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THE CURIOUS CASE OF OLYMPIC SPORTS

A country that produces good swimmers or gymnasts will always place better than a country with the best archers or marathoners

Michael Phelps Olympic medals
Michael Phelps won 28 medals at the Olympic Games - 23 gold, three silver and two bronze -to set the record for the most medal wins by any Olympic athlete. (Credit: Getty)

India had its best-ever medal haul at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, with javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra bagging a landmark gold medal, India’s first in athletics and just second by an individual Indian. While a gold medal in the Olympics is considered to be the epitome of sporting success, the prospect of winning eight gold medals in a single Games is almost unfathomable, if not impossible.

But that is exactly what Micheal Phelps achieved at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. With a career total of 23 gold, three silver and two bronze medals at the quadrennial games, Phelps’ success is unprecedented and hasn’t yet been matched. Thus, it only fits that the crown of “The greatest Olympian ever” goes to him. There is a catch, however, to this argument.

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Could the best boxer in the world match this feat? Even if one doesn’t lose a single bout, winning eight gold medals would be impossible because there just aren’t that many medals on offer. The same goes for wrestling, javelin throw, shot put, pole vault and many other events.

Thus comparisons drawn between athletes from different disciplines would be unfair. To that end, the medals tally also fails to draw accurate comparisons between the performance of competing nations. A country that produces good swimmers or gymnasts will always place better than a country with the best archers or marathoners. It is the harsh truth that being good at certain sports is more rewarding than others at the moment.

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Let’s take a look at the number of gold medals on offer in each sport at the Tokyo Olympics.

  • 48 in Athletics
  • 37 in Swimming
  • 15 in Judo, Shooting
  • 14 in Artistic Gymnastics, Rowing, Weightlifting
  • 13 in Boxing
  • 12 in Fencing, Track cycling, Canoe Sprint, Freestyle Wrestling
  • 10 in Sailing
  • 8 in Diving, Karate, Taekwondo
  • 6 in Equestrian, Greco-Roman Wrestling
  • 5 in Archery, Badminton, Table tennis, Tennis
  • 4 in BMX cycling, Road cycling, Skateboarding, Canoe Slalom, Basketball
  • 3 in Triathlon
  • 2 in Indoor Volleyball, Beach volleyball, Water polo, Artistic (synchronized) swimming, Field hockey, Football (Soccer), Golf, Handball, Modern pentathlon, Mountain biking, Rugby sevens, Rhythmic Gymnastics, Sport climbing, Surfing, Trampoline
  • 1 in Baseball, Softball

Swimming comprises disciplines like freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke and butterfly, over distances of 50m, 100m, 200m, 400m, etc. To add to that, there are men’s, women’s and mixed medley and men’s and women’s freestyle relays. Swimmers usually compete in events across several disciplines. Thus, one swimmer can return home with multiple medals. Though athletics offers the most number of medals, each athlete usually competes in just one discipline.

As a nation looking to perform better and finish higher up in the medals tally, we need to identify such sports, a few of them being swimming, gymnastics, fencing and rowing, and focus on shaping world-class athletes.

Written by Raunakk Banerjee

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