How to win Nepal’s first Olympic medal

With the Paris 2024 Summer Games 2 and a half months away, is there a chance?

Nepal has not won a single official medal ever at the Olympics. With the Paris 2024 Summer Games two and a half months away, how might Nepal win its first bronze? Or silver, or even gold?  

Technically, there are two Nepalis who have won medals at the Olympics. The first is mountaineer Tejbir Bura, awarded a gold during the 1924 Winter Olympics for his part in the 1922 British Mount Everest expedition. However, this was a joint honour given to a team of many nationalities.

Nepal in Olympics mountaineering

The second was martial artist Bidhan Lama, who won a bronze in Taekwondo at the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics. However, this did not count as an official medal because taekwondo was only a demonstration sport back then.

Demonstration sports were unofficial events at the Olympics before 1992. They were included to promote sports popular in the host country. Baseball, for example, was a demo sport at the 1984 Los Angeles games. Calling them ‘demonstration sports’ is misleading, as the athletes were certainly competing to win.

There was another bronze awardee in Lama’s event, Enrique Torroella Sánchez from Mexico. Even today, some sports give bronze medals to both losing semi finalists.

While Bura and Lama’s medals are significant achievements, the fact remains that Nepal has zero official Olympic medals.

Nepal in Olympics taekwondo

To be fair, we have company. Seventy-one other countries, including Bangladesh and Cambodia, have never won a medal either.

To some governments, job creation, providing basic needs and economic development are higher priorities than achievement in sport.

“Doing well at the Olympics is all about how much you can invest. Sports is a business,” explains Chaturananda Raj Vaidya, vice president of the Nepal Olympic Committee. “Equipment, coaching, venues, diet, family structure all need to be correct to develop a medal-winning athlete.” 

The countries that have been the most successful at the Olympics are the United States, Soviet Union, Great Britain, France and Germany. All are countries that have historically had the resources to pour into sports development. The US is the overwhelming leader in total medals.

“Countries like China and South Korea have started doing better because their economies got stronger, and India is going to start winning more too,” said Vaidya.

Economic prosperity and investment are the obvious answers. But this seems some ways away for Nepal. But it might still be possible for a Nepali athlete to somehow win their first medal.

The aim now cannot be 16 golds. Before that can happen Nepal must win its first bronze,  which is a lot better than zero it clearly not easy to do. Nepal can take inspiration from three types of countries:

1. Countries that have just one or two medals at the games. These likely face a lot of the same problems Nepal does, but have already won that elusive first medal.

2. Countries with small populations that still do disproportionately well at the Olympics.

3. Countries that share a lot of the culture, topography, problems and genetics with Nepal. If they have won, how have they done it?

Countries that have only one medal include Burkina Faso, Gabon, Guatemala and Iraq. Most singular medals are in individual sports such as athletics, martial arts, weightlifting, and sailing. The exceptions are Paraguay’s silver for men’s football in 2004, and Montenegro’s Silver for women’s handball in 2012. Athletics include the 20km walk, marathon and 400m hurdles. The martial arts are boxing and taekwondo. The medal in taekwondo is for Gabon.

In two medal countries, athletics and combat sports still feature highly. These countries have won in triathlon, wrestling, judo, swimming and shooting.

One interesting case is Afghanistan, a war-torn South Asian country that has won two bronzes in Taekwondo by the same person, Rohulla Nikpai, at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.

These are clearly not athletes who were produced by strong, established systems because there is only one or two of them in their countries. They are outliers who have succeeded despite the system and not because of it.

There is probably genetic luck, circumstance, family, and childhood at play in some of these cases, but they do show that struggling countries can still win a medal. Also, sport investment should focus on individual sports to make that first podium happen faster.

Countries with small populations that produce exceptional results must have excellent systems to develop athletes, like Hungary, Netherlands, Romania, and Cuba. Hungary, with a third of Nepal’s population, is ninth on the summer Olympics all time list with 511 medals. 

The Olympics must become a part of the country’s culture, to have many athletes pursuing sports wholeheartedly, there needs to be honor, money and security in doing so. It needs to become a credible career path.

One thing the four smaller high performing countries have in common is doing uniquely well in some sports. For Hungary it fencing, although they also lead total medals in pentathlon and water polo. The Netherlands excel at cycling, Romania at gymnastics, and Cuba at boxing.

This outsized return must be the result of some combination of focused investment from the governments and the presence of exceptional coaches who established systems to develop medal winning athletes.

The lesson is that even as economic progress increases, Nepal should focus on one particular sport.

Maldives, Bhutan and Bangladesh do not have any medals either. Sri Lanka has two silvers in athletics. Pakistan has ten, of which eight are in field hockey. India has 35.

Like Pakistan, India has done well at field hockey but its individual golds are interesting. One of them is in shooting, and the other was in Tokyo 2021 in javelin. Winner Neeraj Chopra trained for many years in India, before going abroad to polish his skills in Germany, Sweden and Turkey under the best coaches.

That could be another path to the first Nepali medal. A Nepali passport holder who is able to access high quality training abroad could work around the problem of a lack of infrastructure in Nepal.

Perhaps one path to the first medal is mountain biking, especially if races like Enduro Ratnange get Nepali kids to start biking at early ages.

Nepalis have been successful at trail running of late. Ultra-runner Sunmaya Budha recently beat the world number 2 in a 70km race in China. The problem is that trail running is not currently in the Olympics, although it was a sport 100 years ago, when the Olympics venue was also Paris.

With breakdancing now an official sport, surely there is an argument for trail running.
A week ago British runners finished running 455km, from London to Paris, to campaign for the inclusion of the sport.

There are different possibilities of winning at the Winter Olympics too. A lot fewer countries take part, and Nepal has the snow and terrain for athletes to practice winter sports year round.   

“To make a winter Olympics medal a reality, it is necessary to have high quality training facilities,” says Vaidya. “In the west, countries have skiing camps with air lifts solely used by athletes who can spend a lot of training time on the slopes.” 

Vishad Onta

writer