The non-existent line between victory and defeat

Sometimes, despite their best efforts, it’s impossible to separate athletes. Not those in love, or fighting over who can get a selfie with Hero the Hedgehog, of course but those, who, having competed over many meters / moments / games / goes find themselves not gloriously fist pumping, nor sat on their haunches, hands on muzzle but instead tied in a dead heat having matched each other in every way possible (or at least every way measured, I’m not suggesting they ended up competing in the same sort and size of socks).

Wikipedia has a great list of every time this has happened at the sharp end of the Olympics, so we’ll concern ourselves with that for now. Should time/data/my infant son’s constant desire for attention allow, I’ll append a whole slew of examples from World and Area Championships large and small one day. But not today. Today we’re ripping directly from Wikipedia.

In total, 114 Summer events and 29 Winter events have produced a tie for medals. In some cases those events have offered up more than one tie (i.e. a tie for Gold and a tie for Bronze). In some cases those ties have been between MORE THAN TWO PEOPLE. These times are wonderful times (and a lot of them are, of course, actually heights and points ).

Gymnasts at the 1908 Olympics, all equally entertaining

* * * * *

Some STACTS (stat/facts):

  • The majority of the ties come from the same events in gymnastics, speed skating, athletics
  • There is little consistency in how ties have been dealt with over the years. The classic solution is to forgo Silver, for example, if there’s a dead heat for Gold. But in 1912, for example, they just kept handing ’em out down the line because those Swedes are just good eggs.
  • There are events where two Bronzes are always offered, most notably boxing where there’s no 3/4th place play off. Over the years Water Polo, Polo, Rowing, Badminton and Table Tennis have popped up with this plan as a one off, while Tennis has done it a couple of times and Judo (since ’72), Taekwondo and Wrestling (both since ’08) are doing it right now. These are not included in any of this info.
  • The 1932 LA Olympics were the only Summer Olympics not to see a tie. They’ve been seen in most Winter Olympics too.
  • One might imagine the Long Jump, for example, would yield tied marks, but none appear on the list. That’s because Long Jump is an example of an event with a method for separating equal distances, specifically by referring to the jumpers’ second best mark. As such it’s judged events, like gymnastics, or any form of racing that has no recourse to separate the competitors short of resorting to scissors, paper, stone (they may as well, it’s no worse than a penalty shoot-out).

So that all said, and two-way-ties aside (you can check them out in the list), here are the unlikeliest of unlikelihoods at the pinnacle of Olympic competition…

Triples Ties

There have been 19 instances of ‘triple’ ties in Olympic history. These are they:

  • London, 1908: Men’s high jump (three athletes stuck on 1.88m – a long time before Dick Fosbury )
  • London, 1908: Men’s pole vault (a double dead heat, see more below)
  • Stockholm, 1912: Men’s pole vault (another double dead heat, see more below)
  • London, 1948: Men’s Pommel Horse (three Finns all sharing Gold! 🇫🇮🇫🇮🇫🇮)
  • London, 1948: Men’s Vault (triple Bronze handed out)
  • Melbourne, 1956: Men’s Floor (triple Silver 🤸‍♂️)
  • Tokyo, 1964L: Men’s Individual All Around (Silver all-around)
  • Moscow, 1980: Women’s uneven bars (one, two, three Bronze)
  • LA, 1984: Mens’ Vault (and incredible FOUR WAY TIE! “There’s more silver here than in the state of  Colorado” – watch the action unfold below 🥈🥈🥈🥈)
  • Seoul, 1988: Men’s Pommel Horse (Bulgaria, Hungary and the Soviet Union all took home Gold)
  • Barcelona, 1992: Men’s High Jump (triple Bronze handed out)
  • Barcelona, 1992: Men’s Parallel Bars (triple Bronze handed out)
  • Barcelona, 1992: Women’s Floor (triple Bronze handed out)
  • Atlanta, 1996: Men’s Horizontal Bars (triple Bronze handed out)
  • London, 2012: Men’s High Jump (triple Bronze handed out) 
  • Rio 2016: Men’s 100m Butterfly (three silvers in a magnificent race… see it below 🏊‍♂️🏊‍♂️🏊‍♂️)
  • St Moritz, 1928: Men’s 500m Speed Skating (a double dead heat, see more below)
  • St Moritz, 1948: Men’s 500m Speed Skating (all the silvers)
  • 1964, men’s 500m Speed Skating (all the silvers)
  • 1968, women’s 500m Speed Skating (all the silvers)

Presumably if there’d been a 500m Speed Skating event at Barcelona in 1992 the entire final would have been a dead heat.

Double Dead Heats

The double dead-heat has happened five times in the history of Olympic competition. Almost exclusively in a year with an ‘8’ in it (for reasons that are, obviously, entirely coincidental).

  • London, 1908: Men’s Pole Vault (2 Gold 🥇, 3 Bronze🥉)
  • Stockholm 1912: Men’s Pole Vault (2 Silver 🥈, 3 Bronze🥉)
  • St Moritz: 1928 Men’s 500m speed skating (2 Gold 🥇, 3 Bronze🥉)
  • Moscow 1980 Women’s Floor (2 Gold 🥇, 2 Bronze🥉)
  • Seoul, 1988: Men’s Horizontal Bars (2 Gold 🥇, 2 Bronze🥉)

In the case of the 1912 Pole vault competition, six medals in total were awarded: 1 Gold, 2 Silver, 3 Bronze which, by my vague and wanting calculations, makes this the most over-awarded awarded event in Olympic history with 100% more medals awarded than were expected. It’s not, of course, the event with the most medals handed out which would be the football (3x 11 medals) for current events, or Rugby Union (held in 1900, 1908, 1920 and 1924) for those no longer on the roster. Thought we’d better clear that up because, well, nerdius.

As an aside while we’re on the point of ‘extra medals’, the IOC do of course create more medals than are needed when they mint the awards for each edition (46 extra for the Sochi games for example) so these can be handed out in the event of ties, or someone losing them, or defects. Should re-allocation happen however, as in the case below, it’s not always the case that the same medal handed to the drugs cheats finds its way to the rightful owners (the linked article suggests only 3 of 24 medals awarded to compromised Russians have been handed back willingly – do anything to win, right? 💉💉💉)

Re-awarding

There is an odd case from the 2000 Sydney Olympics to act as a coda here.

In the women’s 100m, two athletes have been awarded the Silver medal, but NOBODY the Gold. On the day itself US athlete Marion Jones crossed the finish line first propelled, as it was later determined – and she admitted – by veins pumped with drugs. Instead of second placed Katerina Thanou being upgraded to silver however she remains somewhat in limbo in that place, joined by Tanya Lawrence of Jamaica who the IOC upgraded, while the great Merlene Ottey now stands as the Bronze medallist 20 years after winning 200m Bronze in Moscow.

The reason for this oddity? Thanou was herself banned for missing a routine drug test at the 2004 Olympics and the IOC have stated, quite simply “Upgrading is not automatic. Every potential upgraded athlete will be scrutinised. We have to be absolutely sure that they are clean.”

But for now, there’s two awarded Silvers in the world, but no Gold. There are many fine lines between victory and defeat.