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Which Olympic Sport Is Hardest On Its Goalies?

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

RIO DE JANEIRO — U.S. soccer goalkeeper Hope Solo’s two howlers (read: very terrible plays) last night against Colombia led to a shocking 2-2 draw for the U.S. women’s soccer team, who still advance first in the group at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro despite Solo’s between-the-legs gaffe.

It was an unlikely performance from one of the best U.S. goalkeepers — with just over 200 caps, she has the most shutouts of any American female goalkeeper — but as far as Olympic goalkeeping goes, Solo has it easy. Women’s soccer goalkeepers have some of the highest save percentages of any Olympic sport:


(We included data from the 2014 World Cup and the 2015 Women’s World Cup to shore up the soccer data, since it’s readily available and comparable.)

Soccer and field hockey keepers have the “easiest” jobs, generally saving around 70 percent of shots. Soccer goalies see far fewer attempts, though, leading to much more variance throughout a tournament (that low point for men’s soccer is English keeper Joe Hart, who saw only five shots at the 2014 World Cup but let in four). Water polo goalkeepers let in shots at a much greater clip, especially on the women’s side, but handball goalies have it worst of all, letting in around seven in 10 shots. But the saves, when they come, can be spectacular:

Dominant goalkeepers are great, but they only get you so far. Of the eight “best” keepers shown above, only two — Josip Pavić for the Croatian men’s water polo team and Kari Aalvik Grimsbø for the Norwegian women’s handball team — took home a title. Johan Sjöstrand helped guide the Swedish men’s handball team to silver, but none of the other five keepers medaled (or placed at the World Cup).

I saw Grimsbø in action in Rio, dressed in her full black attire of long pants and sleeves, making 10 saves in a 27-24 victory over Spain. Whenever Spain’s offense had the ball in Norway’s half, Grimsbø was moving: both feet shuffling, both hands waving — ready to make a spider-like save with any possible limb. (Since we can’t show you footage of her in Rio, here she is with her club team Győri ETO KC:)

She’s incredible to watch, splaying out her arms and legs to make a save, and her coach Thorir Hergeirsson explained why she’s the best in the world: “She is very anticipative; she can read the game and position herself very well. And she has very good technique in different positions, both distance shooting and from the line,” he told me. Asked whether Norway can win gold again in Rio, Hergeirsson shrugged off the question but was happy to talk more about Grimsbø. “She was our key player in 2012. Without her, Norway would not have won the gold medal.”

Allison reported from Rio, and Reuben from New York.

Allison McCann is a former visual journalist for FiveThirtyEight.

Reuben Fischer-Baum was a visual journalist for FiveThirtyEight.