This article is part of our Tokyo Olympics series.
American opulence is expected at the Olympics. So even as U.S. athletes were racking up medals at the Tokyo Olympics, much of the conversation seemed to dwell on why we weren’t winning more. Indeed, according to the FiveThirtyEight medal tracker, Team USA was projected to win 16 more medals than it did, with its gold medal total of 39 coming in seven fewer than in each of the past two Summer Games.
But when the flame was finally extinguished in Tokyo, the U.S. still finished atop the medal stand for the seventh consecutive Summer Games. And there was a historic, gendered foundation for that strong showing: By volume, the 2020 Olympics was the greatest collective performance in a single Summer Games by U.S. women.
American women won 66 of the country’s 113 total medals, or 58.4 percent.1 By total and percentage, those figures are unprecedented since American women first competed in 1900. Of America’s 39 gold medals in Tokyo, women were responsible for 23 — their fourth-highest total, giving them their second-highest share in history (59 percent).
The International Olympic Committee marketed this as the first ever gender-balanced Olympic Games, with women representing nearly half of the total athletes competing. As has been the case in each successive Olympiad since 1960, female participation at the 2020 Olympics represented an all-time high — and a significant chunk of that representation was red, white and blue. The U.S. team brought a record-breaking 329 female athletes to Tokyo, the largest female contingent ever assembled.
By nearly every other country’s standards, the performance of the U.S. men was remarkable: By total gold medals, Caeleb Dressel’s five made him the most successful athlete of the Olympics, and the U.S. men won both more gold medals and total medals than men from any other country. However, by American standards, Tokyo went about as well as a baton pass in the men’s 4x100-meter relay. The men’s 16 gold medals — again, Dressel won five — are their fewest since 1928, according to Olympedia, and the men’s 41 total medals are their fewest of any Summer Games since the first Summer Games in 1896, when there were only 43 events.
Conversely, it was the third consecutive Summer Olympics in which the U.S. women outearned the men. If just the U.S. women were a sovereign nation, they would have trailed only the Russian Olympic Committee and China in total medal count. That’s quite the comeup for a contingent that as recently as 1988 was bringing home less than a third of the country’s medals.
What should be the next Summer Olympic sport? | FiveThirtyEight Debate Club
American women saw dominance from the usual suspects. Katie Ledecky continued to clock outrageous times in the pool,2 the water polo team three-peated, and the basketball team won its seventh consecutive gold medal, led by a history-making turn from Dawn Staley, who became the first Black head coach to lead the women’s national team to an Olympic gold. But there was also dominance from new faces in new Olympic sports: American women won gold in surfing and 3-on-3 basketball, both of which debuted in Tokyo.
There was also the first U.S. gold medal for the women’s volleyball team, the first U.S. individual medals in foil and taekwondo, the first gold medal for U.S. women’s golf since 1900, and the third Americans to win gold in the pole vault and discus. Molly Seidel earned a bronze medal in her third-ever marathon!
Many of the most indelible moments of the Games came from the accomplishments of U.S. women: Allyson Felix matching and subsequently exceeding Carl Lewis as the most decorated U.S. track and field athlete in history; Tamyra Mensah-Stock becoming the first Black woman to win gold in freestyle wrestling and just the second American woman to win a gold medal in the sport; Suni Lee and the artistic gymnastics team flourishing with the greatest gymnast of all time sidelined.
Greater still was the impact made by American women off the field of play. Simone Biles reignited the conversation surrounding mental health. Felix promoted equity through her first-of-its-kind program for athlete moms. Track athlete Raven Saunders and the U.S. women’s soccer team used protest to shed light on the oppressed and marginalized.
It’s easy to overinflate the accomplishments of the present, particularly when the event in question carries the pageantry of the Olympics. But in terms of hardware, American women delivered an all-time performance at the Tokyo Olympics, a collective success that will live on until, well, probably 2024, when the Paris delegation will dash these numbers and reset the country’s ever-rising high-water mark. That would be the trend, after all.