The sport of swimming is growing. Thanks to the FINA Scholarship program, Universality, services connecting athletes to foreign training centers in countries like the US and the UK, and other factors, the playing field in swimming is leveling across the world more-and-more each year.
The same two nations that have dominated most of the last 30 years, though, still dominate: the United States and Australia. but sustained success in places like Italy, the UK, and Canada over the last decade have helped spread the wealth as far as it’s been spread in the modern era.
But not all of the logical metrics to measure this spread agree.
While the number of countries participating in the Olympics, most through the Universality program for nations with smaller swimming programs, has continued to grow, the diversity of Olympic medalists has not.
Owed in part to Australia having arguably its best-ever Olympic performance as a nation, especially on the women’s side, the same number of countries (21) won medals as 2016 and far fewer countries (10) won gold medals.
Number of countries to medal, gold medal, at recent Olympic Games.
|Olympics||Countries Winning Medals||Countries Winning Gold||
Yes there are still countries that are breaking the trend – countries like Tunisia (Ahmed Hafhanoui), but those breakthroughs are often not sustained, cycled out by a different country at the next Games.
No European Women Winners
Another anomaly of these Games: for the first time since the 1972 Olympic Games, a European woman didn’t win gold. Those 1972 Games were the start of the East German rise to dominance four years later, with Kornelia Ender taking a silver medal in the 200 IM, the 400 free relay, and the 400 medley relay at 14 years old before winning four gold medals a quad later.
Australia and the US combined to win all but one of the women’s gold medals at that 1972 meet, with the other having been won by Japan.
In 2021, in the pool, Europeans actually only won a single silver medal in women’s events, and it took a super-human performance from Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom, coming a few months off a broken elbow, to pull that off in the 50 free. Added to 3 bronze medals (and no relay medals) in women’s events, it was a slim meet for the Europeans.
Home Country Boost?
With no fans in the stands at most events, it was a bit of a weird year for the ‘home nation medal boost’. In swimming, there was no obvious bump – they scored 2 gold and 1 silver medals, with the wins coming via an IM sweep from Yui Ohashi. That’s a way-worse performance than 2016, where they also won 2 gold medals but added to that 2 silver and 3 bronze for 7 total medals. In 2012, Japan didn’t win any gold medals, but had 3 silver and 8 bronze.
But this year’s Japanese team wasn’t as deep. It was counting on just a few swimmers for its biggest medal hopes, and when one of them (Daiya Seto – bronze in 200 fly) didn’t come through, there wasn’t enough depth to support a big medal total.
While they didn’t get the home nation bump on the micro level, scaled out to the full Olympics that certainly seemed to happen. With 63% more athletes participating than in Tokyo 2020, Japan earned their most medals in Olympic history, and tied back-to-back third place performances in Tokyo 1964 and Mexico City 1968 for the country’s highest-ever rank at the Olympics.
Japan’s swimming will get another chance, as hosts of next summer’s World Championship in Fukuoka, to capture the host-nation momentum.
|Sweden 1912 Stockholm||2||0||0||0||0||–|
|Belgium 1920 Antwerp||15||0||2||0||2||2th|
|France 1924 Paris||19||0||0||1||1||1th|
|Netherlands 1928 Amsterdam||43||2||2||1||5||5th|
|United States 1932 Los Angeles||131||7||7||4||18||18th|
|Germany 1936 Berlin||156||6||4||8||18||18th|
|United Kingdom 1948 London||
Did not participate
|Finland 1952 Helsinki||69||1||6||2||9||9th|
|Australia 1956 Melbourne||110||4||10||5||19||19th|
|Italy 1960 Rome||162||4||7||7||18||18th|
|Japan 1964 Tokyo||328||16||5||8||29||29th|
|Mexico 1968 Mexico City||171||11||7||7||25||25th|
|West Germany 1972 Munich||184||13||8||8||29||29th|
|Canada 1976 Montreal||213||9||6||10||25||25th|
|Soviet Union 1980 Moscow||
Did not participate
|United States 1984 Los Angeles||226||10||8||14||32||32th|
|South Korea 1988 Seoul||255||4||3||7||14||14th|
|Spain 1992 Barcelona||256||3||8||11||22||22th|
|United States 1996 Atlanta||306||3||6||5||14||14th|
|Australia 2000 Sydney||266||5||8||5||18||18th|
|Greece 2004 Athens||306||16||9||12||37||37th|
|China 2008 Beijing||332||9||8||8||25||25th|
|United Kingdom 2012 London||295||7||14||17||38||38th|
|Brazil 2016 Rio de Janeiro||338||12||8||21||41||41th|
|Japan 2020 Tokyo||552||27||14||17||58||58th|