I have so far covered the very good South Korean results at the recent World Championships, and in this post I will cover another facet of the overall results list.
The by far most important factors in getting good overall results are a large population to draw from, and a structure that makes the most of all the talent in the country. So far, no surprises. Countries that have at least one, usually both, will always inhabit the top of the medal standings.
But what is the third most important part of the groundwork to good results? In order to get a handle on that, I have compiled a list of the four best fencers (or teams, in team events) from countries that are not big, nor have a long-standing fencing heritage in several weapons. In this context, I chose big to mean a population in excess of 20 million people, or double the population of my own country. There were also two countries with populations less than 20 million that I deducted from the results lists, due to their status as long-standing fencing powerhouses: Hungary and Romania. All of that gave this results list:
The greyed-out area corresponds to the fact that in team events, there is a bronze match and one single bronze medal winner, in contrast to how it is done in individual events. If one converts this into a medals table, one gets this:
The striking thing about this list is the lack of an overarching theme. The second country – Switzerland – is a good country right now in its own right. Some countries (Azerbaijan, Sweden, Estonia) have have held their own even when compared to the big countries in one weapon earlier but are not at that level at the moment. Some countries (Greece, Georgia, Israel) earn their spots due to significant results, by more than one fencer, in one weapon only.
The – at least to me – unexpected country is Hong Kong. While not yet a top contender compared to big countries, it wins this list due to good results in all weapons, albeit with foil as their #1. I have no idea whatsoever as to what the underlying explanations for their results are, but that could be a good case study.
Some things are conspicuous with their absence. There does not seem to be any visible correlation with the standings in this table to the population, GDP/person, or any other quantifiable measure that I can think of. Every continent, as they are defined for the purposes of team qualification, is represented, bar Oceania. In the continents with multiple countries represented – Europe and Asia – there does not seem to be any obvious geographic pattern.
One way of thinking of this is that there are two completely dominant predictors of success: population size, and the existence of a entrenched fencing culture. Once those factors are absent, success comes down to chance. That shows the way forward for a small country: since it is not possible for a fencing federation to increase the population from which to draw talent from, the remaining possibility is to build a fencing infrastructure akin to that of Hungary. How to do that, and what to focus on with limited resources, could be the topic of many blog posts.
I assume that if one would look at other countries that have accomplished at lot in any given sport without the benefit of a large population, and compare several such countries and their successful national sports federations (Badminton in Denmark, Winter sports in Norway, Modern Pentathlon in Hungary, Curling in Sweden, etc.) to see if there are any discernible common themes.