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What Are The Worst Olympic Sports?

We’re on the ground in Rio covering the 2016 Summer Olympics. Check out all our coverage here.

The Olympic Games are finally here. The modern incarnation began back in 1896, but the Olympic tradition harkens back to the ancient Greek festival where a massive municipal infrastructure boondoggle was offered unto the gods as a tribute.

Many of the sports appearing at the Summer Games have storied and truly ancient histories, and not just the obvious ones like the discus and javelin events. The race Herodotus presumably called “βμχ” is now honored with the Olympic event of bicycle motocross racing. Who could forget the ancient story of Achilles gaining victory over the Trojan Prince Hector in a particularly devastating table tennis bout. And most of all, while Pheidippides’ run following the Greek victory at the battle of Marathon gets all the glory, today we also commemorate in the Olympic Games the tenacious if less celebrated efforts of an unnamed Achaean soldier after the Battle of 50 Kilometer Race Walk.

Alright, I’ll just say it: Some Olympic events are better than others. Some are way better than others. And I wanted to figure out which are really the best.


As we’ve done before, I set up head-to-head matchups and put out a call through FiveThirtyEight social media channels — so, you know, just Americans taking a brief respite from making Harambe jokes during a lunch hour, not exactly the paragon of triple blind scientific research but better than say letting an octopus pick ’em, probably — for people to pick the superior Summer Olympic event.1 More than 55,000 matchups later, including at least 900 for each event, we have our win percentages:

Of the big three groupings — track and field events, swimming and gymnastics — swimming comes out on top when the win percentages of its events are consolidated into an average, but track and field has the most beloved events of all. A few interesting things are going on here: People usually valued team relays more highly than individual events in both swimming and track. Track would have a higher overall win percentage than swimming (64 percent vs. 62 percent), if you dropped out the two very low scoring events of 20 kilometer race walk and 50 kilometer race walk, but we are not going to do that because the IOC must be held to account for its crimes.

Outside of the big three, there are a several sports that come off looking very, very good. Volleyball comes out on top, which is hugely unexpected, particularly because indoor volleyball event somehow scored higher than the beach volleyball event. Soccer rolls in at second place overall; it’s no World Cup but, hey, we’ll take what we can get. The triathlon comes in between swimming and track, which makes perfect sense when you think about it for a couple seconds.

Then of course you have rugby, an addition this year but the closest we’re ever going to get to actual American football in the games. (The IOC simply refers to the sport as “rugby,” but it’s the seven-man version, not the 15-man one, and that’s what we’re talking about here.) And apparently there’s a sleeper audience out there for water polo, the blood sport, which somehow comes out on top of basketball.

On the other hand, the people have no patience for equestrian sports, sailing, golf or any other one-percenter hobbies the IOC is presumably taking under consideration for inclusion, like fox hunting or fleecing the middle class or getting thrown out of Choate.

Respondents also have low opinions of synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics, because apparently there’s just too much goddamn beauty in the world and all of y’all would just hate to see a little more art on this Earth, you ingrates.

Still, this allows us to get solid determinations of sport rankings: In terms of moving somewhere with alacrity in a body of water, swimming beats out rowing which beats canoeing which beats the crap out of sailing in terms of Olympic integrity. Fun fact: This is also the opposite of the real world ranking of “If you dropped me in the Guanabara Bay how would I like to leave there.”

In keeping with the “Great Teenage Girl theory of Olympic history,” the individual all-around artistic gymnastics competition is the most prized of all the gymnastics events, followed by the uneven bars, the balance beam and parallel bars. The worst event in gymnastics, we can all agree, is the horizontal bar.

In terms of combat, Greco-Roman wrestling beats boxing, which beats freestyle wrestling, which beats judo, which beats fencing, which beats taekwondo, all of which are considered inferior to competitive diving. Consider that the next time someone wants to take it out back to the parking lot.

As a rule, with rowing, the more people you have in your boat the better the event.

In track and swimming, shorter distances are vastly preferable to longer ones. On the field side, the long jump and high jump are better than the pole vault and triple jump. If you’re going to throw something, make it a javelin. A discus will suffice in the absence of a javelin; a shot and hammer are right out.

And if you really must be caught on a horse, it had better be jumping, and you had better be doing it alone. But in general, leave the horses out of it. The Olympics are for people stuff.


  1. Rather than split hairs, we broke out individual events within a sport when it was sensible to do so, differentiating between distances, skill sets and individual and team events. I wasn’t totally concerned with weight class differences in combat events.

Walt Hickey was FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.


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