How To Measure A Meet: Gold Count Or Nos Game?

In the Depths - Photo by Patrick B. Kraemer

Editorial: After the World Juniors Championships wrapped up in Dubai last Sunday, we ran a headline on our coverage of the last day of action that read “Horton King, Meilutyte Queen, Australia Wins Meet”. A reader wrote it to raise an oft-debated point: who won the meet? Not Australia, he believed. The debate cuts to the heart of what elite, world-class sport is about

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Editorial: After the World Juniors Championships wrapped up in Dubai last Sunday, we ran a headline on our coverage of the last day of action that read “Horton King, Meilutyte Queen, Australia Wins Meet”. A reader wrote it to raise an oft-debated point: who won the meet? Not Australia, he believed. The debate cuts to the heart of what elite, world-class sport is about



A measure that is unlikely to ever count in any official capacity: number of PBs in the meet. A big part of sport for me is self-improvement – when I was an age-grouper it was very unlikely that I would ever win my races, so my goal was always just to set a PB. If the majority of the GB team had swum PBs (or even just textile bests) in London then I would have been very happy for them, even if they hadn’t converted that to medals. I remember when Becky Adlington won her first gold in Beijing and she immediately said “I’m a bit disappointed with the time…” – that was true class in my book.

Craig Lord

Yes to all that. Agree very much with those thoughts … and the thoughts that flow from it when talking about pbs and Britain that the medals count and success and perception of success would have been greater had there been a far higher No of pbs (and on that score the US often tops the league; conversion rates from trials to main event part of their success story) … at the core of the question, however, I maintain that a meet at which the USA takes 20 golds and has a 20% pb hit rate would mean that it won the meet over a nation that took 2 bronzes and enjoyed 90% pbs.


Different high level meets have different ultimate goals. FINA World Championships skew toward medal count and gold medal count at that. The flip side is NCAAs, which counts as one of the five biggest meets of the years (and is arguably a faster meet many times than the world short course championships) and it’s actively all about team points. The discussion after a NCAA prelims session is not so much about which individual looks poised to win an event but the number of “ups” and “downs” (A and B finals placements) the elite schools have in each event.

And I like that you can find both meet emphases in different corners of the sport.


It’s a good question. Of course at these elite meets we really tend to focus on the medalists and the 2 or 3 people who had a shot at medalling. But I don’t think that’s a good way of measuring the strength of a country.

A great swimmer can really dominate at the highest level. Trinadad and Tobago and Britain both won a single bronze medal. Does that mean that they performed equally as well? I would say most definitely not, seeing as Britain had 17 finals swims while T&T had maybe 2. In 2012 Phelps won 2 individual golds. Does that mean he accomplished more than Japan and Australia put together, who won a single gold medal?

Here is how I would score world or the Olympics (individuals):
Semi-Finals: 1 point
Finals: 3 points
4th: 4 points
Bronze: 6 points
Silver: 8 points
Gold: 12 points

Finals: 5 points
5th: 7 points
4th: 9 points
Bronze: 12 points
Silver: 15 points
Gold: 30 points


Unless you are talking about a meet that you are using for development (which arguably the World Junior Championships is in which case by all means play with points for PBs and semi-finals if you wish), winning is what matters is it not? Silver and bronze medals are only given out to recognise the fastest losers.

Australia were the best country at the meet because they won the most gold medals.


1 point for participation, 2 points for a PB in the heats and then graduating points for performance …………………… Just-kidding ! Pointless discussion……

Joe Swim

I guess the perspective may depend on where you live. Most US swimmers are on high school and college meets where places and scoring are critical to winning the meets. So we are more used to looking at the view in addition to the individual medal counts.

The points all count in the big meets and getting more of your swimmers in the top eight and the second eight is necessary to build the points. This approach and the strong competitive atmosphere at the team level helps the US put together strong teams of people who can race as well as they swim. Please note how many foreign swimmers go. To NCAA schools for this seasoning and experience.

Also note that FINA chose to publish and recognize team scores in addition to the medal counts so the team does matter to them. Some countries used this as a development and seasoning meet (USA, Australia) while others sent people who also swam at Worlds (Russia) that also impacted medal counts.

My children swam on their high school and college teams so I fall on the team score side of this discussion. Also note that Missy Franklin will swim for her college team, at least for now, so that team spirit means a lot in the US. NCAA Division 1 is elite world class swimming and team points drive the wins.

In any case, the meet was strong with many great swims and give us a view of those who might be on the podium in Rio or beyond. The experience the swimmers gained is the real take away for them.

Craig Lord

I see all of that. Makes sense: FINA introduced team trophies because coaches and Feds asked for it and pressed for it some years ago (the suggestion of McGill Rocks on points is very close to the count in our Swim League of Nations – though we don’t place that huge up-mark on relays). I make the distinction, however, between what the sport talks about to itself (what matters every weekend at a million meets around the world that matter to few others than those present) and what the wider world perceives when it tunes in once every four, to a lesser extent two years or so when assessing the overall view of a meet – the gold count is the headline, not the points tally (as Linny suggests). At world level, I genuinely cannot find any headline/top-line reference in a worldwide media database to points scores. I can find an abundance of references to medals tables, with emphasis on who won the most gold medals. Worth noting too that the latest medals counts is provided to the worldwide media every day during big meets … there is a link to that count updated daily on the official websites. The points score is definitely an after-thought at the end of the meet, the trophy for points often handed out – as was the case in Dubai – when there is almost no-one left in the stands…

Craig Lord

LVOV – nothing that people wish to discuss is pointless to the people who wish to discuss it. Medals and points are a key part of the sport of swimming and how we measure success … hardly pointless. After football matches, basketball, baseball games etc around the world week in and week out, people gather in bars, restaurants, gardens, at home etc and discuss myriad aspects of those sports… that contributes to interest, lore and a wider feel for what those sports are about, how things stack up, how we rate stuff as humans etc… if swimming thinks a discussion on how we rate and measure is pointless, it lacks something that other sports benefit from when it comes to wider popularity.

mister clive

The beachmouse almost had it: “Different high level meets have different ultimate goals.” Actually not the meets themselves but the teams and swimmers within the meet. Every swimmer and every team should have a specific goal for each meet but the goal(s) will be different depending on the purpose for which the meet is being used. (Craig, the editing facilities available in the posting box are very frustrating!) Not only that but the purpose (and therefore goals as a measurement of successful purposeful swimming) will differ within a meet for different teams and for different swimmers.

However. HOWEVER. For a World Championships, whether it’s an ‘open’, long course world’s or a short course world’s or an age group world’s (aka ‘Junior’) there is only one meaningful measure: who won the most races?

NCAA’s is an awesome meet, probably the most competitive meet in existence, but it’s rules and regulations are designed around the ‘team’ concept. If FINA decided that each team was limited to [a constraining number of] x swimmers and there were no limits on entries into any single event but individual limits on how many total events a swimmer could swim or restrictions on the number they do each day etc., then total team points may be the raison d’etre of the meet. Until then I go with a phrase attributed to Don Talbot, “Winning is the only reason for leaping off the starting blocks.”

Craig Lord

Quite so Clive (I will ask the tech team to look at the frustrations you speak of… I can’t see that … I have full edit access 🙂 best, Craig


What I find interesting is the culture where you grew up and how the medal table has been reported. As far as I can remember the medal tables for the Olympics and all sporting events in America have always been by the total number of medals first. Not by the most golds. So I guess that’s the way I thought everyone else got it reported to them. Its only been in recent years that this was even been in my consciousness.


Gold is the way to do it, especially given that only two competitors from each country can compete. Having said that, using the results of this meet to predict which country has the most potential in the medium term is a terrible idea.


This reminds me of the similar discussions following the Fukuoka World Championships in 2001 when Australia took the meet on golds behind Thorpe, Hackett, and company. This was probably the zenith of Australian swimming since Melbourne in ’56 and the one time they have defeated the US at an Olympics/World championships since that time. My conclusion now as it was then is that Australia were the clear victors of the meet. I’m American and so this tends to diverge from the prevailing emphasis on the overall medal count as has been the tradition in the US for many years. Newspapers here have always sorted the medal tables this way. Everyone knows that Americans love to win so this difference in approach is absolutely not a reflection of glorifying the “fastest losers” but rather a very conscientiousness method to promote the team concept in an otherwise very individualistic culture. So in other words it is more philosophical than analytical. But the way we measure objectively at the end of the day in the fan observer context should be analytical so that’s why I prefer the gold medal tally.

Australia are the clear winners of the meet and Russia definitely appears to be on the ascent. Although in the case of a Junior Worlds the overall complexion of youth swimming is a bit more complicated than a meet medal count. As Joe Swim commented, Russia, for instance sent all their top eligible swimmers including those that competed at the World Championships whereas Australia and the US did not. If the US and Australia adopted the same approach as Russia the overall picture might look quite different. Imagine if Katie Ledecky and Ryan Murphy (both age eligible) had competed for the US.

One correction: four different US Girls won four races (rather than the reported three … Kylie Stewart, Katie McLaughlin, Ella Eastin, and Becca Mann).

Craig Lord

Thanks for that explanation… I suspect that a part of that promotion of tam culture is also built, in international competition, on the recognition that the US has the numbers/depth/breadth to win just about any meet on total medals even it it falls shy on gold.

I agree with the complexity of a meet that does not reflect the very best that the best nations could have selected in all cases.

Thanks for the 4 not 3… corrected


Inherent in that assessment is the assumption that the US adopts this approach to the medal table partly for self interest. I would argue the approach is mainly deeply seated cultural carry over from a tradition that goes back pretty far and permeates all aspects of competition. Until recently (advent of internet communication) like Morrow stated, the idea of ranking by golds would be totally alien to most Americans. The fact that this method may often benefit the US may lead some to be cynical about this but it’s very much the truth.

According to the American media at the time the US finished second to the Soviet Union at the 1964 summer Olympics on the medal table whereas in Europe it was reported that the US topped the table since they won the most golds.

Craig Lord

Points well taken. I also think there is a strong thread of competitiveness in the US that craves gold and ‘winning’ beyond all … strength takes on new meaning when you can combine that with a culture of team… Tom Jager (among others) spring to mind: what he wanted was gold, to win, ’88 and ’92 … he didn’t get it … and when the verdict was in he joined his teammates in the stands when he may well have felt like doing anything but … and led the cheering (the coaches there at the time tell it better than that).

Craig Lord

p.s: there have also been some prime US examples in history (including tales at the heart of the story of one of the best ever) where winning was clearly rated far higher than team and teammates.


C.LORD you go on discussing everything and changing nothing , the whole idea of the olympics is to delight in the achievements of human athletes -Pierre de Coubertin was not in to medal counts , but you can go right ahead and lose sight of the olympic spirit by leading this discussion………………..Hers’s an idea , why don’t you sart a discussion – Should the IOC ban mendal tables from media as it is not in keeping with the Olympic spririt ….knock yourself out !


This is a false question, occurring because of a conflation of two distinct things: success and strength.

Success is about winning, and so the team with the most golds is the most successful, that doesn’t mean for a second that they’re the strongest or best team.

Craig has brought up the GB/ France comparison introduced in the previous discussion, yet the question posed has completely changed. Previously he asked if Britain was really a stronger swimming nation Denmark, the Netherlands or France based on a point system. The question then should have been yes. The strongest nation gets the most finalists, semi-finalists, or, indeed, qualifying times. A lot of luck is involved in uncovering a champion, and it shouldn’t obscure the fact that Britain are a stronger team/nation.

In this article the question has become one of who had the better games. The answer now is obvious France.


If we talk about overall performance of a country, counting golds only have some defects.

For instance, Japan ended in 10th place in the medal table for swimming at the 2012 Olympics because Japanese swimmers couldn’t win a single event. Had Japan worse meet than Lithuania, which claimed one gold, in terms of performance than Japan with its 11 medals? I’m sure the media remembers Ruta’s gold better but declaring Lithuania over Japan in overall terms goes too far.

Of course we should not parallel a bronze to gold but a broader view is needed when comparing the overall performance between countries.

Craig Lord

I don’t see any divergence in what you say and the points I have made in this and many other articles

Craig Lord

I’ve discussed much down the years and changed much too… on medals, they will never ban medals tables … nor go for the idea of athletes competing for themselves…too many budgets and national interests in the mix… why don’t you start a discussion of your own and knock yourself out instead… good luck

Craig Lord

p.s: Pierre was not into Fred Lane teaching kids to swim and racing and thought it best just to have ‘gentlemen’ in races… the world moved on…

Eric Lahmy

If you want to have a serious points system for nations, give points only for the places in finals. Only the finalists make the entire competition! More: now you have a lot of events who are not as relevant. Can you compare say the 50 meters breastroke with the 1500 meters freestyle? The FIna system was established for taking the biggest number possible of nations, to let them think that they count in the World Championships by only being present. It is a political way of acting, but we can understand that. But at the end, GBR are very frustrated by the fact they did not win and telling them that they are in front of France is irrelevant. And nobody takes seriously these biased statistics. I think a best way could be to give points until the 16th swimmer, but to give a boost to the finalists, for example: 16th: 1pt; 15th, 2 pts,…. 9th, 8 pts, and after that, 8th, 10pts; 7th, 12pts, 6th, 14pts,… 2nd, 22pts and perhaps, first, 25 or 26 points!! Something like that
Now, the actual system can help Federations in their country. I guess the Fina points system helped ASA to have a better position for not having money cuts for their budget. After the London Olympic Games, France was respectively 3rd on the medal table and 6th, on the points system. When he had to report to the French Sports Minister, the Technical Director advanced only the medal table. Fair? Why not?

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