In watching the 2019 World Swimming Championships, I was struck by the apparent wide range of countries that were making finals and even medaling. And, of course, I was extremely surprised at the complete absence of US swimmers in either of the 200 FR finals. Some of this was no doubt due to the sickness going through the championships, but that just fed my feeling that international parity must be soaring.
And this, of course, lead me into what turned out to be a massive statistical analysis. The bottom line: a little less international parity, and the US is approaching a low point in their performances at the World Championships.
This analysis covers the last 9 World Championship, from 2003 to 2019. Each Championships included 17 individual events for each gender. I only considered individual events as this gives a better indication of each country’s swimming performance. The top swimming countries in the world have so much depth that they can be swimming well off their best, and still qualify a relay team into the finals.
I first looked at the # of men’s, women’s and total finalists for each of the 9 World Championships from 2003 to 2019. I broke it down into as follows: USA; then combined the next 9 countries in terms of # of finalists (‘2 to 10’), and combined the rest of the world (‘The Rest). (NOTE: the maximum possible number of finalists is 34 for each gender (17 events x maximum 2 entries).
In general, if the # of finalists for the rest of the world increases, then we’re seeing more international parity.
Here are the results:
First of all, notice that the USA Men and Women are very close to their lowest # of finalists over the last 16 years. In fact, both the US Men and US Women are only 1 finalist away from tying their lowest # of finalists over this period.
Next, notice that # of finalists for The Rest are also at low points. The Men are only 2 away from the lowest point from 2003, and the Women tied the lowest point from 2009.
So which group did well? Those curves show that the countries ranked 2 to 10 in # of finalists have been trending upwards for quite a few championships. In fact, 2 to 10 reached the highest levels in all three categories (Men, Women, Combined) for the whole 16-year range of the analysis.
This tells us that international parity is overall down, but the countries ranked 2 to 10 are definitely starting to catch up to the US. (See end of Post for a listing of the countries ranked 2 to 10 for 2019)
Another interesting thing to note is the effect of the tech suits in the 2009 World Championship. Countries not in the top 10 hit their highest levels of # of finalists in 2009 compared to the 2003-2019 range of this study. It’s easy to speculate that the impact of the tech suits made it easier for less successful swimming countries to compete with the rest. However, we may never truly know.
Here’s a graph focusing on just the # of finalists for The Rest countries, concentrating on Men vs Women.
The interesting thing about this graph is that it shows that, other than 2003 and 2013, the Men had significantly more finalists than the Women, indicating that Men generally have more international parity than women.
# of Countries with Finalists
As I usually do, I like to find another way of analyzing data to see if the conclusions hold. In this case, I looked at how many countries had finalists, even if they only had one. This is another way of assessing parity. The more countries in finals, the more even the playing field is becoming.
Here I showed the numbers for Men, Women and Combined.
Notice that for men, women and combined the # of countries with finalists dropped from in 2019 from previous years, although the 2019 numbers are fairly close to historical averages. We can also see that the women have less international parity than the men.
One of the reasons I like to analyze finalists is that they provide more than twice the data points of analyzing medalists. That gives us more confidence in the results. But it’s still interesting to carry out a podium analysis.
These graphs pretty much echo the results of the analysis of finalists. The US won fewer medals than 2017 in all 3 categories, and the men hit their lowest # of medalists in this study. The US women here were a bit of an anomaly in that they had a decent # of medals, even taking into account Katie Ledecky’s illness.
Also echoing the analysis of finalists, Countries ranked 2 to 10 improved quite dramatically for the Men and Combined curves, hitting clear all-time highs.
Lastly, the # of medals for The Rest are generally at low levels in 2019.
Here’s the graph showing the # of countries with medalists.
This graph echoes our general observation of less international parity. The # of countries with medals dropped for both women and combined, although it rose from an all-time low in 2017 for men.
With so few data points, an analysis of gold medals is done mainly out of curiosity. In fact, there are so few gold medals (17 for each gender) that there’s no point in even doing the analysis showing results for USA, 2 to 10 and The Rest.
Here’s the graph showing # of Countries with Gold Medals.
The things that strike me the most about this graph are the peaks in 2009 (tech suits), and the gradual decline in # of countries with Gold Medals since 2009. Only the men show an uptick for 2019.
This analysis indicates the following:
- Contrary to my gut feeling, international parity in 2019 is lower than 2017, with the US and countries ranked 11 and up in # of finalists doing worse, but with countries ranked 2 to 10 in # of finalists doing much better.
- Women have less international parity than men in general, and this includes 2019
- 2009 marked the high point in international parity, with a gradual decline since then
For those who are interested, here are the rankings for 2019 for Top 10 countries
# of finalists – Men
AUS, CHN, GBR 10
ITA, JPN 9
BRA, HUN 8
# of finalists – Women
ITA, RUS 9
CHN, GBR 8
JPN, SWE 6
# of finalists – Combined Men and Women
CHN, GBR, HUN, ITA 18
3 thoughts on “Analysis of 2019 World Swimming Championships: Less International Parity and Less USA”
Are you inclined to speculate as to what any of this indicates? My first impression is that we’re seeing the results of more and more American kids sitting around playing video games. . . although I’ve stayed pretty busy teaching swim lessons for the past few years and the swim team program where I guard was bigger this summer than I ever remember. I’m not inclined to believe that other countries have found some magical technique or training method which has helped them gain ground on American swimmers. But, I suppose it’s worth asking.
Hi Jerry. Great question. It’s hard to speculate when I only see the final results. But here are some ideas. First of all, virtually every top swimming country is sufficiently affluent that kids sit around playing video games. So I don’t see that as a differentiator.
I don’t see the US as faltering as much as I see the top swimming countries starting to catch up.
It’s possible that the availability of professional money is enough of an incentive that the top swimming countries are seeing their swimmers compete for longer. They no longer have that increasingly important need for a regular job and money. And that pretty much means they’ll keep getting faster.
We are also seeing increased success from countries with questionable doping history. There is no way for us to know for sure, but swimmers from these countries are doing quite well. It also doesn’t help that micro-dosing is so fiendishly hard to detect. When you combine available money, and hard-to-detect doping you create a situation that could be problematic for any country.
Lastly, as swimming populations in strong swimming countries increase, we see more informal centres of excellence that helps everyone get faster.
But like I said, it’s hard for me to say on the basis of these results.
That sounds pretty insightful to me. I could be better at a few things if I didn’t have to go to work every day!