Only 10 Countries, No European Women, Won Olympic Gold Medals in Tokyo

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
Countries participating
Tokyo 2020 21 10 174
Rio 2016 21 14 174
London 2012 19 9 166
Beijing 2008 21 14 162
Athens 2004 20 11 152
Sydney 2000 18 8 150
Atlanta 1996 19 10 117
Barcelona 1992 18 9 92
Seoul 1988 22 10 77

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.

Games Athletes Gold Silver Bronze Total Rank
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
Total 169 150 178 497 9 9th

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Lucas
1 month ago

there was also winners from china and south africa

Texas Tap Water
Reply to  Lucas
1 month ago

LMFAO no.

China only re-joined Olympics in 1984

Deepblue
1 month ago

Loving the irony in the U.S. women only getting 3 golds out of Lilly King’s predicted gold sweep. Excluding Ledecky, only one other U.S. woman won gold, and we all know how that story went…

Comet
Reply to  Deepblue
1 month ago

That wasn’t the point of the article. Even though US women didn’t win nearly as many golds as in London and Rio they still won 18 medals far more than any other nation including Australia

KatyJ
Reply to  Comet
1 month ago

Medals per head of population would make more sense. Countries like USA would realise that Australia kicks big in swimming

Troyy
Reply to  Braden Keith
1 month ago

While I agree with that for sure it’s always interesting to me how most Americans will never admit that they have an advantage because of the size of the talent pool they’re filling those entries from. The reality is there’s definitely not a 13 times advantage but there definitely is an advantage of some degree.

Last edited 1 month ago by Troyy
Owlmando
Reply to  Braden Keith
1 month ago

No but I think a bigger population pool meand more of a chance to produce big talent and a bigger pool of it. Having alternates for relays Im sure never hurts- its probably not a 13x proportionate advantage but I’m sure there is one. Regardless its remarkable when a smaller country gives powerhouses a run for their money

Corn Pop
Reply to  Braden Keith
1 month ago

18 Aust women won 14 medals . Its called use of resources & some reward for the carbon footprint . Maybe they ought get the efficiency gold . Otoh NK should also get one for not sending anybody . No medals but also no wasted energy.

jeff
Reply to  Deepblue
1 month ago

this quote is always taken out of context, all she said pretrials was that in every event, there was a chance for the US women to win gold, which she wasn’t wrong about at the time

Walter
Reply to  jeff
1 month ago

As they did medal in all events except four: 50,100 and 200 free and 200 back. Two medals in 1500, 100 & 200 breast, 200 fly (!), 200 & 400 IM.

jeff
Reply to  Walter
1 month ago

yep, and her comment was made pre trials when most of us assumed that Manuel and Smith would’ve been strong contenders in the 3/4 of those events.

Troyy
Reply to  jeff
1 month ago

Manuel already looked off all year but many were just in denial.

jeff
Reply to  Troyy
1 month ago

thats true, although I don’t think many of us thought it would’ve been THAT bad. Strong contender might have been too much, but I at least thought that she would’ve been a contender at least

Corn Pop
Reply to  Walter
1 month ago

And 100 fly no medal.

Corn Pop
Reply to  jeff
1 month ago

The 100free had 0 chance. They were only leading in the 800/1500 / 100 br .In the end they only won those.

jeff
Reply to  Corn Pop
1 month ago

The sprint free events are always a tossup, but at the time of the interview, I don’t think it would’ve be unreasonable to think that Manuel would’ve been in the running for gold. Of course after the trials (both US and Aus), no way in hell the US women would’ve swept.

Last edited 1 month ago by jeff
Old Man Chalmers
Reply to  jeff
1 month ago

because there’s absolutely no middle ground between “the us is going to flop hard in tokyo” and “the us women can win every individual gold”

Texas Tap Water
Reply to  Deepblue
1 month ago

Lily “I enjoy intimidating young girls” King

Lily “I win because I train harder than any other swimmers” King

Lily “USA could sweep all women’s events in Tokyo” King

Dressel1234
1 month ago

Great Britain mixed relay team doesn’t count as European women winning gold?

Chineeese boy
Reply to  Dressel1234
1 month ago

Brexit

Virtus
Reply to  Chineeese boy
1 month ago

I would think they mean continental Europe

swimapologist
Reply to  Virtus
1 month ago

Or they don’t recognize the validity of mixed relays.🤣

Seems to be weasel-worded to exclude mixed relays.

James
Reply to  Chineeese boy
1 month ago

The European Union and Europe are not the same thing. The UK is still part of Europe even though it has exited the European Union. There are 23 countries in Europe that are not part of the EU.

The unoriginal Tim
Reply to  Dressel1234
1 month ago

That isn’t a women’s event. It is a mixed event.

Mixed Words
Reply to  The unoriginal Tim
1 month ago

And it’s a failed experiment…bring on the 50s of the strokes instead.

Thomas Selig
Reply to  The unoriginal Tim
1 month ago

True, and “women’s event” is the phrasing used when the author talks about Sjostrom’s silver being the only silver. That phrasing excludes the MMR.

But elsewhere they just say “women to win Gold” (or equivalent). And Dawson, Hopkin and Anderson (heats) are all women who won Gold as part of the MMR, so fit that description.

Chineeese boy
Reply to  The unoriginal Tim
1 month ago

Did you just assume the gender of that relay???

Corn Pop
Reply to  Dressel1234
1 month ago

They got the half women half man. Gold Medal. Its probably very popular in woke Scotland , less so in Somerset & Derby just confused.

Texas Tap Water
Reply to  Dressel1234
1 month ago

Mixed Relay is not a women’s event.

There's no doubt that he's tightening up
Reply to  Dressel1234
1 month ago

And as for GB’s MMR team, looking at the respective ranks of each leg (within their gender):

Back (F): 2/4, 0.66 behind the fastest female.
Breast (M): 1/7, 1.11 ahead of the next fastest male.
Fly (M): 1/4, 0.26 ahead of the next fastest male.
Free (F): 2/7, 0.27 behind the next fastest female.

Billy mays
1 month ago

Ohashi won both medleys- so US and Australia won every gold medal except two- not one.

Troyy
Reply to  Billy mays
1 month ago

China won two golds and South Africa and Canada one each.

CanSwimFan
Reply to  Billy mays
1 month ago

Are you forgetting about Maggie MacNeil?

Texas Tap Water
Reply to  CanSwimFan
1 month ago

Did Maggie MACNEIL swim in 1972 OLYMPICS?

About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder/co-owner of SwimSwam.com. He first got his feet wet by building The Swimmers' Circle beginning in January 2010, and now comes to SwimSwam to use that experience and help build a new leader in the sport of swimming. Aside from his life on the InterWet, …

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