U.S. Olympic Swimming and Track Again Prove Their Worth: Data Viz

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The United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) gives out millions of dollars of grants to individual sports federations every year, generally with the purpose of increasing the country’s overall medal haul, according to Sportico’s analysis.

And as we look at the results of the Tokyo Olympics, two sports accustomed to both USOPC funding and high medal counts—swimming and track and field—stayed true to form.

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A comparison of the Tokyo Olympics results concurrently with the total funding given out to each sport between 2017 and 2019 reveals which U.S. sports were most successful in this Olympic cycle from a return-on-investment perspective.

For the third straight Summer Games, the U.S. won at least 50% more swimming medals and more than twice as many track and field medals than the next-winningest nations in each sport. Take those disciplines away, and the U.S. would have finished third behind China and ROC in the overall medal count.

Those two sports accounted for just over one-fifth of USOPC funding over the past three fiscal years, but they yielded 56 medals, compared to 57 from all of the other sports combined. They represent the USOPC’s most reliable financial investments. This despite an unusually poor performance on the track by U.S. male runners, who failed to win a solo gold medal for the first time in modern Olympic history.

Another efficient use of spending was on the four new sports to the Olympics: skateboarding, surfing, karate and sport climbing. None cracked the top half of Summer Olympic sports in terms of financial support in 2019, but each put at least one American athlete on the podium in Tokyo. Aside from karate, they will all be returning as events at Paris in 2024.

USA Climbing received no money from the USOPC until 2019, when it suddenly got $516,250. Expect that number to increase going forward, as an additional medal for each gender will be up for grabs in 2024. The U.S. also has promising prospects in 20-year-old Brooke Raboutou, who finished fifth in the women’s event, and 17-year-old Colin Duffy, who finished seventh overall in the men’s competition and was the youngest climber in Tokyo.

As usual, the team sports were expensive operations given that each only has the potential to yield a small number of medals. Of the sports that brought home medals, water polo, volleyball and soccer were the three least cost-effective, but basketball fared significantly better. Both the men’s and women’s 5-on-5 teams took gold, as well as the women’s inaugural 3x3 Olympic squad. In fact, if the USOPC only cared about winning gold medals, basketball provided the best return on investment of any sport.

Even more lucrative, though, was baseball, with its 1-to-0 medals-to-dollars ratio. The USOPC decided not to allocate a penny to USA Baseball, as the sport was out of the Olympics since 2008 and won’t be back until at least 2028. Major League Baseball also doesn’t allow players on 40-man rosters to participate in the Olympics. Nonetheless, the U.S. lineup of free agents and minor leaguers secured silver.

An examination of the USOPC’s divvying up of funds reveals that the organization has essentially lost faith in six sports due to their performances at the Olympics in this century: canoeing, badminton, team handball, modern pentathlon, artistic swimming and table tennis. None won any medals in 2008, 2012, or 2016, and the U.S. hasn’t even fielded a team handball squad since 1996, when it automatically qualified as the host country.

Amazingly, despite the USOPC's minimal funding for at the canoeing team, 19-year-old Nevin Harrison became the first American woman to win a gold medal in the sport by upsetting a six-time world champion in the 200-meter sprint. Her win could pave the way for more money for the discipline going forward.

On the other end of the spectrum are, coincidentally, two water sports that received a boatload of USOPC funding, only to come away from Tokyo empty-handed: rowing and sailing.

The sailing team’s bagel in the medal count continues a negative Olympic performance trend for a sport that ranks among the top 10 in financial support from the USOPC. Typically, sports that produce just one bronze medal over the span of three Olympics will see their incoming cash flow reduced.

Conversely, the 2020 Olympics marked the first time since 1908 that the U.S. sent athletes to the Games and didn’t medal in men’s or women’s rowing. That result comes as men’s head coach Mike Teti is under investigation by the USOPC for alleged misconduct. The women’s and men’s eight both finished fourth overall, so they narrowly missed the podium, and the women’s team consisted mostly of new faces, so the US Rowing Association can hope to come back strong three years from now.