Team USA, Women and the Olympics

With the Olympics officially coming to a close this past Sunday, a reader contacted me and asked about the performance of the female athletes of Team USA. He was curious if the number of medals won by US women in the Olympics had increased as a percentage, absolute count or both since the passing of Title IX. In a year that female athletes got a substantial amount of coverage, this seemed like an interesting question so I ran a few numbers.

Some caveats: Figuring out how many events there are each year is tougher than I thought, especially for the early Olympics. Because some of my data sources disagreed, some of these percentages might be off. Additionally, I may be slightly off on the percent won by women by a few points. In both the winter and summer Olympics, there are some mixed gender events…think paired figure skating. I couldn’t figure out how the data I pulled below was counting that, so it could vary a bit. Since there’s only 3 of those events in the winter Olympics and 9 in the summer, I decided to let it go. Finally, this only counts events, not athletes. Michael Phelps counts as a medal in each of his events, but the relay team also only counts as one. So basically, this reflects the gender breakdown by medal count, not by the number of male or female medalists we have. So Team USA basketball is one medal for each gender, despite making quite a few people “gold medalists”. All data sources at the bottom of the post

Okay, so let’s take a look!

First, how has the percent of Team USA medals won by women changed over time?


Each of the lines is 8 years, if you’re trying to orient yourself. For the youngsters, the dip in 1980 is because we boycotted that year. As you can see though, the percentage has gone steadily up.

But what was the driver of this? The initial asker suggested the driver was Title IX, but I wondered if it might be more closely correlated with the expansion of women’s events. Of course neither of these would be entirely independently causal….we know the social forces that drove one likely drove the other. Anyway, here’s how the percentage of medals available to women varied with the percentage of medals won by women on Team USA for the Summer Olympics:


And winter:


The winter medals variability is almost all because of the low medal counts. The two years they were high were actually not very high medal count years (5 and 9), but basically the men only got 2. I ran a quick regression and the r-squared for the Summer Olympics is around .75, and the Winter about .4.

For juxtaposition, here’s the number of female NCAA Div 1 athletes superimposed on a different scale:NCAA athletes

I’m not going to do the overall regression because correcting for the multicollinearity (aka,  a regression with two factors that are correlated) can be a bit of a hassle, but I’m guessing it’s the expansion of events driving the medal count more than the number of D1 female athletes. However, it may be the increased number of athletes allowed the US to immediately take advantage of every expansion in medal events. Additionally having more talented female athletes probably incentivized the IOC to add more events.

Confusing correlation, but a great question!

The Team USA Medal Count came from here. The count for female athletes came from here. The number of events came from here for winter and here for summer. The number of events available to women is here. NCAA athlete counts are here.