Disclaimer: SwimSwam and its authors do not directly endorse betting on swimming. This is intended to strictly be an informative and entertainment article. Online and sports gambling carry financial risk. Players should be aware of this risk, and govern themselves accordingly.
An Olympic year brings the sport of swimming into a new spotlight – in more ways than one. In addition to the uncharacteristic TV coverage you’ll see next week (not to mention Caeleb Dressel yukking it up with Minions on commercial breaks of the nightly news), swimming also gets an exciting new data point to gauge public opinion: sports betting odds.
“Who cares?” you might be thinking. You might not be the gambling type; numbers like -350 and +900 might not mean any more to you than 17.6 meant to non-swimming fans back in 2018. (Admittedly the author of this post would be right there with you). But sports betting odds serve another, more informative, purpose: gauging public opinion on various swimmers and races.
A brief explanation has to be noted: sports betting odds-makers aren’t necessarily trying to ‘get it right.’ They’re essentially trying to find the exact middle of the public opinion among bettors, drawing roughly even bets on both sides of any equation to minimize risk and maximize the money the house wins.
All that is to say that drawing out some of the more surprising lines can help us gauge how the betting public feels about various Olympic races – with some expectations that might surprise you.
A few notes up top:
- When reading the lines, a negative number signifies a favorite to win an event – the lower the number, the heavier of a favorite they are. Positive numbers imply lower odds of winning – the higher the number, the more money one would make by placing a winning bet on that swimmer.
- In our earlier post, SwimSwam’s Morgan Priestley ran through the math of determining implied winning probabilities based on this American odds system. You can find that post linked here; in this post, we’ll just relay the numbers without diving into the hard math on how they’re related.
- Lines will change regularly – it’s part of the process of ‘finding the middle.’ If bettors are overwhelmingly picking one side of a bookmaker’s odds, the line will shift one way or another to help balance the bets. The odds in this story are accurate as of publication, but may have shifted by the time you read this post (or return to it ten days later to ridicule your least favorite commenter or SwimSwam author).
- Different sportsbooks can carry different odds. We’re pulling odds from DraftKings (based in the U.S.) and Pinnacle (based in Curaçao). You’ll notice a distinct difference – the Draft Kings odds are quite a bit higher on American swimmers. In contrast, Pinnacle (which is restricted in both the U.S. and France) is definitely on the lower end for some of the American swimmers.
- The key takeaway here is that this post is not gambling advice. We’re looking at the odds as an exercise in gauging public opinion and starting conversation – at SwimSwam our expertise is in swimming, and we spend too much time with our brains submerged in chlorine (both figuratively and literally) to claim expert status in the realm of sports betting.
Anton Chupkov in the 200 Breast
For a two-time defending world champ and world record-holder, Russia’s Anton Chupkov really isn’t getting the respect he’s earned among bettors. Neither site is giving Chupkov more than a 40% chance of winning the event. On DraftKings (+200 odds; 33% implied win probability), Chupkov is actually trailing Zac Stubblety-Cook (+185; 35.1%), who has never won an international medal of any kind. Chupkov, in contrast, has won every major event of this Olympic cycle, including World Championships in 2017 and 2019 with a European Championships title in between in 2018.
Chupkov is drawing slightly better odds on Pinnacle (+165; 37.5%), and the line has already shifted from yesterday, when it was +192/34.2%.
Maggie MacNeil in the 100 Fly
Another 2019 World Champ who isn’t even drawing the top odds in her event: Maggie MacNeil of Canada. MacNeil was one of the breakout stars of 2019, upsetting world record-holder Sarah Sjostrom with a 55.83 win in the 100 fly.
The 21-year-old MacNeil has been pretty quiet in meters since then, which is perhaps depressing her odds (+330; 23.3% Pinnacle) overall. But it’s not like she’s regressed or even stagnated since 2019 – MacNeil has just had more opportunities in short course yards, perhaps not as known by Pinnacle’s non-U.S. base. The Michigan Wolverine cut her 100-yard fly time from 49.5 to 49.2 in the pandemic-shortened 2019-2020 season, then down to a ridiculous 48.89 this past March.
Yet MacNeil is carrying just the third-best odds of any swimmer to win the 100 fly in Tokyo. Top odds are going to American Torri Huske (+122; 45.0%), followed by China’s Zhang Yufei (+199; 33.4%). As exciting as the 18-year-old Huske was at U.S. Trials, she went just two-tenths faster than MacNeil’s long course best from two years ago – and MacNeil remains almost a full second faster in short course yards, where both are very experienced.
Like Chupkov, MacNeil’s odds have risen since yesterday, though only from 21.9% chance of winning to 23.3% – still barely half the win probability being given to Huske.
Xu Jiayu in the 100 Back
The men’s 100 back feels fairly wide open, with at least four very strong candidates to take home gold. But even acknowledging the difficulty of the field, Xu Jiayu still joins Chupkov and MacNeil in the category of swimmers who are still being overlooked despite a proven track record of winning on the big stages.
China’s Xu, 25 years old, is the 2017 and 2019 World champ in the 100 back. He took Olympic silver in 2016 and won the 2018 Asian Games – that’s about as good an Olympic quad as any athlete could have in one event. In 2017, he hit the #2 swim of all-time, just .01 off of the world record. No one has been faster in the four years since.
Both sites are offering men’s 100 back odds – and both are putting Xu no higher than third. Russians Evgeny Rylov (+140; 41.7% DraftKings / +167; 37.5% Pinnacle) and Kliment Kolesnikov (+170; 37.0% DraftKings / +187; 34.8% Pinnacle) are the clear favorites on both outlets. American Ryan Murphy (+275; 26.7% DraftKings / +310; 24.4% Pinnacle) is leading Xu on DraftKings, leaving the two-time defending world champ just fourth.
Xu (+400; 20.0% DraftKings / +272; 26.9% Pinnacle) is slightly favored over Murphy on Pinnacle. Either way, in a race that should be this wide open, it’s a little surprising to see Rylov and Kolesnikov that far ahead of Xu and Murphy in betting odds. The really underrated underdog is Australia’s Mitch Larkin, getting only +900 odds (a 10% win probability) on DraftKings.
The Mixed Medley Relay
The mixed-gender 4×100 medley relay is a newcomer to the Olympic lineup, and a relative new event to world-level swimming in general, so it’s no surprise to see betting a little bit all-over-the-place.
The United States is actually favored here (-172; 63.2% Pinnacle), despite China (+255; 28.2%) breaking the world record only about nine months ago. For what it’s worth, we picked China in our official SwimSwam preview. China might be flying under the radar when it comes to betting because they didn’t contest this relay at 2019 Worlds.
2019 World Champs Australia might have the most interesting odds at +414, a 19.5% win probability. Depending on how concerned you are with time zones and jet lag, China and Australia should have a significant advantage over Team USA, swimming effectively in their home time zones compared to the Americans swimming about as far out of their home time zone as you can get.
Katie Ledecky in… everything
The U.S.-based DraftKings isn’t even offering betting lines on the women’s distance events, so maybe this one is more geographically-motivated. It’s not entirely surprising to see Ariarne Titmus (-293; 74.6% Pinnacle) leading Ledecky (+187; 34.8%) in 400 free odds. But a margin of 74.6% implied win probability for Titmus compared to just 34.8% for Ledecky (betting odds don’t perfectly add up to 100%) feels a little too dismissive of the 15-time world champion Ledecky, who won this 400 free at 2013 Worlds, 2014 Pan Pacs, 2015 Worlds, the 2016 Olympics, 2017 Worlds and 2018 Pan Pacs.
Even if you agree that Ledecky is vulnerable in the 400 (where Titmus did come within a half-second of Ledecky’s world record in June), there’s still an argument she’s being underrated in the 800 and 1500 frees. At -546 in the 800, Ledecky is being given an 84.5% chance of winning an event she hasn’t lost in nearly a decade. A 15-year-old Ledecky won the 800 at the 2012 Olympics. Since then, she’s won 2013 Worlds, 2014 Pan Pacs, 2015 Worlds, the 2016 Olympics, 2017 Worlds and 2018 Pan Pacs, topping it off by winning 2019 Worlds by a second and a half while battling a stomach virus.
Ledecky holds the top 23 swims in history in the 800 free. Her season-best, a casual 8:13.6 from the Pro Swim Series that is nearly ten seconds off her career-best, is still a full second faster than any of the other World Championships competitors have ever been in their lives. Ledecky has been equally dominant in the 1500 free, where she’s being given 86.4% odds of winning (a -638 line).
(Note: both of those lines appear to be in flux, as they’ve moved from -383; 79.3% in the 800 and -434; 81.3% in the 1500 as of yesterday.)
Compare those odds to the other heavy favorites, and there appears to be a lot more Ledecky skepticism out there than we anticipated:
Heaviest betting favorites, 2020 Tokyo Olympics Swimming
- Adam Peaty, 100 breast (-2646; 96.4% Pinnacle)
- Australia, W 4×100 free relay (-1995; 95.2% Pinnacle)
- Kristof Milak, 200 fly (-1600; 94.1% DraftKings)
- Caeleb Dressel, 100 fly (-1148; 92.0% Pinnacle)
- Caeleb Dressel, 50 free (-963; 90.6% Pinnacle)
- Katie Ledecky, 1500 free (-638; 86.4% Pinnacle)
- Katie Ledecky, 800 free (-546; 84.5% Pinnacle)
- Australia, W 4×200 free relay (-511; 83.6% Pinnacle)
- Lilly King, 100 breast (-377; 79.0% Pinnacle)
- Evgeny Rylov, 200 back (-344; 77.5% Pinnacle)
The Men’s 4×100 Free Relay
Heading into the Olympic year, Team USA would probably be favored by more in the men’s 4×100 free relay. Olympic Trials weren’t quite the explosion of 47s that some were predicting (though not us), but the American men are still carrying a 72.1% implied win probability on a line of -259.
That probably feels a little high for a team that won’t have nearly the depth many expected – the U.S. only brought five men for the 100 free, forcing most of their stars to swim prelims and finals. That’s a major contrast with Russia (+135; 42.6% Pinnacle), which has a whopping eight swimmers on their Olympic team under 48.4 this year. The U.S. has only five men on the Olympic roster for this event, including two ranked in the top 12 worldwide. Compare that to 4 men in the top 12 for Russia.
If Russia can swap out some alternates in prelims, have their bottom few legs swim-off to secure the fastest possible finals relay and leave fresh legs for their stars like Kliment Kolesnikov (#2 in the world this year), they should have much better odds than 42.6%.
Note: though Russia is currently being sanctioned for anti-doping rule violations, Russian athletes without specific doping violations are still able to compete and to form relays. Russian athletes and relays will compete under the banner of the Russian Olympic Committee, and the Russian flag will not be flown nor the anthem played in the Olympics as part of the sanctions.
The Men’s 4×200 Free Relay
The men’s 4×200 free relay is wide open with no clear favorite, at least based on Pinnacle betting odds. Here’s a look at the five teams with odds listed:
Implied win probability
The big surprise there is the United States carrying better odds than Russia. Most U.S. swim fans were relatively underwhelmed by the 200 free results at U.S. Olympic Trials, and this time around, there’s no real Hail-Mary option of throwing versatile superstars Michael Phelps (retired) or Ryan Lochte (not on the Olympic team) onto this relay. (Caeleb Dressel could join, but was only 1:46.6 at U.S. Trials).
Russia beat the U.S. by half a second at 2017 Worlds and by a tenth at 2019 Worlds. Like in the 4×100 free relay, Russia should have more depth to draw on, and unlike the sprint relay, Team USA doesn’t have a Dressel-level star to rely on. Russia’s top swimmer, Martin Malyutin, is a half-second faster this year than the American leader Kieran Smith.
The two teams at the top are interesting, as well. Hard math would have Great Britain (7:00.86 in our aggregate of season-bests) with an edge over Australia (7:01.95) – you can see our early breakdown of aggregate times here. The Brits have the top two swimmers in world ranks this year in Duncan Scott and Tom Dean, which you’d think would buy them a little more hype with the bettors. But they’re getting distinctly worse odds than Australia.
Australia in the Women’s Medley
The Australian women are heavy favorites in both free relays according to Pinnacle, but they’re also drawing surprisingly good odds in the medley relay. Where the Australian women have dominated the 4×100 free relay internationally for years, the U.S. women have been similarly dominant in the medley, winning the past two gold medals at both the Olympics (2012/2016) and World Championships (2017/2019).
The most recent of those wins, 2019, came in world record time, besting Australia by three full seconds. But betting odds are giving Team USA (-198) 66.4% chance of winning in Tokyo, compared to 39.4% for Australia (+154).
That’s a fairly generous line to Australia based on history, but does track with our aggregate time math, which found Australia tenths ahead in both season-best aggregates and aggregates of the best relay splits since 2018. In fact, based on that math, one could argue the line is actually underrating Australia in what is rapidly becoming a hard-to-predict Olympic final.