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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Thinking this is an obvious one. Imagine asking an athlete if they would rather set the WR in the Olympic semifinal then follow that up by losing or….becoming an Olympic champion.

I would say that very few choose the WR in this case


Which swimmers have actually done this? Set a WR in prelims/semis but then gone on to lose the final.

Eamon Sullivan in 2008 comes to mind. Berkhoff blast-off in 1988 too.

Serdinov and Phelps at Worlds 2003 (yes I know worlds aren’t the same as Olympics).


Coventry 100 back in 2008

Samuel Huntington

I believe Matt Wilson at Worlds last year in the 200 breast?

He tied it, but yes.

In the 2008 and 2009 supersuit era, this was more common, simply because multiple swimmers were going under the WR in every event.

At 2009 Worlds:

Anastasia Zueva – 100 back
Christian Sprenger – 200 breast
Marleen Veldhuis & Therese Alshammar – 50 fly
Milorad Cavic – 100 fly

At 2008 Olympics:

Eamon Sullivan – 100 free (he lost to Alain Bernard, who also broke the WR in the semifinals)
Kirsty Coventry – 100 back


Happened to Zueva in the 50 and 100 back in 2009. In the 50 she set a WR in the SF, then went faster in the final but only finished 4th.


Under the former record, and no medal? That might be the best example of how absurd 09 worlds was


The craziest was the 4×100 FR in 2008. The American B-Team set the WR in the prelims and 5 teams beat it in the finals, and a sixth finished below the pre-Olympics WR.

South Africa raced the same four swimmers that set the WR in Athens. They finished more than half a second faster than in 2004 and only came in 7th.


“Look at the world record line”


still the most monumental swim race ever by a million miles. nothing comes close really (although all swim races are important 😊)


Thought of another: Pellegrini broke Van Almsick’s 200 freestyle WR in the SF in 2007, then Manaudou obliterated it by a second in the final. Lurz was also under the old WR. Pellegrini just held on for bronze.


Also happened with Meilutyte (50 breast) and Rikke Pederson (200 breast) in 2013. Both broke the WR in the semifinal then Efimova beat them in the final.

JD Abercrombie

There was a very great backstroke who got 3rd at trials 4 times. She also set the 100 back WR in semis and then missed making the team, thus, the world record holder was not at the Olympics.


Hayley McGregor? I always remember her because the BBC noted there were three British citizens in the 100 back final at 2009 Worlds. The two Brits, plus McGregor, who was born in London to British parents. Fun little bit of trivia!


Hayley McGregory only had the WR for a few minutes, setting a new mark of 59.15 in heats at the 2008 trials only for Natalie Coughlin to break it in the very next heat (59.03).

In the final, Coughlin broke the WR again (58.97) with Margaret Hoelzer finishing second and McGregory in third.


This was definitely the one I would think most memorable! I remember thinking, wow we (the US) had a world record holder NOT make the Olympic Team….crazy!

Michael Schwartz

Are you including situations where multiple people broke worlds records between prelims, semi’s, and finals? The 100 fly battle between phelps and cavic would fit the bill in 2009 where cavic became the first man to go under 50 in the semi finals and then phelps won in finals (in a new world record)


Cavic set the WR in semis in 50.01

Phelps (49.82) and Cavic (49.95) both went under 50 in the final.


Michael Klim in 2000 broke the 100 free WR leading off the relay and didn’t even medal in the individual


Did he swim the individual ? What a relay swimmer that man was btw


Yeah, he got out-toached by Gary Hall, Jr. for third. He was truly a great relay swimmer, although he could never relive the glory of his 1998 worlds individually :-/


There was the guy in 84 who set the WR to win Consols at the LA Olympics in the 4Fr


Olympic gold medal hands down…no one can ever take that away from you…a world record will eventually be broken…some sooner that others but its inevitable


Just like you can say that you won a gold medal X years ago, you can say that you set a WR X years ago. Just like WR can be broken, there will be another Olympic medalist in your event, and he/she will be objectively faster and better than you. Olympic gold does not necessarily mean you are the FASTEST in the world and some people will value that more. i dont know why the status of WR is something that can be taken away while the status of gold medalist cant. and if you say “former WR holder” then you should also say “former gold medalist”

Max C

“WR holder” implies that it’s current, but “Olympic gold medalist” doesn’t. The temporary term is more like “defending Olympic champion”.


If your name is Katie Ledecky, you end up with both at the 2016 Rio Olympics (women’s 400 m freestyle, women’s 800 m freestyle).

Fly 100

Obviously a gold medal in the Olympics…wr’s get broken…1968 men’s 400 m. Free U.S. Olympic trials…prelims wr who didn’t make team in finals. Other examples as well. Can’t take away an Olympic title.

Woke Stasi

It was at 1972 US Oly trials. Kurt Krumpholz set a world record (much to his surprise) in prelims. He placed 6th in the finals. His son, JW Krumpholz, was a member of the 2008 Oly US water polo team and earned a silver medal!

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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