If you watched swimming in Tokyo, you probably noticed that the United States outperformed every other country in terms of medal count. And that wasn’t new just for these Games. The USA has dominated at the Olympics for decades, not just in swimming, but in all sports.
To find out why, we broke down how other countries’ medal counts compare to the USA’s and a few reasons why the USA might have an edge over their competitors in the pool.
Breaking Down Tokyo 2020 Swimming Medals
Here’s how to top five countries performed in the pool in Tokyo. The USA was far and away the top medal winner, with nine more medals than Australia, which took the second spot.
When you add other aquatic sports to the equation (water polo, diving and artistic swimming), the breakdown is slightly different, but the USA is still number one:
- USA: 34 medals
- China: 20 medals
- Australia: 22 medals
Total Medals Won at the 2020 Olympic Games
Now let’s take a look at the total number of medals won across all sports in Tokyo. The USA keeps the lead by more than 20 medals:
- USA: 113 (25% of USA’s medals came from swimming!)
- China: 88
- Russian Olympic Committee: 71
- Great Britain: 65
- Japan: 58
All-Time Swimming Medals
The United States did well in Tokyo, medals-wise, which maintains the country’s historic dominance in the number one spot. Swimming is a huge contributor to that!
Swimming has been contested in the Summer Olympics almost since the beginning: Men’s swimming was included at the first modern Olympics in 1896, and women’s swimming was added at the 1912 Games.
History like that means there have been lots of opportunities for countries to fill their trophy cases. Here’s how the top countries break down in terms of all-time swimming medals:
Why So Many Medals?
First, we have to point out that there are a lot of swimming events. 18 for each gender, to be exact! That’s the second highest number of events for an Olympic sport, behind track and field, which has 25 events for men and 24 events for women.
Lots of events means there are more opportunities for swimmers to win medals if they compete in multiple events. Think about Michael Phelps, for example. He won 8 medals at the 2008 Olympics because he was so versatile (and super fast!).
What Makes a Country So Good at Swimming?
Now that we know a bit of the history, let’s take a look at the factors that can help a country dominate in swimming. It’s important to note that all of the following factors contribute to a country’s success in the sport, but a single one can’t make or break whether a country does well in the pool.
At first, you might think that the USA’s large population — 330 million people — is a huge advantage. And while the USA is significantly larger than many other countries, it pales in comparison to the size of China’s population (1.45 billion people) and India’s (1.38 billion people).
And if you look at Australia, which is number two for swimming medals, it only has 25 million people. So we can rule out population size as a main driver of Olympic swimming success, although it can help.
Similar to population size, access to high quality swimming facilities definitely plays a role in success in the water, but it’s not the sole determinant of it. You’ve probably heard stories of athletes training in sub-optimal conditions and going on to crush it in the Games.
While swimmers in the USA may have better access to adequate training facilities than athletes in other countries, their success doesn’t ride on that.
The USA has a huge legacy in aquatic sports. The country has dominated for decades, and that puts a lot of pressure on current athletes to keep that legacy alive.
But athletes competing for other countries, large or small, feel that pressure, too. Even if their country isn’t the best in the world at swimming, the sport still has a legacy in that country, and the athlete is charged with protecting that.
There’s a high level of acceptance for people who choose to pursue a professional swimming career in the USA. The same is not true in other countries.
Many countries have a similar acceptance of other sports, like cricket or soccer (football for our non-American friends!).
It’s also important to note that the USA has a very robust university swimming system, which allows young athletes to dedicate multiple years to training. Universities will recruit athletes out of high school to compete on a national level.
Climate & Geography
Many areas of the United States are near water (lakes, rivers or oceans), so it could be inferred that Americans have better access to swimming than other countries. But that’s just not the case. Lots of countries have access to the ocean or freshwater sources that are good for swimming.
Having a climate and geography that’s conducive to swimming doesn’t predict success.
Many countries pay athletes for winning Olympic medals. The USA pays $37,500 for a gold medal! And while that seems like a lot, that payout pales in comparison to how some other countries reward their athletes.
In 2021, Italy paid $212,000 for a gold medal. Ukraine paid $150,000, and believe it or not, athletes from Singapore got a whopping $1 million for winning gold. It’s not all about the money, but it certainly helps! That cash can be used to help the athlete cover living expenses and costs associated with coaching.
Related: How Much Money Do Pro Swimmers Make?
The USA had the largest swim team by a long shot in Tokyo. 50 American swimmers went to the 2021 Games, compared to 25 Australians, 33 Japanese swimmers and 28 British swimmers. More swimmers offers more opportunities to medal!
The Architecture of Competitive Swimming in the USA
Let’s take a look at how USA Swimming, the nation’s swimming governing body, is set up. The organization breaks different categories of swimmers into a pyramid:
The pyramid is broken into four distinct groups: Recreational & Water Safety, Teams, National and Elite.
As we approach the top of the pyramid, the groups get much smaller and more focused, and each one supports the others. Let’s explain:
Recreational & Water Safety
This group is made up of millions of people who are very casual swimmers, or who may be just getting started with the sport. They create a massive foundation from which USA Swimming can pull new members who may one day make it to the top of the pyramid!
The next level in the pyramid is made up of various swim teams around the country. This could range from joining a summer league team, to an age-group club team to a high school team.
At this level, athletes often become members of USA Swimming, and likely make up the majority of USA Swimming’s 400,000 member base.
Next up is the National level, which is highly competitive. Swimmers in this level might be competing for a high-level senior club or have made it on the USA’s Junior National Team. They may also swim for their university.
Rounding out the top of the pyramid are the elite swimmers. These athletes are swimming in college (or did at one point), compete on the USA National Team and may be training for US Olympic Trials. They may also be actively pursuing a professional swimming career.
Beyond their training, these elite swimmers are role models for athletes in the lower tiers of the pyramid, and play a role in attracting new athletes to the sport, which in turn helps bring more funding into USA Swimming. That funding helps pay for the national team’s monthly stipends, as well as their participation in swim camps and competitions.
Because the USA has good funding from lower spots on the pyramid, they can afford to spend millions of dollars on the national team. From doctors and massage therapists to psychologists and coaches, those funds go directly toward making the USA the best in the world in swimming.
Swimmers in other areas of the pyramid see that investment in the sport and want to keep swimming, or want to try the sport.
Many countries don’t have a pyramid that’s quite as built out as the USA’s. They might have a few levels of this pyramid, but not all. There may not be quite as many opportunities for age group club swimming, or national team swimming.
What do you think? Share why you think the USA wins so many medals in the comments!
Ecellent article,as a small country here in Ireland 🇮🇪 its nigh impossible to produce elite swimmers,also no college has any affiliation to swimming.It is wonderful to watch Team USA and note some have sound Irish hereditary!
I do not agree with your logic. While infrastructure is important, population plays a huge role. Small countries get few swimming medals. Australia punches far above its weight. Like the U.S., it identifies talent at a young age, and funds that talent. Were Australia 13 times larger in population than it is now (the population of your country), it would certainly be #1 in the medal standings for swimming. Australia sent half the swimmers to Tokyo that the U.S. did, and produced 22 swimming medals (0.88 medals/swimmer). The U.S sent 50 athletes with a return of 34 medals (that is a return of 0.68 medals/swimmer). That is not a statistical anomaly as past Olympics have shown.
The same logic proves that the U.S. performs far beyond expectations when comparing their swimmers to China and Russia. You cannot compare U.S. prowess with India which really doesn’t have a national swim program and wins few medals in any sports.
You’re off on a few things. The 50 athletes and 34 medals isn’t accurate as a few of those 50 win multiple medals. For example, Phelps dominated winning a high number on his own AND clinching relay medals for others, so the 0.68 per swimmer is not relative to this conversation.
As for population, you argue that Australia is doing better than they should, while larger countries aren’t doing as well as they should. This doesn’t make sense and makes it look like you’re trying to push a narrative.
Populationeans nothing if the support through all stages isn’t there, which is what this article argues. The bottom-to-top system they’ve put in place PLUS the funding they put into their programs is what ultimately determines success. The US has a ‘win above all else’ mindset for these tournaments.
So population is not the key factor, but long-term investment and pressure to win is.
Thanks for the inspiring article ! In Singapore with a 5.5Million population and heavy emphasis on education, how do we build and develop world class elite swimmers? one way is to send Spore Swimmers to USA University that concentrate on Swimming.
Joseph Schooling was coached by Sergio and Eddie . Quah Zheng Wen studied at Berkerly Uni of California.
It was such a pleasure to watch all athletes to compete for medals and I really enjoyed watching swimmers. USA did a great job but I think there is another relevant measure which puts a different light on every medal: Medal per capita.
For example: San Marino is 1st, 3 medals, 33.931 Population, 11.310 population per medal
USA is not even in first 50 it is 59. country, 113 medals, 331.002.651 Population, 2.929.227 Population per medal !!!
So, for me, this is not as great as it looks like but I admire every single athlete who made itself be a part of such a great event.
You didn’t mention the USA’s highly organized high school and YMCA swimming programs. These two, while not directly affiliated with the USA Swimming, send many swimmers on to college where they are developed into Olympians. Hunter Armstrong, for example, began swimming at the Dover, OH YMCA and Dover High school programs before he competed and trained with the local USA club and went on to Ohio State U and qualified in the 100 Backstroke.
Of course, the legacy of white supremacy plays a huge role. The wealth that enabled country clubs with their golf courses and swimming pools (accessible only to white people until recently) allowed a class of people to pursue leisure activities and develop “sport” as well as the excellent facilities of today. Swimming is the example par excellence of the summer games. The United States, having the most peculiar kind of racism And white supremacy built into its founding, reaped some of the greatest financial and white privileged gains of any nation. If you take the all-sports medal count of the 54 states in Africa and her diaspora and compare it to the 50 states of the United States, America gets second …. But not if you just limit it to swimming. So you have to ask the question, why do American SWIMMERS do better than the other athletes? The answer lies in the heritage, wealth, privilege and inequality white supremacy produced. I know it’s an uncomfortable topic to discuss, but ignoring the elephant in the room isn’t going to help….
It’s simple: USA has easily the largest number of good pools, interested swimmers, coaches, and parents with enough money to support swimming careers. Most countries in the world don’t have pools, or coaches, or high enough standard of living.