The track and field world championships in August offered lots of big throws and interesting storylines on the individual level. We’ve recapped all the events here and here, as well as on last week’s podcast. But beyond the individual stories, there are some interesting stories at the country and continental level as well. Below as some of the most interesting trends we have identified after crunching the numbers.
Who was on top: USA
In addition to the World Athletics medal table, each championship also has a less well known placing table where coutnries are ranked based on their top-8 finishers, giving 8 points for gold down to 1 point for 8th place.
When you look a the medals, USA dominated the championships with 7 total medals, more than twice as many as any other country. The story is even more extreme when you calculate the points for all the throwing events as well. With 61 points, USA had nearly triple the points of any other country and 21% of all the points available at the meet.
The fact that USA was on top was no surprise. What is surprising is how the race shaped up behind them. Second place went to Canada who took home two golds and a silver, their highest point total ever. Then China, India, and Australia rounded out the top five.
Trending down: Poland and Germany
It’s shocking to see the two biggest European throwing powers—Poland and Germany—in just sixth and seventh position this year. For the second straight year Germany took home no throwing medals. This is a team that won six throwing medals in 2011, and now they struggle just to send people to the final. Poland has traditionally been able to score in all 4 throwing events, yet this year they only had points in the men’s hammer.
The results in 2023 further confirm the long term trends for those two countries. Looking at the top 10 countries over the last decade we see the following evolution:
The decline of Poland and Germany is representative of a shift of power to the west in the throwing events. I showed the graph below when analyzing the men’s hammer final. The men’s hammer throw used to by a European-dominated event, but the Americas have caught up. Also in the women’s hammer throw we saw a similar effect with only half of the finalists from Europe and no Europeans on the podium for the second straight championship.
Other events have shifted from Europe to the east. The javelin also used to be dominated by Europe. This year’s javelin finals featured perhaps the most geographically diverse field. On the women’s side there were 5 throwers from Asia and Oceania, 3 from the Americas, 1 African, and just 3 Europeans. In the men’s javelin final four of the top six men were from the Indian subcontinent, a region that didn’t even have one thrower over 77 meters a decade ago. Europe has one just one men’s javelin gold in the last six global championships. As Bob Dylan would say, the times they are a-changin’.
So who are the big winners and losers from these regional changes across all the enents? Here is how the numbers look over the last decade:
Here are the trends we see in each region:
- Africa – Africa was never a huge throwing power, but they have almost disappeared from the world stage in recent years. The decline of South Africa has been a long term trend that has not changed. But even a decade ago we saw big points from Egypt and Kenya that have trended down as well.
- Oceania – Oceania really gained strength a decade ago, and then they have held their numbers fairly steady since 2016, reaching a high water mark in 2021 and regressing to the mean since then. While the region as a whole has produced stable points, we see a lot of moves within the region as points have been shifted from New Zealand towards Australia recently. This is partially due to the retirement of Valerie Adams, combined with a new generation of throwers in Australia.
- Asia – With 51 points in 2023, Asian throwers ticked upward a bit in 2023. However overall there is not a major change over the past decade. Again we see more changes within the region as China scored about half as many points as normal in 2023, while India and Pakistan have picked up the slack and improved substantially. We also see shifts between events with more points in the javelin and fewer in the hammer after the retirements of Dilshod Nazarov and Koji Murofushi.
- Americas – The Americas have been led first and foremost by the USA. Traditionally dominant in the shot put, they have not only increased their strength there, but added many points in the discus and hammer as well. But that is not the whole story. Canada has improved significantly, as have some South American countries. Jamaica and other Caribbean countries continue to contribute significant points too. Cuba is the only major country on a downward trend as it’s traditional support structures are crumbling and it has been impacted by athlete defections.
- Europe – Points from Europe have declined by one-third over the last decade: from 175 to 113. They still lead all regions, but have dipped from 60% of all points down to under 40%. The primary reason is that the traditional powers are failing. As mentioned above, Poland and Germany have significantly underperformed. Europe as a whole had 62 fewer points in 2023 versus 2015. Combined, Poland and German had 75 fewer points over that period, more than explaining the drop-off. The former Soviet countries have also been historically strong, but Russia was already effectively banned in 2015 so their decline hasn’t impacted recent trends. The rest of Europe was actually stronger with ebbs and flows at the individual country level based on where a few of the best throwers each year were from (e.g. more points for Italy, Lithuania, and Slovenia, fewer for France and Czech, stable for Sweden).
There are lots of countries, lots of throwers, and lots of numbers to look at. But when I take the high-level view of the Budapest results and the last few years that got us here I see one major trend: the Americas are generally getting strong at the expense of Germany and Poland. We can debate why that is the case, it seems to be a trend that will continue as the Americas have a strong pipeline of throwers. Poland doesn’t have a big pipeline of talent coming. And while Germany has many top young throwers their track record of development has not been as strong in recent years. In any event, 2024 might be the first time in recent history where the Americas outscore Europe in the throws at the Olympics.