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Most nations going to the Olympics won’t bring home a medal. Here’s why they compete anyway.

- August 4, 2016
A man poses in front of the Olympic rings on Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana Beach on July 31. (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)

The official Rio 2016 Olympic Games website recently ran a story suggesting that five countries might win their first-ever medals at this year’s Summer Games: Kosovo (in judo), Fiji and Samoa (both in rugby), El Salvador (in swimming) and Turkmenistan (in weightlifting). There’s a reason that a story like that is being promoted by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Organizing Committee of the Rio Games: It gives the impression that even the underdogs can succeed at the greatest sporting event in the world.

Maybe so, at least for a few of them. But most of the participating countries — and a record 206 are expected this year — won’t.

The last time a majority of participating countries won an Olympic medal was in 1960. In London 2012, only 85 countries (41.5 percent of those participating) reached the podium. One-third of all the 204 National Olympic Committees that participated in the 2012 Summer Games have never won a medal in Olympic history.

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For the IOC, bringing people from around the world together — not just gathering medalists — is the mission. But why would nations participate if their chances of winning medals are slim to none? Let’s take a look.

Sending a delegation to the Olympics is a sign of statehood and builds national identity

Taking part in the Olympics is one of the “signs of statehood” from which smaller, poorer or newer countries gain recognition in the global community of sovereign states.

The concept of “signs of statehood” has, according to scholar Andrea Stanton, both a domestic and an international dimension.

Within a country, signs of statehood are a functional and universally recognized currency, helping to build community identity as much as a flag or a national anthem.

At the international level, joining the United Nations is the most important sign of statehood. But belonging to the Olympic community is another top priority. Recent members include Kosovo, recognized by the IOC in 2014 as having the 205th official National Olympic Committee, and South Sudan, recognized as the 206th in 2015.

In fact, some countries are recognized by the IOC before joining the U.N. The International Olympic Committee has more members (206) than the United Nations (193).

The five largest nations (in the dictionary sense of “a large group of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language”) that aren’t U.N. members but send delegations to the Olympics come from places whose sovereignty is contested, for different reasons: China is opposed to Chinese Taipei (Taiwan) and Hong Kong entering the U.N. system; Kosovo faces strong opposition from Serbia and Russia; Palestine is blocked by Israel and the United States. Puerto Rico, which may apply to become the 51st U.S. state, is a bit different from the others.

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For those entities (apart from Puerto Rico), the Olympics are seen as a first step toward fuller international recognition later on. More such nations in contested circumstances may apply in years to come.

Competing at the Games also can unify divided countries. This can be important for more diverse countries. An example is medal-less Equatorial Guinea, a Central African country with several official languages that has sent delegations to every Summer Olympic Games since 1984. Another is Lebanon, a nation-state that doesn’t have one dominant religion – and which has taken part in all Summer Olympic Games (except for 1956) since its 1943 independence. Cheering for the national teams can help bring diverse countries together in a common identity.

The athletes themselves get support from the IOC

Participating in the Olympic Games means that a nation’s athletes can apply for IOC scholarships and other aid. Without it, athletes from some countries without state-sponsored athletic programs would have no support.

Take Lebanon. In an interview, Mazen Ramadan, head of Lebanon’s delegation for Rio 2016, told me that the Lebanese government does not invest in elite sports. “We are functioning,” he said, “based on IOC support.”

And so to prepare Lebanese athletes for Rio, Lebanon has received $132,000 from Olympic Solidarity (OS), an IOC scholarship program. From this money, 11 Lebanese athletes have for two years received monthly stipends of $550. OS helps in other ways as well, such as subsidizing travel to the Games. But Lebanese athletes can apply only because they are training for the Olympics and their country is willing to send delegations to the Games.

IOC support helps some countries prepare for regional games

Lebanese (and other) athletes know they won’t bring medals home from Rio. But IOC support helps them get ready for regional games — say, the Asian Games or the Pan-Arab Games — where they do have a chance at the podium. And those games — like the Olympics — aren’t purely for the love of sport; nations compete with their neighbors for soft power and influence in regional affairs.

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Meanwhile, winning in those regional games may prepare a nation’s athletes for a chance at the big time. Perhaps someday one of them will indeed be the underdog who brings home a nation’s very first Olympic gold, or silver, or even bronze — putting them at least momentarily on the platform with the global big shots.

Danyel Reiche is an associate professor of comparative politics at the American University of Beirut and the author of “Success and Failure of Countries at the Olympic Games” (Routledge 2016).