This article originally appeared in the 2021 Year In Review edition of SwimSwam Magazine. Subscribe here.
In March 2020, it was announced that the Tokyo 2020 Olympics would be postponed to 2021 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic — the first such instance in the history of the Olympic Games (previous games had been canceled but not rescheduled).
Immediately, many people started to debate how the postponement would affect the Olympic results. After all, there might be a few teenagers who would not be ready in 2020, but in 2021 they would be one year older and could cause real damage — and this indeed happened. On the other hand, some veterans could not keep their pace until 2021. There were even some retirements between 2020 and 2021.
There were some unexpected results, such as Ahmed Hafnaoui winning the men’s 400 freestyle. But every Olympics has its upsets. The question is: Would these unexpected medal winners have been the same if the Olympics had been held in 2020?
One quantifiable measure is looking at the 2019 world rankings. After that, comparing them to what happened in past Olympic Games, taking into account the world rankings in the year just before.
For example, by the end of 2011, five swimmers who would become Olympic medalists in 2012 didn’t appear in the top 20 in the world in their events: Katie Ledecky (women’s 800 free, 55th), Florent Manaudou (men’s 50 free, 36th), Cullen Jones (men’s 50 free, 29th), Ruta Meilutyte (women’s 100 breast, 23rd), and Allison Schmitt (women’s 400 free, 21st).
Speaking of Jones and Schmitt, they weren’t among the best in the world in 2019. But Jones had won the 50 freestyle at the 2007 World Championships, and Schmitt was also a World Championships medal winner.
So, among those five swimmers, only Ledecky, Manaudou and Meilutyte were unknown internationally by the end of 2019. At that time, few people would have put money on them.
In 2015, there were even fewer swimmers in this situation. Only two swimmers who eventually would win medals at the Rio 2016 Olympics didn’t make the top 20 in 2015: Penny Oleksiak (women’s 100 free, 46th, and 100 fly, 38th) and Kyle Chalmers (men’s 100 free, 21st).
Let’s take a look at the 2019 world rankings and compare them to what actually happened in Tokyo. There were no fewer than 10 swimmers who were ranked outside the top 20 who won medals at the 2021 Olympics.
|Swimmer||Event||2019 World Ranking||In Tokyo|
|Ahmed Hafnaoui (TUN)||Men’s 400 freestyle||123rd||Gold|
|Noe Ponti (SWI)||Men’s 100 butterfly||98th||Bronze|
|Lydia Jacoby (USA)||Women’s 100 breaststroke||68th||Gold|
|Matti Mattsson (FIN)||Men’s 200 breaststroke||39th||Bronze|
|Kliment Kolesnikov (RUS)||Men’s 100 freestyle||35th||Bronze|
|Tom Dean (GBR)||Men’s 200 freestyle||31st||Gold|
|Kate Douglass (USA)||Women’s 200 IM||30th||Bronze|
|Brendon Smith (AUS)||Men’s 400 IM||28th||Bronze|
|Kieran Smith (USA)||Men’s 400 freestyle||25th||Bronze|
|Hali Flickinger (USA)||Women’s 400 IM||22nd||Bronze|
Three of them are noteworthy: Ahmed Hafnaoui, the winner of the men’s 400 freestyle, was ranked 123rd. Noe Ponti, bronze medal winner in the men’s 100 fly, was 98th in the world in 2019. And Lydia Jacoby, gold medalist in the women’s 100 breast, was 68th. We can say, almost for certain, that they would not have been on the podium if the Olympics hadn’t been postponed — maybe they would not have even qualified.
Jacoby’s journey is emblematic: She didn’t have a real shot of making the U.S. team in 2020 as a 15-year-old. Actually, by the beginning of 2020, she and her family planned to travel to Tokyo to attend the Games, and they had even bought tickets.
Sure, some of these swimmers were already internationally known by 2019 and 2020. Matti Mattsson won a bronze medal at the 2013 World Championships. Kliment Kolesnikov was not a real 100 freestyle contender before 2021 — but he was already a backstroke world record holder. And Hali Flickinger was a butterfly World Championships medal winner.
But what about the others? It seems very unlikely that some medal winners in 2021 like Tom Dean, Kate Douglass, Brendon Smith and Kieran Smith would have won medals if the Tokyo Olympics had happened in 2020.
Of course, if the Olympics hadn’t been postponed, maybe we would have seen other previously unknown swimmers winning medals in Tokyo. It’s impossible to say how many.
But, coming into 2021, the last reference in long course meters we had was basically the world rankings by the end of 2019. After all, because of the pandemic, there were few international meetings in 50-meter pools in 2020. In fact, witnessing 10 swimmers who were not ranked among the top 20 in the world winning Olympic medals is striking. But, maybe paradoxically, a higher number of new names rising to the podium were expected. After all, many things can happen in the interval of one year.