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2020 Olympics Preview: Medal Leaders and Does Size Matter?

By Red Line Project Staff |  @RedLineProject | Posted: Wednesday, March 4, 2020 

 The interactive chart above shows the top 10 medal leaders in Olympic swimming. The top three ranked athletes are Michael Phelps (USA) with 28 Olympic medals, Jenny Thompson (USA) with 12 Olympic medals, and Ryan Lochte (USA) with 12 Olympic medals.

Since the birth of the modern Olympic Games in 1896, competitive swimming has been a sport only the most physically and mentally fit competitors can handle. There have been 28 Summer Olympic Games in 23 cities across the world. The Summer Games have occurred every four years, with the exception of the years 1916, 1940, and 1944 because of major conflicts due to World War I and II.

Today, swimming continues to be a sport that is dominated by the United States on a global scale, despite being fairly unpopular domestically. According to USA Swimming membership data, 2017 had the highest reported amount of American swimmers at 418,956. Comparatively, in 2017 about 5.22 million Americans over the age of 6 played tackle football. Even with the high intensity stakes and engaging races found in competitive swimming, sports such as football and baseball take the limelight among American sports fans and athletes.

The United States of America tends to claim international victory in swimming despite being a forgotten sport domestically. At the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, American swimmer Mark Spitz won seven gold medals, holding the record of most gold medals in the sport until 2008. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Michael Phelps broke Spitz’s record by winning eight gold medals. Phelps is the most decorated Olympian of all time, earning 28 medals from four Olympic Games.

According to Sports Reference Olympic Sports, the United States has claimed 553 medals in swimming, with 248 gold, 170 silver, and 135 bronze medals. Of the top 26 athlete medal leaders in Olympic swimming, 53.8% are USA athletes, rankings one through eight all being Americans. Following the United States is Australia, with 15.3% of its swimmers ranking in the top 26.

Additionally, Sports Reference Olympic Sports reports swimming has the second most participants in an Olympic sport by United States athletes, having 710 swimmers since 1896. The most participants in an Olympic sport by United States athletes is athletics, with 1,904 participants since 1896. Athletics has claimed 819 medals for the United States, only 266 more medals than swimming.

The 2020 Summer Olympic Games will be held in Tokyo, Japan. -- Kate Perschke

Since its birth, the Olympic Games have been a venue to prove an athlete’s strength, endurance and persistence. But most importantly, to represent one’s country.

Although the Olympics is a representation of bringing a movement of peace and sportsmanship amongst different cultures and backgrounds, there is no doubt that a long history of rivalry has played out throughout many countries across time.

Throughout history, war has been a major aspect of defining how different politics and ideologies can cause a great deal of conflict. The 1952 Olympics is an example of the beginning of the great rivalry between the United States and Russia in wartime, such as World War II followed by the Cold War. The 1952 Olympics was proof that sports brought in a whole new perspective of rivalry amongst countries.

Countries such as China and Germany have made their way to becoming huge competitors against the United States. 

The U.S has won the most gold and total medals in many years, like it did in the 1896 Olympic games and the 2016 Summer Olympic games. In the 2016 Olympics, the U.S was able to win a total of 121 medals, three times more than its major competitor, China and even more times than the rest of the top countries.

The next Summer Olympic games will be held in Tokyo, Japan 2020. -- Merari Taboada


Sizing it Up: Olympians are Getting Taller ... but So is Everyone Else

In 1920, the average Olympian was 10-13 centimeters taller than the average 20-year-old. Today, we’re not doing a whole lot better.

By comparing average height data from Oxford’s “Our World in Data” to Olympic records dating to 1896, we’re able to compare the world’s best athletes to the average person. 

The closest the average person ever came to summer Olympian height was 1960, with a difference between 8.2 to 8.2 centimeters. By 2016, the height gap was back up, to about 10.5-10.8 centimeters.

But, the news isn’t all bad. While most of us aren’t beating Olympians in a game of basketball anytime soon, the average human has also been getting taller. 

The average 20-year-old male in 2016 is 8.3 centimeters taller than a 20-year-old male in 1920. This is a more significant difference than male Olympians, for which the difference is 5.8 centimeters. Maybe if we give it another few decades, we’ll all catch up?

According to the experts, probably not. While human height grew consistently throughout the 20th century, this growth has recently stagnated. Particularly developed countries, long associated with height increases, have actually reversed this trend in recent years. The most accepted theory among experts is that there is an upper limit to genetic human height. Another possibility is that sedentary lifestyles and access to low-nutrition food have hurt societal height prospects.

Sources: Olympic History Data | Worldwide Height Averages


  • Average Olympian heights is calculated by averaging the heights of summer Olympians for any given year, after removing duplicate Olympian rows.
  • Worldwide height averages are based on 20 year olds. 
  • Olympics have been held since 1896, but this data only compares since 1920, the first year for worldwide height average data and female competition in the Olympics

-- Brody Ford

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