Global trends in track and field: who’s hot and who’s not

While everyone focuses on the medal table during the Olympics, what I find even more interesting is the placing table. The placing table allocates points for each finalist: 8 points for first, 1 for eighth. Medals can often be a matter of luck, but by looking at a country’s depth you get a real idea of trends in the sport. Below are some insights gathered from analyzing the results from Tokyo, as well as placings for the last six Olympics.

Analyzing the anglosphere

Among English speaking countries, there was a lot of talk about the United States and Great Britain being off their game in Tokyo, but the numbers only partially back that up. The United States ranked first again, and while they scored 15% fewer points than in Rio, they were still above levels from the 2000 and 2004 Olympics. What continues to make America so dominant is the breadth of their team. There are 48 events at the Olympics, and America scored points in 38 of them. This was up one event since 2016 thanks to the addition of the mixed 4×400 meter relay. No other country came close to this total.

Great Britain saw a 30% reduction in points and a drop from 4th to 8th rank. If their 4x100m is eventually disqualified due to the pending doping case against CJ Ujah, they will far even further back. However they are not off the charts historically as 2004 saw nearly identical numbers. Kenya saw a similar drop but no one is claiming the sky is falling for Kenya. And considering Mo Farah gave them two golds in both 2012 and 2016, his absence alone makes up much of the difference.

One English-speaking country that bucked the downward trend was Australia. Australia had its best Olympics since it played host back in 2000, outperforming by 50% compared to the last four Olympics.

Who’s hot, who’s not

Who’s hot: Australia, Poland, and Netherlands. We discussed Australia’s surge above, and Poland’s point totals jumped even more. Poland had a mixture of throwers, sprinters, and middle distance runners that helped them increase their points 60% compared to Rio (the addition of the mixed relay of course also benefited them tremendously). But the biggest mover over the last 20 years has by far been Netherlands. Back in 2000 they scored 0 points. In Tokyo they had 68 points, ranking 6th overall. They have gone from second tier European country to the continent’s second strongest team in Tokyo. Several teams outside the top 10 made big strides, including Italy. But despite the golds, they lacked the depth to crack the top 10 this year.

Who’s not: Germany, France, Russia and Cuba. Russia and Cuba continued their long-term decline. Back in 2000 Russia had the second most points, and Cuba 5th most. Cuba had 95 points back in 2000. In Tokyo they had 24, which was a slight uptick compared to Rio, be continues to show how a former athletics superpower is just a shadow of its former self. Russia was only allowed 10 athletes to compete in Tokyo, which already made success nearly impossible. However their decline started well before the current restrictions and, if RAF is ever reinstated it is difficult to see it being as strong a team as it once was.

Men’s and women’s trends

It is always interesting to see how countries score their points. The composition of many teams is quite evenly split between men and women, but not in all countries. Imbalances can highlight strengths and hide weaknesses on certain teams.

The United States had equal teams, for example, winning 133 points for men and 130 for women. Kenya was nearly evenly split as well as well. Jamaica, on the other hand had 75% of their points come from women, which highlighted how their men’s sprint results have fallen off since Usain Bolt’s retirement. Canada, on the other hand, had more than 80% from their men. Both UK and China were also outliers in the top 10 with more than 65% of their points on the women’s side.

Throwing trends

As a thrower, I’m also very interested in how the throwers rank and in Tokyo there were some big changes to the world order in the throws. Back in 2015 and 2016 we scored out the top throwing countries, with Germany consistently coming out on top, and USA, China, and Poland trading spots behind them. After one Olympic cycle, things have changed considerably. Germany is almost nowhere to be seen.

This year Poland took the title as best throwing country, with three gold medals and 37 total points. USA was second with 34 points. And China in third with 31 points. While the numbers are interesting, it is even more interesting to see how each country got them. The US scored in 6 events, more than any other country. Poland, on the other hand, scored in just three events, but with five medals that was enough to rack up the points. Interestingly, all of China’s points came from the women’s side. Take a higher level view and you’ll see that means nearly half of the country’s points came from the women’s throws.

Sweden, Australia, and New Zealand all were big improvers and claimed the next three spots. Germany ranked a dismal 7th, with only one medal and finalists in only three events. Obviously the javelin runway fiasco hurt their chances in arguably their strongest event, but it also illustrated how much they now rely so much on one event rather than scoring across all events as they used to.