The U.S. Is Great at Swimming, but the Numbers Actually Say It Should Be Better

Why is the United States so successful in swimming at the Olympics? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answer by Kynan Eng, former life-saving instructor, on Quora:

Actually, the USA is good at swimming, but not that great. It should do a lot better in per capita terms.

First and foremost, the USA is large; it has many potential swimmers to choose from. It is also rich, so it can afford many nice swimming pools. As of the second to last swimming event of the 2016 Olympics, the all-time Summer Olympics swimming medal count was as follows, with amount of population per medal in brackets:

  • USA - 553 (583,000)
  • Australia - 180 (129,484)
  • Germany (including east/west) - 151 (533,907)
  • Russia (incl. Soviet Union period) - 82 (1,750,000)
  • Japan - 80 (1,588,000)
  • Great Britain - 73 (812,000)
  • Hungary - 73 (136,780)
  • Netherlands - 57 (296,700)

(Note: population numbers taken from modern versions of countries in 2016. Numbers ignore relative population changes and territory changes over the years that Olympics have been held.)

In this table, Australia wins on a per-capita basis. Obviously, the Australian advantage is related to natural selection - sharks and crocodiles ate everyone who couldn't swim fast enough. In fact, 225 Australian shark fatalities have been recorded since the start of the modern Olympics in 1896, so Australians are almost as likely to win an Olympic swimming medal as to be eaten by a shark.

Close behind in second place is Hungary. If we also factored in relative GDP, Hungary would win. Not bad for a country with no coastline.

In case you are wondering, the Independent Aquatic Republic of Michael Phelps will finish his career at 14th on the all-tme list, with a medals:population ratio of 28:1. He is one spot ahead of the old West Germany. He's unlikely to catch up to the next country, Sweden (35 medals), unless he comes out of retirement again for 2020 and Sweden decides to stop swimming.

Another thing: current EU countries have won 567 swimming medals as of 2016, beating the USA. However, the EU also has over 150 million extra people, so the USA is still ahead per capita. With the impending Brexit, taking with it a significant number of decent swimmers, the USA will stand alone at the top of the table. At the moment, the countries in line for EU accession won't do much to help the swimming performance of the EU bloc.

What's the smallest country to win a swimming medal? Suriname, with a population of about 540,000, has 2 medals (1:270,000). This was all the work of one man, Anthony Nesty, who shocked the swimming superpowers to win the 100m butterfly in 1988, and followed up with bronze in 1992.

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