Olympic Trivia Test: Stats To Know Before They Hit The Water In Paris

by SwimSwam 11

July 05th, 2024 Paris 2024, SwimmingStats

This article originally appeared in the 2024 Olympic Preview edition of SwimSwam Magazine, courtesy of author Daniel Takata. Subscribe to the SwimSwam Magazine here.

Every four years, as the Summer Olympic Games approach, the numbers, records, and rankings related to the leading international sporting events come to light.

Until the Paris Olympic Games, starting on July 26th, this kind of information will appear a lot in the news. Much will be said about Michael Phelps‘ incredible records — 28 medals, 22 of them gold, and 8 gold medals in a single edition. We will also be reminded of the amazing feats of swimmers such as Ian Thorpe, Janet Evans, Mark Spitz, Johnny Weissmuller, and Dawn Fraser, and the superlative numbers of the best swimmers of the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, such as Emma McKeon and Caeleb Dressel.

But there are other interesting statistics we can analyze, especially by digging deep into the numbers and history of Olympic swimming. And many of the ones we will present here you probably had no idea about.


For example, do you know which event was the toughest to qualify for the final? In other words, what was the smallest difference between the first and the eighth place in the stage before the final (prelims or semifinal)?

In absolute terms, the smallest differences are obviously expected to occur in the fastest event, the 50 freestyle. And that’s what happens. In 2004, only 0.20 seconds separated the fastest in the semifinal, South African Roland Schoeman, with 21.99, and eighth place, Croatian Duje Draganja, with 22.19. Interestingly, the two reached the podium in the final and finished with silver (Draganja) and bronze (Schoeman) behind American Gary Hall Jr.

But it is fairer to make this comparison between events by analyzing the average difference between athletes every 50 meters. And, in this comparison, no event surpasses the men’s 400 IM at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.

On that occasion, Australian Brendon Smith qualified with the fastest time of 4:09.27 in the prelims. The last classified was Britain’s Max Litchfield, with 4:10.20. A difference of only 0.97, or 0.12 every 50 meters. In a bizarre event, seven of the eight swimmers in the final worsened their qualifying times, except for the winner, American Chase Kalisz. The prelims were so tight that American Jay Litherland won the silver medal with 4:10.28, a time that would not have given him classification in the prelims.

Among women, the tighter event for classification was the 200 freestyle at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Australian Susie O’Neill had the best time in the semifinal with 1:59.37, and eighth place was China’s Luna Wang with 1:59.97. The difference of 0.60 seconds between them represents only 0.15 every 50 meters. But, unlike the 2021 men’s 400 IM, in this event there was substantial improvement for the final — all eight athletes improved their qualifying times, and O’Neill won the gold medal with 1:58.24.


We can do the same analysis to discover the tighter podiums in Olympic history. Again, in absolute terms, 50 freestyle events stand out. In 2016, only 0.04 seconds separated the winner, Denmark’s Pernille Blume with 24.07, from third place Aliaksandra Herasimenia from Belarus.

Making the average difference by 50 meters, the tighter podium is the men’s 800 freestyle at the 2021 Olympics. American Bobby Finke won with 7:41.87, 0.46 ahead of Ukrainian Mykhailo Romanchuk, bronze medalist, which represents a difference of just under 0.03 every 50 meters.

In women’s events, the highlight was the 400 freestyle at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Rebecca Adlington won with 4:03.22, 0.30 ahead of fellow Brit Joanne Jackson, who won the bronze medal — or just under 0.037 per 50 meters.


And what were the smallest margins recorded between the top two swimmers? Here, there is no need to do any more elaborate digging, as these are well-known cases that ended in a dead heat. And there were three in Olympic history, always with the presence of American swimmers.

In 1984, Americans Nancy Hogshead and Carrie Steinseifer set 55.92 in the women’s 100 freestyle and, for the first time, a dead heat was declared for first place and each was awarded a gold medal. In 2000, Gary Hall Jr. and Anthony Ervin, who were training partners, finished in a dead heat for first in the men’s 50 freestyle in 21.98. And, in 2016, American Simone Manuel and Canadian Penny Oleksiak shared the gold medal in the women’s 100 freestyle in 52.70.

In fact, there had already been a tie for first place. At the 1972 Olympics. Swede Gunnar Larsson and American Tim McKee tied with the time of 4:31.98 in the men’s 400 IM. But Larsson was declared the winner by two one-thousandths of a second, 4:31.981 to 4:31.983. Thousandth-second timing was used at the 1973 World Championships, but this would not be allowed again, as it was shown that this was less than the thickness of one coat of paint on the wall, and this could affect the result. All future international swimming races after 1973 would be decided only to the 1/100th of a second, and if swimmers were tied at that margin, they were declared tied.


If these are the smallest margins, what would be the largest?

In 1896, at the first Olympics in Athens, Hungarian Alfred Hajos won the men’s 1200 freestyle with a time of 18:22.2 and a difference of 2:41.2 for second place, being the biggest margin ever recorded in an Olympic swimming event. In terms of average difference per 50 meters, the largest ever observed also occurred in 1896, in the men’s 500-meter freestyle event, in which Austrian Paul Neumann won with an advantage of 1:45, or 10.5 seconds per 50 meters.

However, it is necessary to put things in perspective. As it was the first Olympics, the events had few competitors and, in addition, they were not held in a swimming pool but in the open water, the Bay of Zea. Therefore, it is difficult to compare those performances, and those of the first editions of the Olympic Games, with the events held today.

If we consider, say, half a century ago, the biggest margin per 50 meters was obtained by East German Petra Schneider in the women’s 400 IM at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. She won in 4:36.29, 10.54 seconds ahead of British silver medalist Sharron Davies, which represents 1.32 seconds per 50 meters.

In this century, the biggest margins were obtained in 100 breaststroke events. Australian Leisel Jones and Brit Adam Peaty won in 2008 and 2016, respectively, with an incredible 1.56 seconds of advantage, or 0.78 per 50 meters.


Some swimmers are notable for holding age records. It’s well known that Dara Torres is the oldest Olympic swimming medalist, at age 41, in 2008. And also, that Anthony Ervin is the oldest gold medalist at age 35 when he won the 50 freestyle in 2016.

But few people know that Dane Inge Sorensen is the youngest Olympic medalist in swimming. At age 12, she won the bronze medal in the 200 breaststroke in 1936. She is also the youngest athlete ever to win an Olympic medal in an individual event, in any sport. In terms of gold medals, the youngest in swimming is Japan’s Kyoko Iwasaki, the 200-breaststroke champion in 1992 only six days after turning 14.

These are records that will be difficult to surpass in Paris. But perhaps an age record that can be broken is that of the oldest podium. The men’s 50 freestyle medalists in 2016 Anthony Ervin (age 35), Florent Manaudou (age 25), and Nathan Adrian (age 27) combined for an average of 29 years and 199 days. Swimmers like Cameron McEvoy (2023 world champion), Manaudou (2021 Olympic silver), Bruno Fratus (2021 Olympic bronze), Ben Proud (2022 world champion), and Kristian Gkolomeev have been among the world’s best in the 50 freestyle and will all be 30 years or more in 2024. Will we have a podium for the first time with all athletes over 30?


Only four swimmers have achieved the feat of competing in six editions of the Olympic Games: Turkey’s Derya Buyukuncu (1992-2012), Sweden’s Lars Frolander (1992-2012), Therese Alshammar (1996-2016), and Tunisia’s Oussama Mellouli (2000-2021). Of these, Mellouli is the only one to have raced in both pool and open water events.

In Paris, four active swimmers can match this feat, if they manage to qualify: Hungarians Katinka Hosszu, Evelyn Verraszto, and Zsuzsanna Jakabos, and Chile’s Kristel Kobrich. They all made their debut at the Athens Olympics in 2004.


Michael Phelps is the swimmer with the most medals; he is also the swimmer with the most appearances in finals in Olympic history: 29 between 2000 and 2016. In two of them, he did not reach the podium, the 200 butterfly in 2000 and the 400 IM in 2012. On the other hand, he won a gold medal in an event in which he did not swim the final: the 4×100 medley, in 2004, in which he competed in the prelims, with Ian Crocker swimming the butterfly leg in his place in the final. German Franziska van Almsick is the swimmer who has competed in the most finals among women: 17 between 1992 and 2004.

In individual events, Phelps is also the one with the most finals, 18, and among women, Zimbabwean Kristy Coventry leads with 10. Coventry should be overtaken this summer by Katie Ledecky, who has already had 8 since 2012.

Only three athletes managed to compete in five finals in the same event: Dara Torres in the women’s 4×100 freestyle (1984, 1988, 1992, 2000, 2008), Michael Phelps in the men’s 200 butterfly (2000 to 2016), and Federica Pellegrini in the women’s 200 freestyle (2004 to 2021). In Paris, only one swimmer can match this mark: Australian Cate Campbell, who can compete in her fifth final in the women’s 4×100 freestyle. Japan’s Ryosuke Irie could attempt the feat in the men’s 200 backstroke, but he did not qualify for the Olympics.


In Paris, Campbell can also win her fifth medal in the women’s 4×100 freestyle. She would equal Dara Torres, who to this day is the only one to have five medals in the same event, also in the women’s 4×100 freestyle. In individual events, Katie Ledecky can win the 800 freestyle for the fourth time, an unprecedented feat in women’s events. Among men, Michael Phelps won the 200 medley four times between 2004 and 2016.

Another feat that some swimmers will attempt in Paris will be the second victory in some events in which this has never happened. There are seven races in which no one has ever won more than once. Obviously two of these events are the women’s 1500 and men’s 800 freestyle, which were swum for the first time in 2021. Americans Katie Ledecky and Bobby Finke will try back-to-back wins. The other events are women’s 200 freestyle, 100 breaststroke, 100 butterfly, 200 butterfly and men’s 200 freestyle. The current champions of these events are, respectively, Ariarne Titmus, Lydia Jacoby, Maggie MacNeil, Zhang Yufei and Tom Dean, and all have a chance to repeat their wins.

No single swimmer has ever won medals in breaststroke and butterfly events at the Olympic Games. If he swims the 200 butterfly and 200 breaststroke, France’s Leon Marchand has a chance of achieving the feat — he is the current world champion in the former and the third fastest swimmer in the world in 2023 in the latter. He will have to work hard for this, as the finals of both events will be held in the same session.

A very rare feat would be winning medals in freestyle and breaststroke events. It happened only once in Olympic history, as Hungarian Eva Novak won silver in both women’s 400 freestyle and 200 breaststroke in 1952. American Kate Douglass won silver medals in 50 freestyle and 200 breaststroke at the 2024 World Championships in Doha, so she has a nice shot.

Only two swimmers in history have managed to reclaim gold medals in individual events: Michael Phelps in the 200 butterfly and Anthony Ervin in the 50 freestyle, both in 2016. In Paris, several will try to do so, including Penny Oleksiak, Simone Manuel (100 freestyle), Katie Ledecky (200, 400 free), Lilly King (100 breast), Katinka Hosszu (200, 400 IM), Florent Manaudou (50 free), Kyle Chalmers (100 free), Gregorio Paltrinieri (1500 free) and Ryan Murphy (100, 200 back). How many of these incredible feats will we be able to see this summer?

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17 days ago

1924 was the first Olympics where the pools were 50m, before that the swimming was contested in rivers, temporary pools in lakes/rivers, or temporary pools that were either 55 yards or 100m long. These things would probably have had a minimum impact on the difference in margin of victory, than that all events have at 3 rounds (including 1500m).

Miss M
18 days ago

My maths might be wrong, but isn’t the women’s 100 fly from Tokyo the tightest podium? Just 0.13 separated MacNeill, Yufei and McKeon, with Huske just 0.01 behind McKeon, so 0.14 separated 1st and 4th!

I remember McKeon being interview afterwards and she said that she was a little disappointed to be just 0.13 off gold, until she realised she’d only won bronze by 0.01.

Last edited 18 days ago by Miss M
Reply to  Miss M
15 days ago

Actually the 100 fly podium in Atlanta 1996 was even tighter. Amy Van Dyken won in 59.13, Liu Limin silver 59.14 and Angel Martino bronze 59.23, so 0.1 separated first and third.

18 days ago

When was this article written? A large number of swimmers have been listed as being potential defending champions (Jacoby and Dean), swimmers who can reclaim their title (Manuel, Oleksiak, Ledecky – 200m free, and Hosszu) and Douglass as a potential medalist in the 50m free – all these swimmers bar 1(Ledecky) failed to qualify in said events. Ledecky has opted not to swim the 200m free. I should also mention that Douglass decided not to contest the 50m free at the US trials.

Reply to  petriasfan
18 days ago

There are more people from the article not going, ex. Bruno Fratus.
Did Evelyn Verraszto, or Zsuzsanna Jakabos qualify for the Hungarian team? 

Emma Eckeon
18 days ago

I don’t think the finals of the 200 butterfly and 200 breast are on the same session. Maybe one final and one semi? It’s going to be hard for Leon

Emma Eckeon
18 days ago

Draganja won the silver medal not the bronze

Steve Nolan
18 days ago

In Paris, only one swimmer can match this mark: Australian Cate Campbell, who can compete in her fifth final in the women’s 4×100 freestyle.

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Reply to  Steve Nolan
18 days ago

Even if she was swimming it wouldn’t be her 5th because she wasn’t on Beijing free relay (did win a bronze medal in the 50m at just 15 years of ages, right behind Torres for the fun age gap too)

Genevieve Nnaji
Reply to  Andy
18 days ago