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What is the secret to Switzerland’s Olympic success?

What is the secret to Switzerland's Olympic success?
Switzerland has already doubled its medal tally from the 2016 games. Photo: Tiziana FABI / AFP
Switzerland has 12 medals - three of them gold - and counting, which is already one of the best results in history. For a diverse nation with a small population, why is Switzerland suddenly good at sports?

On Saturday, Belinda Bencic managed something that Swiss tennis superstars Roger Federer and Martina Hingis were unable to do in their long careers – win Olympic gold. 

But the 2020 Tokyo Olympics – taking place of course in 2021 due to the Covid pandemic – have not just been successful for Bencic. 

As at Monday, August 2nd, Switzerland has won three gold medals along with four silver and five bronze. 

With 12 total medals, this places Switzerland at 15th on the tally, just between Canada and Brazil. 

With more medal chances to come, it’s already become Switzerland’s most successful games since at least the 1952 games in Helsinki, when Switzerland won 14 medals. 

With six days to go, Switzerland has already eclipsed its target of seven medals and could also eclipse the Helsinki mark. 

In fact, it’s not without question that Switzerland could eclipse its mark of 20 medals at the 1948 London Olympics, although the best ever result of 25 at the Paris 1924 games seems out of reach. 

Why is Switzerland suddenly good at sports? 

Other than a few outliers – including the aforementioned Federer and Hingis – Switzerland’s sporting success has been relatively minimal historically. 

In addition to Olympic medals, Switzerland’s Euro 2020 campaign saw them beat favourites France to advance to the quarter finals, where they lost to Spain on penalties. 

‘We don’t like France, Germany or Italy’: How linguistic diversity unites Swiss football fans

One major reason is Switzerland’s women, which is perhaps pertinent that 2021 is the 50-year anniversary of women winning the vote. 

EXPLAINED: What happened after Swiss women got the right to vote in 1971?

Swiss women have won nine of the 12 medals at this years olympics, including all three gold. 

Two Swiss women have made it to the final of the women’s 100 metres, Ajla Del Ponte and Mujinga Kambundji, the pinnacle of athletics at the games. 

And while it might appear to be a coincidence – or one motivated by the anniversary of (almost) universal suffrage – in typical Swiss fashion there’s actually a lot of planning and organisation behind the seeming coincidence. 

“Overwhelming” success spurred on by women’s sport programs

Switzerland’s olympic success – and particularly that of the women – has come about by design. 

The Swiss lottery (Swisslos) supports sport and other cultural programs throughout the country.

In 2020, Swisslos transferred CHF429 million to sporting and cultural areas, of which CHF140 million went directly to sport, supporting 5,000 sporting organisations in the process. 

In successive decades, the Swiss national olympic sport organisation Swiss Olympic has been continually supported by state funds, but has also been guaranteed independence from government in operating decisions in order to ensure sporting development is the major focus. 

Swiss Olympic was given an extra CHF30 million in 2018 – an amount that has been given again each year since. 

Federal Councilor and Minister of Sport Viola Amherd has made women’s sport a central priority in Switzerland, with the country developing several ways of supporting women in sport. 

Amherd has called upon all major Swiss sporting associations to support women’s sport wherever possible, while threatening those that don’t with a cut in funding. 

This has been matched by a continued focus by the International Olympic Committee, who have added more female and mixed disciplines to its program this year. 

Several Swiss female Olympians are currently a part of the Swiss army, where they receive financial support and can work flexible hours to allow them time to train and compete. 

Shooter Nina Christen, who won gold and bronze at this Olympics, is a member of the military, as are medal-winning cyclists Jolanda Neff, Sina Frei and Linda Indergand. 

In total there are 410 athletes who are a part of the military in some form. 

The chief of the Olympic mission Ralph Stöckli said the “overwhelming” success of the Swiss olympians could be credited to the focus on women athletes. 

“It didn’t exist in this form in the past. The advancement of women is now paying off.”


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