working as a supermarket cashier until a Mexican coach took her under his wing in 2010.
Balderrama has qualified for the 20km racewalk, but her time is currently only the 28th best among participants in that event so getting a medal would be somewhat of a herculean task for her.
Racewalking in case you don’t recall, is that sport where people move their hips wildly from side to side, as they attempt to walk as fast as possible without lifting both feet from the ground.
Its not just about countries and athletes with heart-warming stories. Some sports are underdogs too. Take badminton for example, which we hardly ever see on TV in the western hemisphere.
Badminton is a big deal in Asia. Check out this clip from the 2002 Thomas Cup final, Singapore vs Malaysia.
Turns out this fast-paced, action packed sport draws big crowds in East Asian countries like China, Malaysia, and Indonesia, where badminton stars are national heroes. The Roger Federer of Badminton will be competing in this year’s Olympics. His name is Ling Dang, he comes from China and he will be going for his second gold medal. I highly recommend watching this sport.
Argentina will take on the big boys from Europe in this year’s handball tournament.
(Photo: Screen Capture Youtube.com/charruahandball)
Handball is another one of my personal favorites. Again, it is rarely heard of in the United Sates or Latin America. But, how can you go wrong with a sport that feels like soccer but lets you hurl the ball at the goalie with your hands, in a space the size of a basketball court?
My favorite underdog in this year’s handball tournament is Argentina. It is the first time that Argentina qualifies for Olympic handball [usually it is Brazil that represents South America] and all of its players are amateurs, who hold regular office jobs and the like.
A giant in soccer, but a minnow in handball, Argentina will have to go up against the likes of Spain, Croatia, Iceland and Sweden, who are the favorites in this sport, and have teams that are made up mostly of professional, and much taller, players.
(main photo: Facebook.com/Javier-Culson)