In a lot of ways, the Olympics is about Firsts. First to cross the finish line, coming in first place in a tournament…. There are also the first times a sport has been played at the Olympics.
Some of the best “firsts” happen in the medal ceremonies, when a nation’s anthem gets played for the first time to mark that nation’s first gold medal. In Rio, this happened nine times. Ten, if you count the “Independent Olympic Athlete” team.
It probably shouldn’t have been a surprise when Fiji won the gold in rugby sevens. It’s the national sport of the archipelago, and the team, captained by Osea Kolinisau, is ranked #1 in the world. Needless to say, they blew away all their competition. The medal was Fiji’s first ever of any type. Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama declared a bank holiday for the celebration in their honor, and named all members of the team officers in the Order of Fiji, the nation’s highest honor.
“I never dreamed of being in an Olympics and being an Olympian let alone winning a gold medal,” said Kolinisau. “It’s an achievement which will stay with me for the rest of my life. It means a lot to the nation, it’s our first medal — a gold medal.”
Another gold medal that shouldn’t have been a surprise was won by Kosovo’s Majlinda Kelmendi. Since 2013, she’s won two world titles and three European ones in judo. Going in to Rio, she was ranked #1 in her weight class. It wasn’t just Kosovo’s first medal; it was the first time the young nation appeared in the Olympics. The country declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, and is still struggling for recognition.
Kelmendi was at the London Olympics, but had to participate under the Albanian flag since Kosovo wasn’t yet “recognized” by the IOC. “I have lived four years for this day, for this moment, and I felt so happy there at the podium when I saw my flag and when I heard my anthem,” she told reporters.
It seems that the smaller or poorer countries tend to excel in sports like taekwondo and judo. Perhaps it’s because those sports don’t seem to need a lot in the way of expensive training equipment and facilities, or maybe the larger nations choose not to compete in them (given the IOC’s limits on the number of athletes a nation can enter in a competition).
But don’t tell any of the medalists in those sports that they’re not Olympic Champions.
After a see-saw battle, Cheick Sallah Cisse won his taekwondo bout in the last second. His medal was the second ever for Côte d’Ivoire (the first was a silver at the Los Angeles games in 1984); later that same night they’d add a bronze. Despite his being one of the top ranked athletes in the sport, much of the press coverage was about how the heavily-favored Lutalo Muhammad of Great Britain was handling his stunning defeat.
Jordan’s first gold medal was won by Ahmad Abughaush in the men’s -68kg taekwondo division. Ranked #10, he upset is way through the tournament. His victory got him congratulatory phone calls from the kingdom’s Royal Family. Of Palestinian descent, his family is from the Israeli town of Abu Ghosh, which helps show the internationalism of sport.
Bahrain’s Ruth Jebet also benefited from the fluid borders in sports. Born in Kenya, the former World Junior Champion went to Bahrain to continue her education. With the government of Bahrain paying her way, she felt it proper to thank them by competing under their flag. After winning the gold medal in the women’s 3000m steeplechase, with a time just about a second off the world record, Jebet took a lot of criticism for not running for Kenya. But many countries, not just Bahrain, “poach” athletes like this. And she got a lot of support, too. The little flag on her track suit doesn’t change the land of her birth.
Another first-time gold also presents some unusual nationality issues. When Monica Puig upset Angelique Kerber to take the prize in women’s tennis singles, it was the first gold medal for Puerto Rico. Most people would be surprised to learn that Puerto Rico is an independent country and not a territory of the United States, but the IOC has different rules. That doesn’t diminish Puig’s accomplishment. She went into the finals vowing to win it for the island, and made good on it. “It’s just amazing. I know my country really appreciates this and I really wanted to give this victory to them. And the way I did this victory tonight, I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
He may not be the first Olympic champion from Tajikistan, but Dilshod Nazarov is the first to win gold while competing under that country’s flag. He beat Belarus’ Ivan Tsikhan in the hammer throw with a distance of 78.68 meters. Born out of a bloody civil war, the central Asian nation has had little to celebrate – until now. Social media was flooded with posts like this, from Javononi Shahri Vahdat: “Long live Tajik mothers who give birth to sons like Dilshod Nazarov. Well done, mother of Dilshod.”
Nazarov wrote back: “Dear friends, compatriots and everyone that supported me. Thanks to your support we have this victory. Going out into that Olympic stadium I felt the powerful energy of millions of supporters. I dedicate this victory to the people of Tajikistan. This is our shared victory. Thank you so much.”
In a good number of cases, a “first gold” happens simply because it’s one of the first times a nation has been at the Olympics. Not so with Vietnam; their first appearance was back in 1952. Hoang Xuan Vinh ended their long wait with an Olympic record in the 10m air pistol. The army officer also earned a silver medal in the 50m pistol contest.
The head of the National Sport Administration, Vuong Bich Thang, was among the government officials welcoming him home from Rio. “These are not only the most valuable medals for Vietnam, but also for the Southeast Asian region. It is a success for the sport, in general, and Vinh, in particular. His achievement strengthens our belief that, despite challenges, we can find suitable ways – good coaches and talented athletes – to reach high results at international competitions,” Thang said. “Vinh’s success also helps us become more confident when stepping out at Asian and world competitions. Many Vietnamese athletes, especially the marksmen, will consider this as their goal to strive harder in their careers.”
Kuwait’s Fehaid al-Deehani added to his medal-winning career with a win in the double trap shooting contest. But because the Kuwaiti National Olympic Committee has been suspended (something to do with “government interference”), the Kuwaiti team had to enter as “Independent Olympic Athletes” this year. They could not march under the Kuwaiti flag, or have their anthem played at medal ceremonies. He was offered the chance to carry the Olympic flag for the team during the opening parade, but he declined, saying that as an army officer he could only carry Kuwait’s flag.
After beating Italy’s Marco Innocenti in the finals to take the gold, al-Deehani had to fight back tears as the Olympic Anthem played during the ceremony. “It hurts very much,” he said afterwards. “I can’t describe my pain. It is too sad.”
To end things on a happier note, Joseph Schooling of Singapore beat out his idol Michael Phelps in the 100m butterfly race with an Olympic record. The grandson of high-jumper Lloyd Valberg, Singapore’s first Olympian at the 1948 Games, Schooling was the first Singaporean athlete to be granted deferment by the government from his compulsory two-year conscription so he could focus on training.
“It feels great, it kinds of feels surreal right now, it’s crazy,” said Schooling after the race. “I really can’t describe how this moment feels. All the adrenaline is running through my veins right now. It’s a dream come true.” Singapore’s chef de mission for their Olympic team, Low Teo Ping, remarked, “I think the world was expecting some of the other swimmers to be there, for example for Phelps to win his 23rd gold. But here we have this boy from Singapore who really disappointed them, and we are all ecstatic.”
His parents were back home in Singapore watching the race. “The most important thing is to be an ambassador for all our children in Singapore that gives them hope that they also can do it. There’s nothing special about him, just a boy who is interested in the sport,” said his father Colin Schooling. His mother, May Schooling, added, “I think it also shows that if we give Singaporeans the chance to pursue (their goals) and train properly, we can reach the top of the world. He has proven it – you can do it.”