What the Data Says About American Performances at the Olympic Games in Tokyo

michael andrew, chase kalisz, olympic trials, tokyo olympics, starts
Michael Andrew and Chase Kalisz on the blocks at Olympic Trials -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

What the Data Says About American Performances at the Olympic Games in Tokyo

At the conclusion of the U.S. Olympic Trials, it was immediately clear that while the American women were heading to the Olympics with an abundance of medal contenders, their male counterparts were not in nearly as strong a position. Consider the current world rankings: The Americans hold a spot in the world top-three in just eight out of 14 individual men’s events, while for the women, that number is 12. In contrast, at the last Olympics in Rio, the U.S. men won medals in 12 out of 13 individual events and the women in 11 of 13.

The world rankings are not a tell-all of what will happen at the Olympics. A lot will change when the stakes are highest, for sure. But they do give a general picture of how swimmers are performing so far, which can be very helpful in prognosticating. Current world No. 1 rankings do not mean a swimmer is a lock for a gold medal, but currently, the American women have five swimmers in the No. 1 spot and the men three. Those women are Katie Ledecky in the 800 and 1500 free, Lilly King in the 100 breast and teenagers Torri Huske in the 100 fly and Emma Weyant in the 400 IM. For the men, it’s Caeleb Dressel in the 50 free and 100 fly and Michael Andrew in the 200 IM.

Now, for the top-threes. The U.S. women’s team currently has 14 swimmers ranked in the top three among qualifiers for the Olympic Games. In theory, that projects to 14 medals, a slight improvement from the very impressive 13 they won in 2016 (with one less event). In addition to the aforementioned names, you’ll find Hali Flickinger, Regan Smith, Lydia Jacoby, Alex Walsh, Annie Lazor and Rhyan White occupying those spots. That’s 10 swimmers.

For the men, it’s just four swimmers—Dressel, Andrew, Chase Kalisz and Ryan Murphy—for eight top-three spots, a far cry from the 10 swimmers winning 14 medals in 13 events in Rio. They were shut out in only the men’s 400 free, where Conor Dwyer and Connor Jaeger finished fourth and fifth, respectively.

Back up to look at swimmers ranked in the world top-five. Six male swimmers are in that area in one event each (Andrew, Hunter Armstrong, Nic Fink, Zach Apple, Bryce Mefford and Bobby Finke). The women, meanwhile, have seven (White, Smith, Claire Curzan, Erica Sullivan, Kate Douglass, Phoebe Bacon and Katie Grimes).

Of 28 individual swims for the Americans in Tokyo, a whopping 21 of them—three-fourths—will enter in the top five among Olympic qualifiers this year. Another is sixth (King in the 200 breast), and yet another is seventh (Paige Madden in the 400 free). The only holes are in sprint freestyle, where Americans Abbey Weitzeil and Simone Manuel are eighth and 10th, respectively, in the 50 free, while Weitzeil and Erika Brown are 13th and 15th in the 100 free. That’s some incredible depth, on par with the standard the Americans have set in recent years but no less impressive.

For the men, it’s just 14, or half of their individual swims, ranked in the top five. Of some reassurance, the Americans do have swimmers ranked in the top 10 in every event, but that means a swimmer ranked eighth or ninth in some events—Kieran Smith in the 400 free, Finke in the 800 free, Zach Harting in the 200 fly. The last time the American men were shut out of an Olympic final completely was at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, when Jason Lezak and Ian Crocker both missed the semifinals in the 100 free. So that’s three straight Olympics with a perfect record.

Meanwhile, the last time the American men won less than 10 individual medals at an Olympics? That would be the 1996 Games in Atlanta, where there were just nine, three of them gold. At the past five Olympics from 2000 to 2016, the medal total has been 14, 15, 14, 13 and 14. Admittedly, Michael Phelps swam at all of those Games, and he’s hard to replace. But Dressel is favored for three individual medals, the same total Phelps won in both 2012 and 2016. The surrounding cast to Dressel’s starring role is not quite as strong.

This landscape will change significantly by the time the Olympics roll around in three weeks, but there’s reason to be concerned that this team will lag behind its predecessors in the medal count. The women have a challenge on their hands in races for gold after some recent breakout performances at Australia’s Olympic Trials (think Ariarne Titmus, Kaylee McKeown and Emma McKeon), but the Americans should still collect a nice bounty of various-colored medals. But on the men’s side, the collection of standouts cannot cover up some significant holes.

Bob Hopkins contributed statistical data to this analysis.

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Bob Hopkins
Bob Hopkins
2 years ago

thank you

Bob Hopkins
Bob Hopkins
2 years ago

further to the strength of the USA women, three currently ranked in the top 3 in the world did not make Team USA; they are Lazor 3rd in 100 breast, Cox 2nd in 200 IM and Margalis 3rd in 400 IM

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