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What is the secret to Switzerland’s Olympic success?

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?

What is the secret to Switzerland's Olympic success?
Switzerland has already doubled its medal tally from the 2016 games. Photo: Tiziana FABI / AFP

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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SPORT

IN PICTURES: Runners take on Swiss glacier race despite melt

Hundreds of runners braved a lung-busting ascent into the Alps in Switzerland's Glacier 3000 Run on Saturday, albeit on a shortened course due to summer heatwaves melting the ice.

IN PICTURES: Runners take on Swiss glacier race despite melt

The event’s 14th edition was back without limitations after being cancelled in 2020 due to Covid-19 and run in 2021 with restrictions imposed due to the pandemic.

The race is normally run over 26.2 kilometres but was contested on a slightly modified 25.2km course this year due to the glacier melting, with the last pass over its surface shortened.

Runners make their way under a ski lift  on the glacier run in Switzerland

Runners make their way under a ski lift during the last kilometres of the Glacier 3000 run. (Photo by Fabrice Coffrini / AFP)

“The accelerated melting of the top layer of the glacier has created a camber and a soft layer which the runner sinks into,” said race director Oliver Hermann.

“Rather than intervening to flatten the track, we preferred to deviate the course.”

Runners on last stretch of Switzerland's glacier run

On the final stretch of this year’s shortened course. (Photo by Fabrice Coffrini / AFP)

The finish line is 1,886 metres higher than the start, at nearly 3,000 metres up in the mountains by the Scex Rouge peak.

READ ALSO: Heatwaves close off classic Swiss and Italian Alpine hiking routes

The route begins in the jet-set ski resort town of Gstaad, at 1,050 metres above sea level.

It passes through forests, green mountain pastures before heading into rocky lunar-like landscapes and taking in the Tsanfleuron Glacier.

The course follows the Saane river upstream for 15 km before climbing up 1,800 metres over the remaining 10 km to the finish line — at an altitude of 2,936 metres.

A couple hold their hands while walking on the melting Tsanfleuron Glacier above Les Diablerets

A couple hold hands while walking on the melting Tsanfleuron Glacier above Les Diablerets, where the Glacier 3000 Run took place on August 6th. (Photo by Fabrice Coffrini / AFP)

Some 311 men and 98 women completed the individual course, while 50 two-person teams also took part.

READ ALSO: Why Switzerland’s glaciers are melting faster than usual this summer

The first man to finish was Kenyan competitor Geoffrey Ndungu in two hours and 17 minutes. He had finished in second place last year.

He was followed by compatriot Abraham Ebenyo Ekwam in 2:21 and then Switzerland’s Jonathan Schmid in 2:23.

Victoria Kreuzer was the first woman to finish, in 2:46, ahead of Nicole Schindler and Pascale Rebsamen — a Swiss clean sweep.

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