Sunday, July 21, 2024

Who will win Mexico’s 74th Olympic medal?

If you were asked to predict how many medals Mexico will bring back from the upcoming Paris Olympics, then the safe bet would be four. In the last five Olympics, the team has won four medals for Mexico, from 2004 in Athens, 2008 in Beijing and 2020 in Tokyo. 

The only Games at which Mexico surpassed this total by a wide margin were at London, where everything seemed to go right, including a dramatic win by the men’s soccer team. That year, the team won eight medals, a performance bettered only by the 1968 team, which came on home soil.

Mexico Women's Olympic diving team
Mexico’s divers seem a safe bet to bring home Olympic glory. (Claudio Reyes/Panam Sports)

You could also safely predict that Mexico’s female athletes will outperform the men: of the last five Olympics, women have won 64% of Mexico’s Olympic medals. Diving and taekwondo are also safe bets for medals in individual sports. In the same twenty-year period, they’ve been the most successful, with six medals each — although half of the taekwondo medals were won by the great María Espinoza, now retired.

A strong start in aquatic sports

Let’s start in the water, where the diving team looks particularly talented this year. Qualification for Paris has been based on results from the last two World Championships, and Mexico is sending a team of ten divers to Paris. The large squad combines experience with young divers who are just reaching their peak. 

Leading the way is Osmar Olvera Ibarra. He was the youngest in the team at the Tokyo 2020 games and recently won gold on the 1-meter springboard at the Doha World Championships. In Paris, he will be jumping from the 3-meter board. Here too Ibarra has an impressive record, with bronze and silver medals from the last two World Championships and a gold from the Pan American Games.

High board diver Randal Willars has come through the youth ranks with a steady determination and is now the Mexican number one at this event. He is small and light in a sport where divers tend to be small and muscular. He might have finished fourth in the recent World Championships but will go to Paris full of confidence having won a bronze medal in the recent Diving World Cup Super Final in Xi’an, China.

Randal Willars, Mexico Olympic team diver
Mexico’s Randal Willars (center) is a strong contender for a medal. He recently took the gold at the Pan American games alongside compatriot Kenny Zamudio (right). (Alejando Pagni/Pan American Games)

In the men’s high board event, Mexico has a formidable pair in Willars and Kevin Berlín, himself a top ten ranked diver. The women’s synchronized 10-meter team could also be in the hunt for medals. The veteran Alejandra Orozco who made history as  the youngest athlete to represent Mexico way back in 2012 — will once again be diving with Gabriela Agúndez; with whom she won a bronze medal at the Tokyo games.

It all looks promising and if Mexico gets a medal early — their first opportunity comes on the second day of competition with the men’s synchronized high board event — then the whole team will be inspired. It will be a disappointment if Mexico brings anything less than two medals home from the diving pool.

Tentative hopes for Mexico’s taekwondo squad

Mexican Taekwondo is in a rebuilding stage after the disappointment of the Tokyo games, where the team failed to win an Olympic medal for the first time since the sport was introduced in 2000. The 2022 World Championship in Guadalajara appeared to have sparked a revival, bringing three titles and six medals. The first opportunity to ensure an Olympic place came at the end of the 2023 season, with finishing in the top five of the world rankings guaranteeing a place in Paris. 

While this was technically for the country rather than the individual fighter, only Carlos Sansores and Daniela Souza achieved early qualification, leaving the rest of the team needing to finish in the first two at the Pan American Qualifying Tournament. Even World Champion Leslie Soltero failed to qualify via this regional tournament, leaving Mexico with just two contestants in Paris. 

Mexican Olympic athlete María Espinoza at 2016 Summer Games
Once a powerhouse of the sport, Mexican Taekwondo had a poor games in 2021. (World Taekwondo)

At least this small team has real quality. Sansores’ boyish looks and quiet voice belie his size: he stands a heavily built 1.90 and is going into the games in the best form of his life. He has won medals at the last three major games he has contested and is currently ranked second in the world.

Daniela Souza has been in the sport for a long time, winning a bronze medal in the World Junior Championships way back in 2016. She was one of the three Mexican champions at the 2022 World Championships and is in good shape, recently winning the US Open. 

Souza fights in the women’s -49kg section and is a whiplash, dramatic fighter who attacks aggressively and has the nimbleness to avoid counterblows. She is also quite capable of landing big, 3-point scoring blows. However, she faces an outstanding fighter in world number one Panipak Wongpattanakit, competing for Thailand, while Quing Cha Guo looks capable of becoming the next great Chinese fighter at this weight. 

Two medals, and possibly a gold, are certainly possible for Mexico, but Taekwondo is an unpredictable sport. 

Where else could Mexico pick up a medal?

There are a few sports  where Mexico is probably not going to win medals. Certainly not in soccer, where El Tri Feminil, despite an increasingly popular domestic league, have made little progress on the international front and have not qualified for the games. The men’s team, gold medalists in 2012 and bronze medalists in 2020, also failed to reach Paris. 

There are no real hopes in the swimming pool, where Mexico’s last medal was in 1968, or on the track, where success is going to be defined by reaching a final. 

So, where should we look for further medals? Start with the women’s archery team, where both Alejandra Valencia and Ana Vázquez are outstanding competitors, with Valencia ranked third in the world at the time of writing. The real medal hope comes in the team event, where Mexico has regularly reached the knock-out stages of the competition only to fall short of a medal. 

Much will depend on the form of the third archer, which looks to be 17-year-old Angela Ruiz. Despite her youth, Angela ranks 22nd in the world, and if she can deal with the pressure of her first Olympics, then this is a strong team and a medal looks a real possibility. Gold, however, seems unlikely: South Korea is seeking their 10th consecutive win since archery came to the Olympics back in 1988.

Despite all the country’s professional success at boxing, the Mexican Olympic team has underachieved. This is still a tough working-class sport, with pressure to turn professional and bring in a little money. The last 40 years have only produced four Olympic medals, and we would have to go back to 1968 for a gold. 

The team in Paris will be small, with two men and two women. It will be worth keeping an eye on Marco Verde. The Mazatlán native comes from a boxing family, his father having represented Mexico at the 1992 games. 

Verde fights at welterweight, a little heavier than most of the successful Mexican Olympic boxers, and will go to Paris as the Pan-American champion. Paris will be much tougher, but nobody — including Verde himself — is quite sure just how good he is and a surprise medal might be in the cards.

The women’s gymnastics team has done well to reach Paris and although there’s little hope of a team or overall medal, there is a good chance that  Alexa Moreno will bring something home in the vault. She has survived internet bullying, acquired a degree and come out of retirement for her third Olympics. 

Alexa Moreno with a flag
Mexico’s Alexa Moreno carries the hopes of the gymnastics team. (Alexa Moreno/X)

There are also a couple of young men from a Mexican-American heritage who have opted to represent Mexico. Roman Bravo-Young in wrestling and Alan Cleland in surfing could both spring a surprise. 

The surfing takes place 15,000 kilometers away in Tahiti, and while Cleland is not a favorite for a medal, he is noted for being at his best when the waves are at their most challenging. Tahiti is a venue that should suit a young man who learned his skill in the notoriously rough waters of Colima: big waves might just bring a big surprise.

When to cheer the Mexican team:

July

26 Opening Ceremony

29 Diving – Men’s 10-meter synchronized platform final

31 Surfing – Men’s final


August 

3 Gymnastics – Women’s Vault final

7 Taekwondo – Women’s 49kg final

8 Diving – Men’s Diving 3-meter final

10 Taekwondo – Mens +80kg final

11 Closing Ceremony

Bob Pateman is a Mexico-based historian, librarian and a life term hasher. He is editor of On On Magazine, the international history magazine of hashing. 

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