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The Most Popular Olympic Sport?

It is very difficult to determine what are the world's most popular sports, due to the lack of suitable and reliable statistics. Here are a couple of interesting measures of popularity using media mentions, though they only include Summer Olympic Sports. The most popular world sport by other methods, soccer, is also very popular at the Olympics, but swimming and athletics reach their peak in popularity at the Olympics and give soccer some competition. Based on Tweets in 2012, soccer was the most popular. In 2004, based on newspaper articles, athletics was clearly the most popular. These do not necessarily represent the world's most popular sports, as there are a couple of popular sports from around the world that do not participate at the Olympics, such as Cricket and American Football, and the wide range of winter sports are also not included.

Based on Twitter Mentions (2012)

After the 2012 Olympic Games in London, there was an analysis of the sports and athlete mentions on Twitter. There was a lot of data - twitter users sent more than 150 million Summer Games tweets. According to Twitter, the sport which saw the most Twitter conversation was football / fĂștbol / soccer with well over 5 million Tweets.

rank sport
1 football / fĂștbol / soccer
2 swimming
3 track & field (athletics)
4 gymnastics
5 volleyball

The most discussed athlete of the Games was not surprisingly sprinter Usain Bolt, with nine other Olympians gathering more than 1 million Tweets each.

rank athlete sport
1 Usain Bolt (@UsainBolt) athletics (sprinting)
2 Michael Phelps (@MichaelPhelps) swimming
3 Tom Daley (@TomDaley1994) diving
4 Ryan Lochte (@ryanlochte) swimming
5 Gabby Douglas (@gabrielledoug) gymnastics
6 Andy Murray (@andy_murray) tennis
7 Kobe Bryant (#GetKobeOnTwitter) basketball
8 Yohan Blake (@YohanBlake) athletics (sprinting)
9 Lee Chong Wei (@Lee_C_Wei) badminton
10 LeBron James (@KingJames) basketball

The biggest moments of competition, as measured by Tweets per minute.

rank athlete / team notes tweets / minute
1 Usain Bolt (@UsainBolt) the Jamaican wins gold in the 200m sprint 80,000+
2 Usain Bolt (@UsainBolt) wins gold in the 100m 74,000+
3 Andy Murray (@andy_murray) the Great Britain athelete wins gold in the men's tennis singles 57,000+
4 Jamaica wins gold and sets the world record in the men's 4x100 relay 52,000+
5 Team USA beats Spain to win gold in men's basketball 41,000+

Based on Articles Published (2004)

This data is from the 2004 games. Since then, after the 2008 Olympics the sports of Baseball and Softball were dropped from the program and in 2016 golf and rugby are set to return. See also the analysis of traffic to the IOC website and the ranking of most widely played Olympic Sport based on the number of National Federations.

The table below uses data from the Olympic Program Commission, Report to the 117th IOC Session from 24 May 2005. The data presented is the average number of articles per publication for a period of two weeks before the Games, during the Games and a further two weeks after the Athens 2004 Olympic Games (from 30 July to 12 September 2004 inclusive). The sample was 67 publications from 25 countries that were selected to be representative of the global coverage.

The sport with the most articles published, and therefore the most popular Olympic Sport by this measure, is by a long way Athletics (Track and Field), and this does not include articles related to race walking and the marathon. Swimming is second with Soccer third. Artistic gymnastics was fourth on the list, though the other gymnastics disciplines of Rhythmic and Trampoline were at the bottom of the list. If all of these were included as one figure for gymnastics, it would have moved up to third position.

Number of articles published during the 2004 Olympics

rank Federation Sport Sub-Sport Articles
1 IAAF Athletics Track and field 1987
2 FINA Aquatics Swimming 1135
3 FIFA Football (Soccer) 633
4 FIG Gymnastics Artistic 598
5 FIBA Basketball 584
6 IJF Judo 436
7 ITF Tennis 356
8 IAAF Athletics Marathon 328
9 IWF Weightlifting 325
10 ISAF Sailing 307
11 FIH Field Hockey 303
12 AIBA Boxing 300
13 FISA Rowing 299
14 UCI Cycling Track 295
15 ISSF Shooting 267
16 FIVB Volleyball Indoor 248
17 FINA Aquatics Diving 243
18 IBAF Baseball 207
19 FIE Fencing 198
20 UCI Cycling Road 196
21 ICF Canoeing Flatwater 195
22 FIVB Volleyball Beach 186
23 FINA Aquatics Water Polo 177
24 IHF Handball 176
25 FITA Archery 150
26 ISF Softball 150
27 FILA Wrestling Freestyle 135
28 IAAF Athletics Race walking 125
29 ITTF Table Tennis 122
30 FEI Equestrian Eventing 117
31 FILA Wrestling Greco-Roman 99
32 IBF Badminton 96
33 FINA Aquatics Synchro 95
34 ITU Triathlon 87
35 WTF Taekwondo 80
36 ICF Canoeing Slalom 72
37 FEI Equestrian Dressage 72
38 FEI Equestrian Jumping 64
39 UCI Cycling Mountain Bike 55
40 UIPM Modern Pentathlon 54
41 FIG Gymnastics Rhythmic 51
42 FIG Gymnastics Trampoline 32

Reference: IOC - Olympic Program Commission, Report to the 117th IOC Session, 24 May 2005.

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