Australia or Japan: Which Was Better in 2018?

If you want to create a list of the best swimming nations last year, the top spot is easy: the United States. 7 number one times in Olympic long course individual events, 62 individual top 10 times (not counting women’s 1500, or men’s 800. I’ll count them as Olympic events once they’ve been swum in the Olympics). No other country is close.

The real debate starts at the second spot. Australia or Japan? It’s pretty close. It’s probably Australia, but there are arguments for Japan.

Australia had 32 individual top 10 times in Olympic events last year, slightly better than Japan’s 30. However, Japan had 3 individual #1 times (Rikako Ikee, 100 fly; Yui Ohashi both IM’s) better than Australia’s 1 (Cate Campbell, 100 free). Japan also had 11 top 3 individual times, one better than Australia’s 10. This gave Japan a clear, if slight, lead in the hypothetical world rankings medal table.

If we score out the top 8 in the individual world rankings (9-7-6-5-4-3-2-1), Japan edge out the Aussies with 122.5 points to Australia’s 117 (the U.S. is first with 241.5. Russia is 4th with 77.5).

In a more direct head to head comparison, Japan come out ahead by more. I took the top 8 Japanese and Australian swimmers last year in each Olympic individual event and entered them into a hypothetical meet, again scoring to 8 places. This head to head meet had Japan ahead 710-474.

This means that Japan are deeper in addition to their slightly superior top end swimmers. Case closed, right? Looking only at world rankings in individual events, it appears Japan has a clear advantage; however, there are plenty of other metrics for success and they all point Australia’s way.

The biggest thing ignored by my previous analysis is relays. In the traditional Olympic relays Australia have 3 number 1 world rankings to Japan’s 0. Australia have 5 top 3 relay times to Japan’s 2. Scoring the world rankings in the relay events to 8 places gives Australia 45 points to Japan’s 30. Japan’s strength is in the strokes and IM. Australia is great at sprint free and the structure of swimming makes sprint freestylers more valuable than other swimmers. It’s possible to win 5 world championship medals by only swimming the 100 free. It’s only possible to win 1 by swimming the 400 IM.

Australia also won more stuff last year which is kind of the point of the sport. The two countries competed head to head at the Pan Pac championships. Australia got the better of Japan winning 29 total medals, 8 of which were gold, to Japan’s 23 medals, 6 gold. (The U.S. was first with 45 medals, 20 gold).

Neither country sent a full squad to Short Course Worlds but Australia again won more medals with 12 to Japan’s 8 (each won 2 golds). Both countries half heartedly participated in the World Cup series, and Australia scored more World Cup points (636 vs 459 for Japan. Russia had the most with 1353) despite a World Cup stop in Tokyo and no stop in Australia.

Both countries also competed in major competitions without the other present. Japan won the medal table at the Asian Games with 52 medals, 19 gold, an advantage of 2 over China (50 medals, 19 gold). Australia dominated the Commonwealth games with 73 medals, 28 gold. The comparison of raw medal count is pretty meaningless as there were different numbers of events at both meets, but Australia won a higher percentage of available medals (49% vs Japan’s 42%) against arguably superior competition.

The argument comes down to this question: what do we value? If we weight every event equally and look both at depth and top end ability, Japan appears to be the winner. If we look at everything else, Australia was better in 2018. Australia are better in the events the rules say matter more and therefore dominate the relays. Most importantly, and in my opinion decisively, Australia had more success in actual competitions. Winning races matters and the Australians did more of that this year than the Japanese. Therefore, in my opinion, the top 4 swimming nations of 2018 were:

  1. United States
  2. Australia
  3. Japan
  4. Russia

Comparison Data

Top 10 Times #1 Times Individual #2 Times Individual #3 Times Individual World Rankings Individual “Medals” #1 Times Relay World Rankings Relay “Medals” Points Top 8 Scoring-Individual Points Top 8 Scoring-Relay
Australia 32 1 4 5 10 3 5 117 45
Japan 30 3 4 4 11 0 2 123.5 30

Scoring Top 8 in World Rankings

Long course. Individual events. Olympic events only

2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018
United States 271.5 213 171 191.5 272 234 241.5
Japan 90 59.5 123.5 81 73.5 84 122.5
Australia 91.5 114.5 159.5 149.5 147 75.5 115
Russia 32 48 19.66 31.5 35 69 77.5
Great Britain 55.5 31.5 87.5 78 63 65 70.5
China 103.5 115 74 56.5 62 111.5 54
Italy 13 20 24 18 30.5 38 51
Canada 16 18 26 31.5 33.5 34 42.5
Hungary 21 56.5 34 61 66 72 26
Sweden 19.5 23 31 29 22 40 23
Brazil 24 34 23.33 19 8.5 7.99 22
Germany 15 18 8 27 13 23 17
South Africa 25 25 19.5 23 21 9 17
France 52 45 17 21.5 18 10 15
Ukraine 6 0 5 7 12
Lithuania 9 9 13 15 5.5 7 11
Denmark 17.5 31 32 24.5 21 10 10.5
Netherlands 30 17 27 32.5 9.5 10.5 7
Korea 18.5 15 9 12 6
Spain 15 34 25 8 20 17 5
Greece 1 4.5
Singapore 1 5 9 5 4
Poland 6 19 7 14 3 7.5 3
Algeria 2.5
Switzerland 2 2
Austria 5 5
Finland 1 2
Norway 2
Hong Kong 1
Kazakhstan 6 3 6
Belgium 1 5
Belarus 10.5 8.5 4
New Zealand 5 7.5 9 11
Turkey 9
Jamaica 2 5
Bahamas 3 4
Argentina 4
Egypt 4
Czech Republic 2
Israel 2
Serbia 3 2 0
Iceland 0
Faroes Islands 4
Slovenia 5
TRI 1 3
Tunisia 6
Zimbabwe 3
Cuba 1

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Verram

Very interesting analysis … Rikako Ikee is on the rise .. let’s see if Emma McKeon can keep up with her for next season as they are pretty much gunning for the same events at Olympic level.

Japan is much stronger in events that Australia is traditionally weak in like iM and fly and breast form strokes

MIKE IN DALLAS

The article is so well done, looking at different metrics.
Perhaps it comes down to what one fan values in swimming vs. what another fan values.
To me, the Japanese are a nose ahead, in part because i see them as a swimming powerhouse in ascendancy;
sadly, when I look at the long and troubled Aussies, I see a powerhouse that is in a very slow decline vs. TEAM USA, and sadly, the world. I wish it was not the case, but, alas, I think it’s so. So many greats: Shane Gould, Dawn Fraser, Ian Thorpe, Kieren Perkins — and I just don’t see that continuity of greatness.

samuel huntington

A little pessimistic for the future and also ignoring the greatness on the team right now like the Campbell sisters and Chalmers. Australia will never be on par with the US but they can still be great.

Australia rocks!

I agree…you also have to consider simple fact that Australia has such a small population compared with the other top 4 countries….the US has a huge population…..so does Japan….so does Russia…..i personally think that Australia does exceptionally well for their population size….and also when the Aussie stars do fire, it takes a very talented and special swimmer to beat them…

Australia rocks

I agree…you also have to consider simple fact that Australia has such a small population compared with the other top 4 countries….the US has a huge population…..so does Japan….so does Russia…..i personally think that Australia does exceptionally well for their population size….and also when the Aussie stars do fire, it takes a very talented and special swimmer to beat them…

Australia rocks

I agree. You also have to consider simple fact that Australia has such a small population compared with the other top 4 countries – the US has a huge population – so does Japan – so does Russia. I personally think that Australia does exceptionally well for their population size. Also when the Aussie stars do fire, it takes a very talented and special swimmer to beat them…

commonwombat

I have to agree with Mike. AUS WILL continue to produce some outstanding (and in some cases world-beating) swimmers but the ever increasing costs of supporting a competitive swimmer is such that, rather than being a sport “of the people”, it now draws primarily from the wealthy demographic and thus the available talent pool has contracted. Post Olympics generally see a “turnover” and Tokyo looks likely to see major shifts in AUS strengths. On the women’s side; its likely that both Campbells will call it quits, likewise Seebohm and at 26, McKeon has to be seen as another potential retirement candidate. This leaves the 4×100 with only Jack remaining but currently no others remotely threatening sub54. However the ages for… Read more »

Jorge

Spain 5 in 2018? Who? Only Mireia Belmonte (400IM) and Jessica Vall (200BR) as far as I know…

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