We often measure success at the Olympic Games based on the number of medals won. We rank countries based on medals won and celebrate multiple medal winners such as Phelps, Biles, Nurmi and Latynina. It is clear that athletes from certain sports have an advantage, for example, there are many more gymnastics and swimming medals up for grabs than for a team sport like hockey, basketball or volleyball. Also, the number of sports in which medals are available overall have changed over time, there are more sports and medals available in recent times compared to earlier last century.
Arguably, the greatest Olympic athlete ever and the winner of the most gold medals, Michael Phelps, was advantaged by the high number of medals available in swimming. It was a lot easier for him to win multiple medals at each Olympic Games than an exceptional athlete in a team sport such as football, handball and hockey where there is only one of each medal available at each Olympiad.
The Total Number of Medals
At the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games there were 33 sports with 50 disciplines, and a total of 339 events. This is five more sports and 18 new events compared to the previous Olympic Games. Although there are 339 medal events, because some sports award multiple bronze medalists and the occasional third place tie and other abnormalities, there are even more medals awarded.
Number of Medals Per Sport
The number and range of sports on the Olympic program has varied over time, and therefore so has the number of medals that could be won at each Olympiad. Here is the breakdown of the available gold medals per sport from the 2021 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo. Clearly, the opportunity to win multiple medals is greater for athletics and swimming, and in swimming it is more likely for athletes to compete in multiple events.
Number of Available Gold Medals in 2021
- 48 Athletics
- 37 Swimming
- 15 Judo, Shooting
- 14 Artistic Gymnastics, Rowing, Weightlifting
- 13 Boxing
- 12 Fencing, Track cycling, Canoe Sprint, Freestyle Wrestling
- 10 Sailing
- 8 Diving, Karate, Taekwondo
- 6 Equestrian, Greco-Roman Wrestling
- 5 Archery, Badminton, Table tennis, Tennis
- 4 BMX cycling, Road cycling, Skateboarding, Canoe Slalom, Basketball
- 3 Triathlon
- 2 Indoor Volleyball, Beach volleyball, Water polo, Artistic (synchronized) swimming, Field hockey, Football (Soccer), Golf, Handball, Modern pentathlon, Mountain biking, Rugby sevens, Rhythmic Gymnastics, Sport climbing, Surfing, Trampoline
- 1 Baseball, Softball
- List of sports for each Olympiad
- Medal tables from all Olympic Games
- Gold, Silver, Bronze — it is not always that simple
- Top medal winners for each sport
- Available medals in 2016
- A comparison of different medal ranking systems
- Number of available medals at the Winter Olympics
- About Olympic Medals