Here we go again, folks. This time, though, we’re looking at medals from the Big Dance. That all-too-infrequent event that makes swimming superfans of people who’ve never even seen a pool in real life, much less swum in one. (You know the type. The quadrennial Instant Swimming Experts™.) Yes, it’s time to talk Olympics.
In the World Championships, even though there were steroid-tainted years (a very high percentage, in fact) and an inconsistent schedule, for the most part the events stayed the same and thus it’s much easier to compare athletes across years. This is not at all the case with the Olympics. To illustrate, we have to dive (bad pun intended!) into the history a bit.
- Women’s swimming? Wasn’t an Olympic sport ’till 1912. Even then, it was only a good deal for you if you were a 100 freestyler. The only events offered for a few years were the 100m freestyle and – for variety – the 4x100m freestyle relay.
- Swimming “back then” has traveled a tortuous path in becoming the sport we now know and love. 200 meter obstacle event? Underwater swimming? Yep, they happened. (Once. In 1900.) 400 meter breaststroke, anyone? Apparently it was such a rollicking good time in its 1904 debut that it made reappearances in 1912 and 1916. That makes me die a little inside. Swimming generally dropped the crazier events by 1908 when it adopted a 6-event schedule for men, including the 100/400/1500m freestyles, 100m backstroke, 200m breaststroke, and 4x200m freestyle relay. Women had a 5-event slate by 1924 that included the 100/400m freestyles, 100m backstroke, 200m breaststroke, and 4x100m freestyle relay.
- The Games that would have been held in 1940 and 1944 didn’t happen at all, for obvious reasons.
- Butterfly didn’t exist (as a formally recognized discipline) until the 1950’s and made its Olympic debut in 1956 with the 100m butterfly for women and the 200m butterfly for men – they skipped right over the 100 and went straight for the jugular.
- Thusly, the medley relay (where’s the fun in a 3-person relay?) and the I.M. didn’t debut until 1960 and 1964, respectively.
- The event schedule stayed relatively unchanged for men and women from around 1908 (or, the end of the crazy years) until 1956. Adding butterfly seemed to open the floodgates – by 1968 most present-day events had trickled into the schedule, except for the 50m freestyle, which made its grand reappearance in 1988 after an 84-year hiatus.
- Bafflingly, the 200m I.M. was dropped in both 1976 and 1980, and the 100m backstroke was dropped for men only in 1964. This seems random to me. Can you imagine now being, say, a 200 freestyler and finding out “Oh, sorry, we’re not having that event this time around?” Better than having your whole sport cancelled, sure, but still not great if those were your events.
- The USA led a mass boycott of the 1980 Olympics, and the USSR, East Germany, and a handful of others boycotted the 1984 Olympics. Thus, competition wasn’t as steep, and the medals come with a bit of an asterisk.
- Until 1996, women had fewer events than did the men, when the 4x200m freestyle relay was finally added.
- With the exception of 1904, an anomaly for many reasons, there were no more than 7 events (including relays) per gender until 1956. There are now 16.
So, what do we make of all of this? For one thing, absolute medal counts are a lousy way to compare athletes across generations. And women are at a ridiculous disadvantage early on in the sport, even to a lesser extent through 1996, so comparing men and women doesn’t make a ton of sense. The unbalanced schedule of events doesn’t help things, either – with events performing disappearing acts (100 back, 200 IM), and with strange (to us) event combinations (why the 200 breast but not the 200 back? And why, in the name of all things holy, introduce the men’s 200 fly before the 100 fly?) a certain type of swimmer was arbitrarily favored over another. Until 1980, prelims swimmers didn’t receive relay medals, and lastly, the men’s and women’s events didn’t stabilize until 1988 and 1996, respectively, so it was harder for a swimmer great in an event to go on a big run.
I’ll give you a few ways to digest the medal data: the absolute medal counts, analyses of individual events only, and counts normalized by Games for number of events available at the time. It would be neat to see someone come up with coefficients for things like boycotts, event bias, or PEDs, but alas, I’m ill-equipped for that sort of thing.
Let’s start with the women’s medalists.
|Name||Country||# Total Medals|
|Franziska van Almsick||GER||10|
|Inge de Bruijn||NED||8|
The absolute medal counts are nothing surprising. Jenny Thompson, Dara Torres, and Natalie Coughlin top the charts with 12 medals each, followed by Franziska van Almsick (10) and Leisel Jones (9). The 8-medal club is crowded; among its members are Inge de Bruijn, Dawn Fraser, Kornelia Ender, Petria Thomas, Shirley Babashoff, and Susie O’Neill. Thompson also tops the gold medal count with 8 golds, 2 more than either Amy Van Dyken or Kristin Otto, the next two swimmers on the list. Krisztina Egerszegi also gets a mention here with her 5 gold medals, all of which were individual. (More on the individual medal counts in a moment.)
Note: van Almsick has a pretty noteworthy record of having won the most career Olympic medals without a single gold. She has four silver and 6 bronze.
The aggregate counts favor a particular kind of swimmer. She sticks around for awhile. She’s a great freestyler, maybe with a secondary stroke, and she comes from a country that does well on relays but does her part to make sure it succeeds. The women on this list are remarkable, yes – they’re the first names we think of when we think “greatest of all time.” But this time, let’s slice it up a little differently and see what we get.
An obvious place to start is without the relays. Who have been the most dominant individual Olympic swimmers of all time? Krisztina Egerszegi and Kirsty Coventry share the top slot here with 7 individual medals each. Inge de Bruijn has 6, and she’s followed by a swath of quintuplists: Amanda Beard, Dagmar Hase, Galina Prozumenshchikova (more on her soon), Janet Evans, Leisel Jones, Natalie Coughlin, Shane Gould, Shirley Babashoff, and Yana Klochkova. The thing that jumps out at me first, besides the fact that this is essentially a totally different group of women, is that there are far more countries represented on this list – 8 in total (Zimbabwe, Hungary, Netherlands, USA, Germany, Soviet Union, Australia, and Ukraine). USA (4) and Australia (2) are the only countries with multiple swimmers on the list. The other thing that jumps out, strangely, is that none of these swimmers suffered under any (serious) PED allegations. Given the sport’s history of isolated but concentrated drug scandals, it’s surprising to me that clean athletes have risen to the top without any need for corrective number fudging.
|Name||Country||# Individual Medals|
|Inge de Bruijn||NED||6|
Galina Prozumenshchikova. Not exactly a name that rolls off the tip of your tongue, and probably a name that only the most hard core swimming fans have heard before. She was a premiere breaststroker of the 1960’s and into the 1970’s, winning medals in each of the 5 Olympic breaststroke events in which she competed, including one gold (200m breaststroke, 1964, soon after appendicitis surgery – which wasn’t quite a non-event in 1960’s Soviet Russia). Were the 100m breaststroke an Olympic event in 1964, one could easily imagine her tacking on not just an additional medal, but an additional gold to her haul.
It’s coincidental that Egerszegi and Coventry sit atop the rankings given that they swam basically the same events (backstroke and I.M.), and that in 2008 Coventry broke Egerszegi’s totally absurd 200m backstroke world record from 1991. The majority of Egerszegi’s medals, though, are gold. She three-peated in the 200m backstroke (’88 at age 14, ’92, and ’96) and also took gold in the 100m backstroke and 400m I.M. in 1992 for a triple-gold performance in Barcelona. Coventry, while obviously tremendously impressive, has but 2 individual golds to her credit, both in the 200m backstroke (’04, ’08).
|Name (Country)||Year||# Individual Medals|
|Shane Gould (AUS)||1972||5|
|Ines Diers (GDR)||1980||4|
|Kristin Otto (GDR)||1988||4|
|Michelle Smith (IRL)||1996||4|
|Kirsty Coventry (ZIM)||2008||4|
If we look just at single-games medal hauls, the picture changes slightly. Shane Gould takes top honors here with her jaw-dropping 5 individual medal performance in 1972. Unbelievable. Kirsty Coventry, with her 4 medals from 2008, shares the second spot with athletes missing from the overall medals picture, all of whom are related to some sort of doping scandal. Smith aroused suspicions with her 1996 performance and was later banned by FINA after testing positive for androstenedione. The other two, while not formally and individually charged with PED usage, were part of the East German machine that we now know with certainty was systematically doping its athletes between 1971 and 1990. Not including the athletes already mentioned, 17 additional women have won 3 individual medals in a single games.
1936: Rie Mastenbroek
1968: Jan Henne, Debbie Meyer
1972: Novella Calligaris
1976: Shirley Babshoff, Kornelia Ender
1988: Janet Evans (all gold)
1992: Krisztina Egerszegi (all gold), Lin Li, Summer Sanders
1996: Dagmar Hase
2000: Yana Klochkova, Dara Torres, Inge de Bruijn (all gold)
2004: Laure Manaudou, Otylia Jedrzejczak, Inge de Bruijn
2008: Natalie Coughlin
Of these athletes, 6 have won 3 or more individual gold medals in a single games: Inge de Bruijn, Krisztina Egerszegi, Janet Evans, Michelle Smith, Shane Gould, and Kristin Otto. Interestingly, none of these performances occurred during a boycott year, when you’d imagine it would be easier to do.
It should go without saying that any woman on any of these lists is superlatively phenomenal, but I feel bad short-changing anyone to whom I’m not dedicating more inches. Every story is unique and fascinating, and I highly recommend poking around the interwebs for more information on any athlete with whom you’re less familiar. In running these numbers, it became clear that any absolute counts heavily favor post-1964 athletes, as the 1968 games were the first to include a full-ish schedule of events. Just for kicks, I normalized each swimmer’s medal count per games based on the number of events offered in order to get a medal percentage. Say, if there were 10 events offered and a swimmer earned 4 medals, her “score” for the games would be 40% – with the idea that each medal at a reduced-event competition is that much more rare and thus should be given more weight. We reach some practical limits fairly quickly, however. It would be impossible for a modern athlete to compete in every event offered. This analysis is “just for fun” in that it brings out some new names, and numbers are fun for nerds like me.
This broke down in the earliest games, where the two-event schedule (1 individual, 1 relay) guaranteed medal-winners at least 50% of the pie. Not as interesting. Between 1924 and 1964, there weren’t a ton of events offered, but there were more than 2-3, so percentages become slightly more meaningful.
Let’s dive in. The only woman from ancient times I’ll mention is Jennie Fletcher of Great Britain, as she won medals in 100% of the events offered in 1912. (This meant that she swam twice.) This is the only time in women’s swimming history this has happened.
Between 1924 and 1964, here’s the way it breaks down, by max medal haul %:
1924-1964, All Events
|Rie Mastenbroek (NED)||1936||80% (4/5)|
|Gertrude Ederle (USA)||1924||60% (3/5)|
|Helene Madison (USA)||1932||60% (3/5)|
|Ann Curtis (USA)||1948||60% (3/5)|
|Éva Novák (HUN)||1952||60% (3/5)|
|Karen Harup (DEN)||1948||60% (3/5)|
|Joyce Cooper (GBR)||1928||60% (3/5)|
|Chris von Saltza (USA)||1960||57% (4/7)|
|Sharon Stouder (USA)||1964||50% (4/8)|
|Kathy Ellis (USA)||1964||50% (4/8)|
1924-1964, Individual Events Only
|Rie Mastenbroek (NED)||1936||75.00% (3/4)|
|Ann Curtis (USA)||1948||50.00% (2/4)|
|Éva Novák (HUN)||1952||50.00% (2/4)|
|Gertrude Ederle (USA)||1924||50.00% (2/4)|
|Helene Madison (USA)||1932||50.00% (2/4)|
|Joyce Cooper (GBR)||1928||50.00% (2/4)|
|Karen Harup (DEN)||1948||50.00% (2/4)|
|Maria Johanna Braun (NED)||1928||50.00% (2/4)|
Clearly, Rie Mastenbroek deserves a mention here. She featured in the single-games medal haul discussion earlier, but here… Wow. Of the 5 events offered (100/400m freestyle, 100m backstroke, 200m breaststroke, 4x100m freestyle relay), she medaled in 4. Yes, it can be said that this spread didn’t require the versatility it might have in later years, but these were indeed different times. Most of these women were freestylers, and it’s a shame they never had the chance to swim a fuller schedule on the Olympic stage. Helene Madison, for example, was the world record holder in the 1500m freestyle at the time of the 1932 games, but her only opportunities for gold were in the 100m and 400m events (both of which she won, along with the 4x100m freestyle relay).
In the post-1964 world, we see some familiar faces:
Post-1964, All Events
|*Kristin Otto (GDR)||1988||40% (6/15)|
|b*Ines Diers (GDR)||1980||38% (5/13)|
|Natalie Coughlin (USA)||2004||38% (6/16)|
|Shirley Babashoff (USA)||1972||36% (5/14)|
|*Kornelia Ender (GDR)||1972||36% (5/14)|
|Shane Gould (AUS)||1972||36% (5/14)|
|Alicia Coutts (AUS)||2012||31% (5/16)|
|Missy Franklin (USA)||2012||31% (5/16)|
|Allison Schmitt (USA)||2012||31% (5/16)|
|Dara Torres (USA)||2000||31% (5/16)|
|b*Caren Metschuck (GDR)||1980||31% (4/13)|
|*Andrea Pollack (GDR)||1976||31% (4/13)|
|Susan Pedersen (USA)||1968||29% (4/14)|
|Jan Henne (USA)||1968||29% (4/14)|
|bNancy Hogshead (USA)||1984||29% (4/14)|
Post-1964, Individual Events Only
|Shane Gould (AUS)||1972||41.67% (5/12)|
|b*Ines Diers (GDR)||1980||36.36% (4/11)|
|*Kristin Otto (GDR)||1988||30.77% (4/13)|
|*Michelle Smith (IRL)||1996||30.77% (4/13)|
|Kirsty Coventry (ZIM)||2008||30.77% (4/13)|
|Shirley Babashoff (USA)||1976||27.27% (3/11)|
|*Kornelia Ender (GDR)||1976||27.27% (3/11)|
|Debbie Meyer (USA)||1968||25.00% (3/12)|
|Jan Henne (USA)||1968||25.00% (3/12)|
|Novella Calligaris (ITA)||1972||25.00% (3/12)|
|Inge de Bruijn (NED)||2000, 2004||23.08% (3/13)|
|Laure Manaudou (FRA)||2004||23.08% (3/13)|
|Otylia Jędrzejczak (POL)||2004||23.08% (3/13)|
|Summer Sanders (USA)||1992||23.08% (3/13)|
|Dagmar Hase (GER)||1992||23.08% (3/13)|
|Janet Evans (USA)||1988||23.08% (3/13)|
|Natalie Coughlin (USA)||2004||23.08% (3/13)|
|Yana Klochkova (UKR)||2000||23.08% (3/13)|
|Krisztina Egerszegi (HUN)||1992||23.08% (3/13)|
|Dara Torres (USA)||2000||23.08% (3/13)|
|*Lin Li (CHN)||1992||23.08% (3/13)|
b = at a Games affected by boycott
* = part of a delegation that was systematically doping its athletes at the time
The list isn’t too different, but we definitely see a certain type of swimmer favored in the plus-relays count; if you’re, say, American and are on all three relays, you’ve got a bit of a head start. This isn’t to denigrate in any way the accomplishment of qualifying for and leading all three relays to Olympic success – far from it – it’s just that plenty of the all-time greats were never in that position. Again, the biggest difference for me between the relays and no-relays lists is the relative absence of boycott or PED-colored individuals on the individual list.
If you’ve read down this far, congratulations! Next up, an analysis of the men’s medalists…