Despite being home to nearly 160 million people, nobody from Bangladesh has ever even qualified for the Olympics - their competitors have all been wildcard entries - let alone being able to reach the podium. It makes Bangladesh the country “with the highest population which never wins a medal in the Olympic”.
Bangladesh is among the 75 countries out of 206 which have not yet managed to claim a spot on the Olympic medal table. The second most populous country which has never been able to secure an Olympic medal is Cambodia.
Cambodia’s population is 15.7 million, one-tenth of Bangladesh’s population.
To see this from another perspective, let’s take the fact that Kosovo, one of the world’s newest countries with a population of 11,485, have one medal after Majlinda Kelmendi won a gold in the women’s 52kg judo competition in Rio 2016 Olympic.
Bangladesh’s Olympics’ performance so far
So far Bangladesh has sent a total of 43 athletes in nine Olympics from 1984 Los Angeles Olympic. The best performance came with the hand of golfer Siddiqur Rahman who clinched his spot in Rio by finishing 55th out of 60 in the final qualifying round.
This is the only time an athlete from Bangladesh went on to the finals. In the past Olympics, the only spots for Bangladeshi athletes came through the wildcard system, which offers places to countries that had not met typical qualifying criteria and otherwise would have no involvement.
This year, much hope was placed on the shoulder of shooter Abdullah Hel Baki who won a silver medal on the 10 metre air rifle silver at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. He however, failed to qualify for the final round.
The first Bangladeshi athlete who went to compete in an Olympic event was Saidur Rahman Dawn. Dawn competed in the qualifying round of 100 metre sprint in 1984 Los Angeles Olympic. Dawn ended up finding a place at no 82 among 84 athletes competing in the qualifying round.
Interestingly, Bangladeshi shooter Asif Hossain Khan who participated in 2004 Athens Olympic ended up finishing at 35th position. Two years back in 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, Asif secured the gold medal while Indian Abhinav Bindra secured silver. In 2008, Abhinav became the first ever Indian athlete to win a gold medal in Olympic when he won the gold medal for the 10 metre air rifle category in Beijing Olympic 2008.
Determined to end the medal drought, Bangladesh’s Olympic association, before the beginning of the Rio Olympic 2016 this year, declared major incentives for its Games squad. Bangladesh Olympic Association (BOA)’s Director General Fakhruddin Haider declared that anyone “who wins gold will get 10 million taka (around $125,0000), silver five million and bronze Tk2.5 million.”
The lure of big money barely helped in motivating the Bangladeshi athletes performing well at the Olympics.
Why this performance?
Many believe that part of the reason behind Bangladesh’s struggles in events like the Olympic is because much of the nation’s sporting interest is focused solely upon cricket, which is not an Olympic sport.
International cricket matches in Bangladesh attract huge crowds and leading players are among the biggest celebrities in the country. So as the big bucks and glamour lie there, the sports-minded young generation focuses on being cricketers instead.
Those accusing the craze over cricket as the reason behind this lack of interest don’t take into account the facts that Americans are crazy about NFL, NBA and MLB (but for basketball, the other two are seldom played elsewhere) and 90% of all sporting attention goes there. Michael Jordan is more easily recognised and has also far wealthier than 22 medal winner Michael Phelps.
But, American athletes and swimmers chug along fine. That doesn’t stop them from earning the most medals in the Olympics. It proves that “some” games’ popularity doesn’t have much to do with success in others.
The problem lies elsewhere. With steady economic progress, Bangladesh now has a healthy middle class who loves to take the “middle” path i.e. choosing a career that comes with low risk but greater surety of career benefit.
A career in sports doesn’t really fit into the middle path. That is why we see shooters, boxers, wrestlers and athletes hailing from poorer sections of society (generally not always). There may be potential Olympians in the “middle class” but they are diverted to more mediocre career options to be able to secure their future.
Besides, parents here have the authority to take the decisions in their child’s life. Bangladesh is obviously not a sports nation. Especially post-independence, Bangladeshi parents gave a lot of importance to academics and sports was considered to be a way to “pass time,” meant for recreational purposes. Sport was never a priority for a majority of parents and their kids.
As this middle class rises in numbers, the potential pool of sportsmen will shrink further. The problem of Bangladesh’s Olympic drought will not end in the near future unless Bangladesh picks one or two sports which are included in the Olympics and invests significant money and resources to bring out world class athletes.
For instance, Ethiopia invests in running, winning all 45 Olympic medals for the country in that sport, most of them in long-distance running. Jamaica has won all but three of its 68 Olympic medals in sprinting events. Cuba focuses on boxing, and has won 67 of its 209 summer Olympic medals in that sport.
Time has come for Bangladeshi policymakers to make a strategic decision in opening the tally in the world’s greatest sports stage.