RIO DE JANEIRO – Some countries are great at the Olympics, some … not so much. Bangladesh is the eighth-most populated country on earth, home to more than 171 million people, but its Games record makes for sorry reading.
Bangladesh not only has never won a medal but until golfer Siddikur Rahman clinched his spot in Rio by finishing 55th out of 60 in final qualifying, no athlete had reached the Olympics on merit.
The disappointing tale means Bangladesh boasts a worse Games record thanBahrain, Barbados, Bermuda, Botswana, Burundi and plenty of other nations with different first letters – all of the aforementioned have won one, and only one, medal in their history.
Other than Bangladesh, war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo and Myanmar, until recently cut off from the wider world by its dictatorial government, are the other countries in the top 40 of the population rankings never to have won an Olympic medal, summer or winter.
In 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.
Part of the reason behind Bangladesh’s struggles is much of the nation’s sporting interest is focused solely upon cricket, which is not an Olympic sport.
Rio 2016: Five of Thursday's biggest events to watch at the Olympics
International cricket matches in Bangladesh attract huge crowds and leading players are among the biggest celebrities in the country.
“It’s crazy over there,” says Shameen Tarafder, an expat Bangladeshi table tennis player now living in Australia. “Since 1997 when Bangladesh first qualified for the cricket World Cup everyone wants a piece of it. The cricket players are sporting rock stars, the rest nowhere. Kids want to be cricketers, not athletes or football players. It’s a constant problem for other sports hoping to recruit talent.”
Among the “wildcard” athletes to represent Bangladesh in London four years ago was gymnast Syque Caesar – an American from the University of Michigan who qualified through his parentage. Caesar, now the men’s assistant coach at Stanford, was selected after his college coach suggested seeking dual nationality.
“My dad was a professional soccer player in Bangladesh so a lot of his teammates and colleagues and friends actually hold pretty high positions with the sports federation there,” Ceasar told USA TODAY Sports. “So he contacted them to see what the options were.”
Caesar, whose parents and two siblings were born in Bangladesh, was awarded citizenship, then invited to an international meet in Dhaka where he won several medals. On the back of that performance he was selected for the Games but suffered a bicep tear in the January that threatened his involvement and forced him out of NCAA events.
“I was actually pretty hush-hush about it. I didn’t tell the federation or anything. I kept it under wraps. So if I had given them even one little incident of failure or something going wrong, I’m putting my eligibility to go at risk. I kept it very, very quiet and if they read something about it I would just say it’s a small injury.”
NBC's Michele Tafoya hearing darnedest things in Rio
More injury misfortune struck just two weeks before the competition. Ceasar tore his other bicep, but he was not prepared to let his Olympic dream fade. He competed in four events – with a best of 27th on the parallel bars.
“Bangladesh had never won a medal but at the same time they were realistic,” Ceasar added. “I would’ve loved to win a medal obviously, but that wasn’t what was going through my head. I was just thinking of nailing my routines and at the end of it telling people, ‘Oh yeah, I also did it with one bicep.’”
Even with the spate of withdrawals from the Olympic men’s golf tournament, purportedly on the grounds of Zika concerns, Rahman doesn’t stand much of a chance of reaching the podium.
However, the 31-year-old got to carry the national flag at the Opening Ceremony and is proud to be part of history. When asked what made him most proud of the achievement of reaching Rio, he had an immediate answer.
“That I qualified,” he said.