Fire spread today on Twitter that breaststroker Rebecca Soni’s silver in the women’s 100 breaststroke was the 500th for American swimmers of all-time. It seemed to stem from this Tweet by Alan Abrahamson.
However, there are two issues with this figure. The first is exactly which swim crossed the threshold. According to NBCOlympics.com (see tables here), the Americans came into this year’s Games with 489 medals. Rebecca Soni’s silver was the 12th medal the Americans won at this meet.
That puts the magic number 500 somewhere in limbo between Nick Thoman and Matt Grevers, the silver and gold medalists respectively in the men’s 100 back.
The medal count on NBCOlympics.com has been confirmed by Nate Tschohl of SwimNerd.com to be accurate, after hand-counting every American medal (broken down by event here).
If you look at it from the perspective of who earned the 11th medal, that would be Thoman, who touched after Grevers. If the question is who was awarded the 500th medal, that would be Grevers, as the gold medal is given on the podium after the silver.
For now, we’ll call it a split honor. However, even that might not be the answer.
That is because of an investigation conducted in 2009 by a group of Olympic historians, and touted by the Australian Olympic Committee, revealed that 4 of the American medals were actually won by an Australian.
The change comes in reference to the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis: the only Olympics ever swum in yards. There, Francis Gailey took four medals: three silvers and a bronze. Gailey, however, is listed in the official IOC records as an American, when in reality he was an Australian.
We have to remember that 1904 was a different era in the Olympics, and sports in general. Rules were more obscure, and record-keeping was much shakier. Olympic teams were often recognized by the club they represent rather than the country. For example, that same year, the New York Athletic Club took gold in men’s water polo, followed by the Chicago Athletic Association and Missouri Athletic Club.
This was especially visible at the 1904 Olympics, where 580 of the 650 athletes in the whole of the Games were born in the United States.
Francis Gailey, however, was not one of them. According to the investigation, Gailey was born in, and lived in, Australia, and only immigrated to the United States in 1906. Further, he did not become a naturalized US citizen until 1972, generations after his four-medal performance.
The error came in that Gailey, though Australian, was representing the San Francisco Athletic Club – an that era, an easy indication that he was American.
Despite the research, which uncovered 23 medal errors, the IOC hasn’t recognized the changes in their official record, so for now Gailey’s medals remain on the Americans’ record.
Officially, the Americans have 501 Olympic medals after day 3 in London; but in the minds of swimming historians, it’s a 501 with an asterisk.