Over the years, I’ve done a couple of posts regarding International parity in the world of swimming. With the Tokyo Olympics over, I’ve analyzed the competition and compared it to Rio 2016 and a random selection of World Championships between 1973 and 2019.
So the big question here: Are just a few countries dominating swimming? Or is the world starting to catch up?
For comparison purposes, I also analyzed the results of 14 track events at Tokyo (same number of events as the Tokyo individual swimming events), including the 100 through 10,000, 2 hurdle races, steeplechase, marathon, 20 km walk, long jump, and decathlon/heptathlon. I should also point out that athletics allows countries up to 3 entries per event, while swimming only allows 2.
There are many ways to look at the numbers, so I started with the one that gives us the largest amount of data: individual event finalists. With 8 finalists per swimming event, and anywhere from 12 individual events (1973) to 17 individual events (recent World Championships) per gender, there’s lots of data to play with. For Tokyo we had 14 individual events for each gender, giving us 112 data points each. In order to provide a fair comparison with track, I only looked at the top 8 places in track events, as their finals can include far more than 8 athletes.
Above we see the countries with the most individual swimming finalists at Tokyo, with the US dominating both men and women’s events.
On the men’s side, there were 29 swimming countries with at least one finalist. However, men’s track had 42 countries with at least one top 8 finish. Similarly, on the women’s side swimming had 25 countries with at least one finalist, while track had 35.
Another way of looking at dominance is to see how many countries it took to make up half of all finalists. For men, it was 5.3 (swimming) and 6.8 (track), while for women it was 3.5 (swimming) and 5.4 (track).
The consistent theme from above is that, despite allowing 3 athletes per country per event, track has far more countries at the high end of the sport than swimming.
The next question is whether parity in swimming is getting better or worse.
This chart shows the number of countries represented in individual finals over the last 50 years. Here we can see that the Tokyo Olympics had at least as many countries making finals as at any point in the past. So in terms of making finals, it seems that the parity is roughly the same as its been, or perhaps even a little better.
With the US so dominant, I then looked at how they’re doing historically as well. In order to equalize the varying number of events during this analysis (from 12 to 17 events for each of men and women), I’m looking at the percentage of Americans that make finals.
In Tokyo, 86% of American women reach individual finals, which was only exceeded once in my random selection of World Championships, and that was at the 1973 World Championships almost 50 years ago. In terms of making finals, clearly the US women are becoming even more dominant.
On the men’s side, the US reached finals in Tokyo 68% of the time, which represents a somewhat normal finals rate for them. And while the US men weren’t as dominant as the women in making finals, they are still clearly a dominant force.
Next in our hierarchy of data, I looked at individual medal winners. Since we only have 3 medal winners (generally) for each of the 14 events, this gives us 42 data points for each of the men and women.
As with finalists, we see that the US dominates this category as well. Only 16 countries won men’s swimming medals, compared to 22 for men’s track. And only 11 countries won women’s medals, compared to 18 for track .
However, the real problem in Tokyo may the dominance of the top 2 swimming countries on the women’s side. Together, USA and Australia won 60% of the women’s swimming medals (25 of 42). To put that in perspective, in women’s track the top 2 countries (USA 10, Netherlands 6) won only 38% of the track medals (for the 14 events I selected).
How does this compare with previous years?
We can see that fewer countries won swimming medals in Tokyo than at any of the championships I looked at for the last 30 years.
And now we’ll just look at golds, which only gives us 14 data points to look at for Tokyo. Just to be clear, only 14 data points per gender means that we have less confidence in what the data is telling us.
Here we see the first big change in the story. While the US men dominated the swimming golds, it was the Australian women s who clearly dominated, despite having significantly fewer medals than the US women. And it’s here that we see the biggest issue with parity. With 6 gold medals, Australia was one gold away from winning half of all women’s swimming golds all on their own. In our 14 track events on both the men’s and women’s sides, the largest number of gold medals by any one country was only 2.
How does this measure up historically?
We see that the number of countries winning gold medals at Tokyo is lower than any championships I looked at since 2003. The trend certainly seems to be leaning towards more dominance by a few countries. In other words, less parity.
No matter how we look at the data, international swimming is still dominated by the US and Australia, supported by a small group of other countries who continue to significantly outperform the rest of the world. And the problem seems to be worse on the women’s side. When we compare these results to the same number of track events, we see that track has far more parity than swimming, and this is true even though track allows up to 3 athletes per country per event, while swimming is limited to 2.
While this dominance is clearly good for those top countries, it isn’t good for the sport of swimming. We need far more nations vying for top spots in order to make swimming more relevant to all countries.