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:
- United States
|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|
Scoring Top 8 in World Rankings
Long course. Individual events. Olympic events only