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How Many Athletes Just Lost Their Shot At Olympic Glory?

The news many observers had been waiting for finally came Tuesday, when International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics would be postponed by a year. Until then, the IOC had been publicly holding out hope that the games could continue as scheduled this summer, despite the coronavirus pandemic currently gripping the planet — even though some of the committee’s own members were skeptical that the world’s largest regularly scheduled gathering could realistically take place.

But what does this mean for the athletes who had been planning their whole lives around this summer? As much as Olympic fixtures such as Michael Phelps and Allyson Felix stand out in our memories, the typical Olympian gets only one shot at glory. So this upheaval could have a major effect on who gets to excel on the global stage — and who even gets to participate.

According to data collected by historian Bill Mallon and a team of tireless Olympic researchers, about 74 percent of all Summer Olympians participated in just one Olympics.1 By comparison, 19 percent appeared twice, 6 percent appeared in three games and a shade under 2 percent appeared in four or more. So even for world-class athletes, the opportunity for this kind of greatness is so fleeting that the majority will see only a single, solitary chance at it.

Which Olympic sports give you only one shot at glory?

Current Summer Olympic sports* with the highest and lowest rates of athletes participating in just one Summer Olympics

Highest rates Share competing in…
Discipline 1 Games 2 Games 3 Games 4+ Games
Soccer 92.2% 6.4% 1.2% 0.2%
Boxing 86.9 11.4 1.6 0.1
Rhythmic gymnastics 85.5 13.1 1.2 0.2
Artistic gymnastics 78.9 16.6 4.0 0.5
Cycling 77.9 16.4 4.4 1.3
Lowest rates Share competing in…
Discipline 1 Games 2 Games 3 Games 4+ Games
Fencing 63.9% 22.8% 9.0% 4.3%
Triathlon 62.0 29.0 7.0 2.0
Badminton 61.5 27.6 8.9 2.0
Trampoline 60.2 21.5 14.0 4.3
Table tennis 56.7 23.6 12.0 7.6

*Excluding sports such as rugby sevens and baseball that have not been active over all of the previous five Olympic cycles.

Source: olympedia, wikipedia

Broken out by sport, the discipline with the best rate of multi-Olympic appearances is table tennis, in which just 57 percent of athletes have appeared in only one cycle of the games; the runners-up are trampoline, badminton and triathlon, among current sports. At the other end of the spectrum, 92 percent of soccer players appear in only one Olympics, followed by boxing and rhythmic and artistic gymnastics.2

Of course, these numbers don’t map perfectly to our current situation because the games usually operate on four-year cycles, while this year will effectively offer a one-year gap for Olympic hopefuls between when they thought they were competing and when they’ll actually have to peak in performance.

As Mallon pointed out on Twitter, the closest comparison to this probably came in 1992 and 1994, when the Winter Olympics shifted from being held the same year as the summer games to happening halfway between sets of summer games. In that pair of Olympics, 42 percent of athletes participated in both the 1992 and 1994 competitions, meaning 58 percent were good enough for one but not the other, Mallon said. The average return rate over the typical four-year gap between Olympics (Winter or Summer) is 27 to 28 percent, according to Mallon, so a larger share of Olympians were able to extend their careers across a two-year gap in the games than is the norm — and it stands to reason that even more of those who were good enough to compete this year will be able to keep their form next year as well.

But an athlete’s peak is fragile. In addition to the effects of aging on your own body, there are always younger competitors trying to catch you from behind. The decision to move the Olympics to next summer was a necessary one, and it was nice to see the IOC finally fall in line with other sports that have put monetary concerns aside to keep fans and athletes safe. At the same time, however, there will undoubtedly be a sizable contingent of athletes whose Olympic dreams would have come true this year but won’t next year — as a result of circumstances far beyond their control.



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Footnotes

  1. This looks only at the Summer Olympics, so anyone who showed up in both a Winter and Summer Games was not counted as a repeat Olympian in this measure.

  2. A few other active sports — such as rugby sevens, golf and baseball — could be included in this conversation as well, but the first two only joined the current program in 2016, and baseball has been in and out of the program over the past three decades, making the numbers less than fully comparable.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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