How to win an Olympic gold medal

How to win an Olympic gold medal

After all the excitement surrounding the recent London Olympic Games, it’s not just me wanting to be part of the gold medal rush in years to come. As our last ‘Ask a sports engineer’ question indicates:

“What is the easiest sport in which to win a gold medal?”

What sport should you take up if you want the best chances of bringing home an Olympic Gold? This is a version of this same question that sporting federations – like UK Sport – ask themselves each time a major championship comes around.

Below I have created a simple recipe representing the method used by sporting federations to create gold medals:
Olympic gold medal athlete recipe



One large pool of potential athletes

A handful of different sports

Lots of coaches, training facilities and support

Some good food

A sprinkling of the highest quality technology and equipment

Lots of dedication to training



1. Take a group of potential athletes, and combine them with a variety of sports.

2. Leave to ‘marinate’ for a while; decide which athletes have a chance of winning gold

3. Give them enough time and money, and the facilities to train.

4. Provide them with all the support they need and lots of food!

5. ‘Bake’ (intensely train) for 4-10 years.

6. Provide them with the very best equipment, and send them off to the Olympics.

7. Cross your fingers, and hope they win a gold medal!

The plain reality is that most of us will never win an Olympic gold medal. It takes something really special to achieve this, and many different factors need to combine favourably before an athlete can stand on the top step of the podium in any sport.

Firstly, he or she must be innately talented. In other words, they need to be in possession of the right sort of genes allowing for success in their particular sport. Having the best genes means you have the best physiological attributes. This could be a high proportion of super-fast twitch fibres in the legs of a sprinter like Usain Bolt. Or it could be the ability to concentrate and hold a steady arm in archery, as demonstrated by Danielle Brown. You can develop some of these attributes in training. But without having the innate ability to start off with, an athlete can never hope to become the best in the world.


In some respects a successful athlete is born to win. But without getting the chance to take part in sport, an individual is never going to achieve Olympic gold. The next key ingredient for success is access to sport and sporting competition. Potential athletes need to be introduced to sport at some point during their lives. This usually starts in PE lessons within school where pupils are introduced to various sports for the first time, or through out of school clubs. We are very lucky in this country as many of us have/had access to sport through PE lessons and there are many out of school sporting clubs open for us to attend and use local facilities. This is often forgotten when faced with a 5 miles cross-country run on freezing winter’s morning; but don’t forget, there are some countries where children and the rest of the general population have little access to sport.

Talent identification schemes follow on and they are designed to find the athletes who have innate ability and the potential to win medals. One example of this is the “Sporting Giants” scheme, which was set up in 2007 by Sir Steve Redgrave. This particular scheme has already seen results; it helped Helen Glover win Britain’s first gold medal of the 2012 Olympics, alongside Heather Stanning, in the coxless pairs.

Once a potential athlete has been selected sporting federations channel money into the athlete’s development, providing the best training facilities, coaches and equipment. The idea being that these resources enable an athlete to perform to the very best of their ability. As a partner to UK Sport, the centre for Sports Engineering Research at Sheffield Hallam University helps with this; they provide technologies which help athletes train and improve their competitive performances.

The final ingredient – if you want to bring home a gold – is training. To become the best in the world requires hours and hours, years and years, of hard work and dedication. This is the tough but essential slog that every athlete needs to put in if they are to get anywhere near to Olympic standard. Unfortunately this also means that there is no such thing as an easy Olympic gold!

So what does that mean for the rest of us? What sports should we take up if we want even the smallest chance of winning a gold medal?

To have the best chance of winning you may want to choose sport with a lower number of participants, or a ‘niche sport’. This may include events such as archery, shooting, fencing and horse riding. These sports are generally less accessible and not in your average PE lesson. In theory you would have a better chance of getting to the top in these, simply because there would be a smaller pool of athletes to compete against. However these sports are by no means easy! With this in mind, the newest Olympic sport at the next games in Rio is kite surfing. As this is such as new sport, there will be a lower number of competing athletes. Because of this, there will be a greater chance to with a gold medal. A reduced competing population is also found in sports like rowing and boxing. These disciplines use weight categories to separate athletes, and consequently the chances of winning a gold medal in each event is increased. It is however difficult to collate exact numbers of elite athletes competing in each sport.

At the London Olympic Games there were 302 separate events and corresponding gold medals with about 11,000 athletes. Overall if you managed to get to the Olympic Games, you have a 2.7% chance of winning a gold medal! I have also calculated the chances of winning a gold medal based upon athlete numbers alone in each of the different Olympic sports. This is not based on ability, skill or form so it does not relate to the exact chance you have of winning a gold medal. I have also assumed that there are a number of gold medals won in the team sports – enough for each member of the team!


The event with the greatest chance of winning a gold medal is the water polo. You actually have a 1 in 12 chance of winning a gold medal if you are male and a 1 in 8 chance if you are a female. This is because there are more men’s teams than women’s. Same thing happens in the football event with 16 men’s and 12 women’s teams. The event with the least chance of winning a gold medal is the triathlon -with at 1.8% chance of winning. But men have a 0% chance of winning a gold medal in the synchronised swimming event as there is no such event! It seems in general that any female athlete has a better chances of winning a gold medal based on athlete numbers alone.

There are no easy ways to win a Gold medal; it takes a lifetime of training and dedication, not forgetting innate ability. For the slightly more mature ones of us this means that a future gold medal at the Olympics is sadly almost impossible. However for any youngsters reading, there is still a chance you could be our next Chris Hoy or Jessica Ennis. The best advice for anyone is to try lots of different sports. You never know, you may eventually find a sport which suits your abilities and that you also enjoy. Then maybe, just maybe, you will progress through the ranks, and reach that top step of the podium.

Leon Foster