Predicting The 2024 Olympic Winning Times

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

This summer, the Olympic Games will take place in Paris. And, as usual, there is a lot of expectation for great performances, legendary races and, of course, world records. Many will try to guess who the winners and medalists of the swimming events will be. As always, some favorites will confirm favoritism and some underdogs will appear. Obviously, it is very difficult to predict who they will be.

But we can use quantitative methods to make another type of prediction. Based on recent results, what are the estimated times needed to win the races in Paris? And which records are most likely to be broken?

It doesn’t take a genius to realize that there are events in which the world record is highly unlikely (for example, the men’s 200 freestyle and the women’s 200 butterfly) and others in which the record is expected, given the evolution in recent years (e.g., women’s 400 freestyle, a race that will feature the last three world record holders).

But it is possible to quantify this probability using statistical methods.

Estimating the improvement in Olympic years

To get an idea of the times needed to win the gold medal at the Olympic Games, we need to keep one thing in mind. Historically, there is a significant improvement in athletes’ times in Olympic years. This statement may sound obvious, and it really seems to be the impression that many people have, but it is necessary to analyze the data. And the data shows exactly that.

Let’s look at the evolution of the men’s 100 freestyle over the years. The graph below shows the average time of the fastest 100 swimmers in each year since 1990.

The decreasing pattern is evident, as we would expect. But we can observe another interesting aspect. Every four years, it is possible to notice a dramatic drop in the average time, which is not a coincidence since it corresponds to the Olympic years. The only exception is the period 2008-2009: The times decrease from 2007 to 2008, and decrease even more from 2008 to 2009, which is unusual, since 2009 was not an Olympic year. Of course, the hi-tech suits were the cause.

The same pattern is observed in all other events included in the Olympic program. This needs to be considered when predicting swimming performances for 2024. And, to make this prediction, the statistical method considers the distribution of times of the 100 fastest swimmers each year, in each event.

We use a branch of statistics called Extreme Value Theory (EVT), since we are modeling the extreme performances of athletes (fastest times in the world). We took the times of the 100 fastest performers in each year, in each event since 1990, and used the EVT to determine its probability distribution. There is a very powerful mathematical theorem called Generalized Pareto Distribution (GPD) that shows that this distribution is always the same.

Analyzing the data

We can project the shape and the parameters of the distribution for the next few years, considering the evolution of the events and, of course, considering an even greater evolution in an Olympic year. Now we can simulate from this distribution a possible scenario for the top 100 fastest performers in 2024 and take the fastest time — that would be one single prediction for the fastest time in the world in 2024, which usually corresponds to the Olympic winning time. By simulation, let’s say, ten thousand scenarios, we can compute the average of all number ones in each scenario. That would be the final estimate for the fastest time in the world this year.

By doing this, we can also compute an interval for the fastest time in the world in 2024, let’s say, with 95% of confidence. Also, among all scenarios, we can count on how many of them the world record is broken, and so we can estimate the probability of it.

The results are in the following table.

Women’s events

Event Expected winning time Minimum Maximum WR probability
50 freestyle 23.65 23.54 23.77 39%
100 freestyle 51.75 51.56 51.94 44%
200 freestyle 1:52.97 1:52.47 1:53.49 42%
400 freestyle 3:55.70 3:55.19 3:56.22 41%
800 freestyle 8:06.80 8:05.78 8:07.84 9%
1500 freestyle 15:24.75 15:20.95 15:28.57 12%
100 butterfly 55.72 55.54 55.89 19%
200 butterfly 2:03.31 2:02.64 2:04.07 1%
100 backstroke 57.31 57.06 57.57 51%
200 backstroke 2:03.09 2:02.30 2:03.94 48%
100 breaststroke 1:04.43 1:04.25 1:04.59 12%
200 breaststroke 2:18.63 2:17.60 2:19.97 11%
200 IM 2:06.36 2:05.99 2:06.69 35%
400 IM 4:26.91 4:25.18 4:28.64 33%

Men’s events

Event Expected winning time Minimum Maximum WR probability
50 freestyle 21.14 21.04 21.27 15%
100 freestyle 46.86 46.66 47.05 36%
200 freestyle 1:43.76 1:43.40 1:44.11 1%
400 freestyle 3:39.73 3:38.55 3:41.32 44%
800 freestyle 7:35.12 7:33.91 7:36.25 1%
1500 freestyle 14:31.25 14:28.64 14:33.60 50%
100 butterfly 50.08 49.87 50.32 5%
200 butterfly 1:52.65 1:52.35 1:52.93 1%
100 backstroke 51.84 51.65 52.04 20%
200 backstroke 1:53.93 1:53.70 1:54.14 1%
100 breaststroke 57.69 57.49 57.89 1%
200 breaststroke 2:05.34 2:04.90 2:05.77 59%
200 IM 1:54.78 1:54.34 1:55.22 11%
400 IM 4:03.19 4:01.98 4:04.42 34%

As the predictions are based on the evolution of swimmers in recent years, it is natural that they are at times corresponding to what we have had in recent seasons. For example, it has been a few years since any swimmer has threatened the women’s 100 breaststroke world record – since Lilly King set the world record in 1:04.13 in 2017, the fastest time in the world has been half of a second slower, so the world record is not expected to be broken in 2024.

On the other hand, last year Ahmed Hafnaoui and Bobby Finke came very close to the men’s 1500 freestyle world record. Therefore, there is a reasonably high probability that long-standing Sun Yang’s world record from 2012 will finally be broken.

The results also reflect what we saw in 2023 in terms of world records. There were far more world records set in women’s events than in men’s events. Accordingly, we can see that the chances of world records being broken, in general, are greater among women.

It is interesting to observe the intervals for the times, but will they reflect the real results in Paris?

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Weinstein-Smith-Ledecky-Sims
16 days ago

Upon review of the historical data, the best case and worst case scenarios for Katie Ledecky in the final of the W 1500 FR:

Katie Ledecky
W 1500 FR final
15:34.23 best case to 15:37.35 worst case

Hank
17 days ago

Conditions were optimal for Americans and Aussies to swim fast in their own countries, but particular for the Americans who had a more competitive and pressure filled meet for most of them than the Aussies , it may be difficult for many swimmers to exceed their trails performances in Paris with the pressure of OLYs plus added relay duties.

Admin
Reply to  Hank
17 days ago

So your argument is that the high pressure of US Trials will help US swimmers go faster, but the high pressure of the Olympics will make them swim slower?

ms pissy pansy
Reply to  Braden Keith
8 days ago

ermmmmm that makes sense and it doesn’t at the same time

Boknows34
Reply to  Hank
16 days ago

On top of what Braden said, the added relays will be offset by swimming fewer individual events than at trials. Regan for example will have one maybe two medley relay swims but no 100 fly.

swimswum
17 days ago

Everything seems reasonable but I think the backstroke could be admirably better

17 days ago

After the AUS and USA Trials, Takata needs to tweak the data a bit…

Daniel Takata
Reply to  DDias
16 days ago

Exactly!

Swimdad
17 days ago

Walsh went sub 55.40 twice in two days. I don’t see her going any slower, even if she run a marathon prior to the 100fly finals. She’s more likely to go sub 55 than the predicted 55.75

So too will Regan Smith in the 100back. I think she gets pushed into a world record sub 56 by McKeown.

I do agree that it will take a 51:7 by Douglas to win 100free.

Reply to  Swimdad
17 days ago

Sub 56?Wow…;]

Swimdad
Reply to  DDias
17 days ago

Oops…sub 57

Skip
Reply to  Swimdad
17 days ago

Aint gonna happen

JasonHere
Reply to  Swimdad
15 days ago

Was wondering why this had so many downvotes. Then I saw the sub 56 typo and that you have Douglass winning the 100.

My money’s on Siobhan or MOC for gold. Douglass is good but almost a full second drop to Paris is unlikely. I’d love for it to happen as an American, but my safe bet is Siobhan/MOC fighting for gold and then Douglass in the fight for bronze with whoever else.

RUN-DMC
17 days ago

The shape parameters for the distribution in this analysis are set too extreme.

As time goes on, fewer records will be broken at each games, unless there are rule changes or an increase in PED’s.

World records will tend to be broken by smaller amounts in the future.

I predict there will be 2 to 4 world records broken in this games.

My time predictions:

Women

Event Expected winning time WR probability
50 freestyle 23.9 5%
100 freestyle 51.9 5%
200 freestyle 1:52.7 45%
400 freestyle 3:56.0 15%
800 freestyle 8:09.1 0%
1500 freestyle 15:31.1 0%
100 butterfly 55.3 25%
200 butterfly 2:04.2 0%
100 backstroke 57.2 45%
200 backstroke… Read more »

swim2
Reply to  RUN-DMC
17 days ago

the men’s breastroke will be faster for sure, no way qin and peaty are both 58.2. I dont think mccevoy is breaking the 50 free wr but 2% is a lowball.

Mandy
Reply to  swim2
17 days ago

Qin can break it, and similarly, women’s breaststroke is also. I don’t know how it analyzes the data?

Sven
17 days ago

Women’s 200 fly probability is too high.

Sven
Reply to  Sven
17 days ago

Also, my gut is telling me that there’s a much higher probability of the men’s IM WRs being broken. The only potential hiccup is if Leon’s schedule is too aggressive and he’s tired by the time the 200 IM comes around, but I’d put the chances of a WR in the 400 IM at around 75%.

And since the men’s 800 and women’s 1500 data sets did not have the bump every four years, does this impact the calculations at all?

jeff
17 days ago

I think the only real flaw with the model is the assumption that the fastest time in the world that year will be in the Olympic final. In 2021 for example, 5/14 of the women’s events had the fastest time not at the Olympics at all (100/200 back, 200 IM, 100 breast, 200 free). On the men’s side, that was the case for
7/14 (400 IM, 1500 free, 400 free, 50 free, 200 fly, 200 breast, 200 back), and that’s not even counting events where the fastest time was at the Olympics but not in the final like the 800 free.

Tokyo did have morning finals but even in Rio, it was 4/13 on the women’s side (50/100… Read more »

jeff
Reply to  jeff
17 days ago

Anyway based off that incredibly large sample size of 4, each gender will maybe have around 4 events where the fastest time is swum outside of the Olympics. If that’s the case, on the women’s side I’d predict that happening in the 4 events where the WR has already been broken this year (100 back, 100 fly, 200 free, 400 IM). Men’s side not as sure, it’s probably out of the 100/200/400/1500 free, 200 IM, and 100 breast? I think I’d pick 100/200 free, 100 breast, and 400 free if I had to pick exactly 4 events