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Southeast Asia Is Having Its Best Olympics Ever

As the Olympics wind down, it’s customary to argue about which parts of the world performed best relative to expectations. The U.S. is a reasonable answer. Maybe Armenia. Probably not India. Definitely not Russia. Here’s a dark horse candidate: Southeast Asia.

Despite a population over 600 million, Southeast Asia hasn’t seen a lot of Olympic success.1 In fact, going into Rio, three of the five most populous countries never to have won gold were in the region:

COUNTRY SILVERS & BRONZES POPULATION (MILLIONS)
1 Bangladesh 0 169.0
2 Philippines 9 101.0
3 Vietnam 2 94.3
4 DR Congo 0 79.4
5 Myanmar 0 56.3
6 Tanzania 2 51.0
7 Iraq 1 37.1
8 Sudan 1 36.1
9 Afghanistan 2 32.6
10 Nepal 0 31.6
11 Malaysia 6 30.5
12 Saudi Arabia 3 27.8
13 Yemen 0 26.7
14 Ghana 4 26.3
15 Madagascar 0 23.8
Most populous countries with zero gold medals through 2012

Sources: Sports-reference.com, CIA World FACTBOOK

On Aug. 6, Vietnam broke through, as Hoang Xuan Vinh won his country’s first-ever gold in the 10m air pistol. Six days later, Joseph Schooling of Singapore captured another inaugural gold, in the 100m butterfly. With several events remaining, Southeast Asian athletes have secured medals in weightlifting (seven), badminton (four), shooting (two), taekwondo (two), swimming, cycling, and diving. The region has set new highs in total medals and golds, bouncing back from a disappointing 2012 Olympics:

fischerbaum-olympics-southeast-asia-1

A few countries dominate the chart above. Two-thirds of all medals since 1928 have been won by Indonesia and Thailand, and five of the region’s 11 countries — Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Timor-Leste — still have never made it to the podium. In terms of events, over three-quarters of medals have been won in badminton, boxing and weightlifting:

MEDALS
COUNTRY BADMINTON WEIGHTLIFTING BOXING OTHER TOTAL
Indonesia 19 10 0 1 30
Thailand 0 11 14 5 30
Malaysia 8 0 0 3 11
Philippines 0 1 5 4 10
Singapore 0 1 0 4 5
Vietnam 0 1 0 3 4
Total 27 24 19 20 90
How Southeast Asia has gotten its medals, 1928-2016

Through Aug. 19, 2016. Includes a 2016 medal for Malaysia’s Lee Chong Wei, who is guaranteed silver or gold in men’s singles badminton. Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Timor-Leste and Brunei have never won Olympic medals, nor did now-defunct South Vietnam, Malaya and North Borneo.

Sources: sports-reference.com, rio2016.com

The weightlifting specialization may explain some of the 2016 bump. Many of 2012’s best weightlifters were absent from Rio following doping allegations, and the Russian and Bulgarian teams were outright banned. Southeast Asian countries won just two silvers and two bronzes in these events in 2012; in 2016 they snagged two golds, four silvers and a bronze.

There are more medal opportunities to come. On Saturday, Sorn Seavmey of Cambodia, seeking her country’s first-ever medal, will compete in the round of 16 in women’s over 67kg taekwondo, as will Kirstie Alora of the Philippines. And Malaysia’s Lee Chong Wei — silver medalist in men’s singles badminton in 2008 and 2012 — will compete in his third straight gold medal match.

Footnotes

  1. We’re using the standard definition of Southeast Asia, which comprises 11 countries: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Timor-Leste and Vietnam. In terms of historical Olympic results we’re also including the now non-existent entities of South Vietnam (1952 to 1972 Olympics), Malaya (1956 and 1960) and North Borneo (1956), although none medaled.

Reuben Fischer-Baum is a visual journalist for FiveThirtyEight.

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