Would You Rather Break A World Record Or Win An Olympic Gold Medal? (POLL)

A debate that has likely popped up at some point in conversation among a group of swimmers, or similar Olympic sports like running, is: would you rather break a world record, or win an Olympic gold medal?

It’s a complicated question and one where both answers are certainly justifiable. Below, let’s look at the case for each. Vote on which you believe in below.

Which Would You Rather Have?

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In swimming, the Olympics are everything. At least, that’s how it’s framed and looked at by many. In the US, once you’re out of college everything is geared toward performing at the Olympic Trials and then ultimately the Olympics. The sport is gradually moving away from the Olympics being the sole indicator of a successful career, but in many ways what an athlete does on the world’s biggest stage is what will define them to the public.

Winning an Olympic gold medal means performing under immense pressure. Four years of day in, day out grinding. The entire world watching. It can bring fame, sponsorship deals, and a feeling of accomplishment unmatched in the sports world. But, perhaps the most important factor in this debate is that an Olympic victory will go down in history and never be erased. The same can’t be said for a world record.

Another thought in favor of Olympic gold: an athlete’s legacy is often a huge motivator. They want to be remembered for being great. If you’re the world record holder but are unable to perform at the Olympics, you’ll likely be remembered for cracking under the pressure rather than being the fastest ever.

Ultimately, an Olympic gold medal is something you can touch, something you can show, something you can present as tangible evidence of your greatness. It’s durable, in a literal sense and in a sense of memory. It lasts forever, stands up in its glory without the need for elaborate context about the evolution of sport. A World Record will eventually be broken, and exist only as a memory. A wonderful memory, but a memory none-the-less.


The argument for the world record is relatively simple. Setting one means that, at the time, you’re the fastest (or furthest, highest jumper, etc.) in the history of the event. In winning the Olympics, you’re the fastest on that specific day. Of course, everyone is shooting to be their best on that day, but being the fastest ever brings a certain amount of prestige.

There are also certain factors that can interrupt someone’s ability to compete at the Games. Athletic careers don’t last forever, and the Olympics only occur once every four years. Injuries, illness, postponements and boycotts are among the things that could get in the way of an opportunity to win Olympic gold.

And there are definitely athletes out there who would be more satisfied with, for example, a 400 free world record of 3:39.50 over winning Olympic gold in 3:42.00. If you’re more concerned with maximizing your ability as an athlete, compared to winning the most prestigious competition in the world on one specific date, then perhaps the world record is for you.

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John Febras
2 years ago

100% win an Olympic gold. It’s a dream of many from the start. Being the best in the World, standing on top of the podium, at the Olympic Games. I don’t know if many athletes would chose otherwise. If one breaks a world record but doesn’t win at the games, that person has not performed at the moment when it matters the most.

Swimmer A
2 years ago

Which one gets you more prize money?

2 years ago

I broke a school record during prelims of a meet, my teammate broke it 2 minutes later. go for the medal, records are meant to be broken

2 years ago

I would think the context of the achievement would also determine which you would choose- Im thinking of Simone Manuels 2016 gold here. I wouldnt want to assume how she feels, but in my mind Id think being the first African-American woman to win an individual swimming gold would trump a world record that people outside the swimming community may never know about.

tea rex
2 years ago

Do you get anything physical for breaking a WR? Like, something you can put in a frame?

Reply to  tea rex
2 years ago

You get a certificate. Not sure if this has always been true, but they send out certificates now.

2 years ago

Jodie Henry broke the WR in 100 free semi in Athens, then won the gold medal the next day, talk about being under pressure!

2 years ago

Gold medal but only if I live in Singapore so I also get a million dollars.

2 years ago

This would be a great question to ask someone like Dr. Jenny Thompson (when this CoVID-19 stuff goes away). She held the world records in both the 100 free and 100 fly, shattering the barrier-breaking 1981 swim by Mary T in the latter, has 12 Olympic medals which ties her with Dara and Natalie for most ever by a female swimmer, but her highest individual Olympic finish was 2nd in the 100 free in 1992.

About James Sutherland

James Sutherland

James swam five years at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, specializing in the 200 free, back and IM. He finished up his collegiate swimming career in 2018, graduating with a bachelor's degree in economics. In 2019 he completed his graduate degree in sports journalism. Prior to going to Laurentian, James swam …

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