AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Chances may be good for a U.S. medal in mountain biking and in swimming, gymnastics and a lot of other events where the U.S. tends to dominate the podium, but when's the last time we saw a U.S. victory in table tennis? We got to wondering about which sports Americans just can't master and who are the top rival countries in those events. And Olympic historian David Wallechinsky is with us for more.
Hi there, David.
DAVID WALLECHINSKY: Hi. How are you?
CORNISH: So which of these sports are the ones that the U.S. just can't win?
WALLECHINSKY: Well, the United States is unlikely to win anything in table tennis, team handball, which is a great sport, weightlifting. Very few medals in wrestling, badminton, archery, canoeing. The occasional medal may pop up once in a while in these sports, but they're few and far between.
CORNISH: The list was getting a little long there. You got me worried. I mean, let's just take one or two of them.
WALLECHINSKY: I cut it short.
CORNISH: Yeah. Well, say weightlifting. I mean, give me an example. What are the reasons why that's an event where our rivals really have us beat?
WALLECHINSKY: The United States used to be very strong in weightlifting in the '40s, '50s, even on into the '60s, and then just fell by the wayside. And I think a lot of it has to do with finances and role models. For example, if you were from - a big, heavy, strong guy from, say, Russia or Ukraine or Iran or Bulgaria or Turkey, then you knew - you know that if you won a gold medal in weightlifting, you could become a national hero.
But, if you won a gold medal in weightlifting for the United States, nobody's going to hear about you the day after the closing ceremony. So somebody - that same person who's a great athlete, strong, a big person is instead going to go into football instead of becoming a weightlifter. So we've seen a complete collapse of medals for the United States in weightlifting.
CORNISH: And then you mentioned finances. What's the issue there?
WALLECHINSKY: Well, the United States does not have government-supported sports, so if you take almost any major country in the world, they are funding a national sports system so that they can build people up. If somebody's interested in an odd sport, a small sport like weightlifting...
CORNISH: So table tennis is a good example, right?
WALLECHINSKY: Table tennis is perfect, weightlifting. I lived in France and I saw that there were weightlifting clubs. Since you mention it, there were table tennis clubs and so that, even on the youth level, not even on the top level, they're building up people who might be interested in this sport and supporting them. You don't have that in the United States. Each sport is separately funded.
CORNISH: So any chance of a comeback for the U.S. this year, say, in badminton or canoeing? Any events that we should be watching closely in hopes of finally seeing an American get the gold?
WALLECHINSKY: Let me think about it. No. I think that what - you know, what makes the United States different than other sports powers, such as China, Russia, Germany, is that our medals tend to be narrowly focused. For example, I think you can imagine - you can guess that three-quarters of the gold medals that the United States will gain in London will come in only a handful of sports. Namely, swimming, track and field, women's gymnastics, tennis and basketball.
These other powerhouses - they have their gold medals and their medals in general spread out over a larger number of sports.
CORNISH: David Wallechinsky, thank you.
WALLECHINSKY: Thank you.
CORNISH: Olympic historian David Wallechinsky, speaking with us about those Olympic events where countries other than the U.S. have the edge. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.