One common aspect of sporting competitions is that they tend to produce one outright winner. No matter what the league or tournament, even in the most closely contested affairs, there will be some way of determining a champion. You would never have a situation where there were shared winners of the PGA Championship, the French Open, or the English Premier League, to give just a few examples.
Athletics, and indeed the Olympics, can work a little differently at times though. Although shared gold medals are almost always avoided, this is not always the case. The nature of some sports that form the Olympics can mean that in certain situations there is no way, or only limited ways, of ranking one athlete above another. It is a relatively rare sight but on average there is a tie for the gold medal once every summer Olympics.
What Happens When a Gold Medal Is Shared?
In cases where first and second place simply cannot be separated, there are two major differences that occur. One is that there will be two gold medals issued for the particular event. It is not the case that two athletes literally have to share the same gold medal. They are sharing the achievement, not the tangible medal itself. This ends up meaning that there will be no silver medal for the event. The athlete that came behind the leading pair, finishing in third, will receive a bronze rather than being promoted to silver.
This has not always been the case in the Olympics though. If you were to look at the 1912 Stockholm Games, for example, both the men’s pentathlon and decathlon saw shared golds, as well as a silver and a bronze. It was a change of approach from the previous 1908 London Olympics that had stuck to three medals per event, except in cases where there was a tied bronze.
Although our focus will be on gold medals here, tied silver and bronze medals are even more common. In the summer Olympics, the silver has been shared on 35 occasions and the bronze on 56. When there is a tied silver this means there is no bronze medal awarded. In the case of a tied bronze though, the outcome is that four or more medals are handed out instead (1x gold, 1x silver, 2+ bronze), assuming it is an individual event.
The reason we say four or more is that it is possible for a tie to include more than two athletes. This is rare but there are a few instances of three-way ties for medals if you dive deep into Olympic history.
Summer Olympics – Shared Golds by Sport*
- Number of Olympics – 29
- Number of Shared Gold Medals – 30
*Figures valid up to and including Tokyo 2020 Olympics
If you consider ‘athletics’, as in track and field events, as one sport by itself and the same for gymnastics, then there have been 21 Olympic sports that have produced a shared medal. From these, six have seen a shared gold medal. The table below includes the number of events to feature a gold medal share. In all but two cases, the gold medal was split between just two competitors.
|Sport||Number of Events With Shared Medal||Number of Three-Way Ties||Most Recent|
|Athletics||4||0||1908, 1912 (x2), 2020|
|Gymnastics||19||2||1904 (x2), 1948, 1956 (x2), 1960 (x2), 1968 (x2), 1980, 1984 (x4), 1988 (x3), 1992 (x2)|
|Swimming||3||0||1984, 2000, 2016|
Gymnastics is the only sport in Olympic history that has awarded a gold medal to three competitors. The first instance came in 1948 as three Finnish gymnasts, Paavo Aaltonen, Veikko Huhtanen and Heikki Savolainen, were all judged to be as equally exceptional on the pommel horse. The second instance came four decades later, in the 1988 Seoul Olympics and once again it was the men’s pommel horse. There was some variety in the athlete nationality this time though with Lubomir Gueraskov of Bulgaria, Zsolt Borkai of Hungary and Dmitri Bilozertchev of the Soviet Union all taking gold. In both instances, no silver or bronze medals were issued.
Shared Gold Still Possible?: Yes (depending on the specific event)
All the ties for gold medals in an athletics event have involved men with no women ever sharing the most prestigious medal of them all. As well as the previously mentioned 1912 pentathlon and decathlon competitions, there have also been ties in the men’s pole vault (1908) and far more recently in the men’s high jump. For the latter, witnessed in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi and Mutaz Barshim of Qatar were the only two men to clear 2.37m. The pair tried to conquer 2.39m but when they failed, track officials suggested a jump-off to determine a winner (as the jumpers had cleared all heights at the first attempt).
Barshim had an alternative idea, how about simply doing two golds instead? The official said this was indeed possible so the pair of friends received a gold medal each and celebrated in tandem. There was absolutely zero evidence that either athlete was only 50% happy due to sharing as they both seemed delighted that their close friend was victorious too.
Shared Gold Still Possible?: Realistically, no
The sole equestrian shared gold medal was seen in the equestrian high jump, a dangerous sounding event that only appeared in 1900. The joint winning height ended up being 1.85m with Dominique Garderes of France and Gian Giorgio Trissino of Italy managing this feat. It is interesting to note that Trissino almost took the bronze medal too, as he took part riding with another horse, as well. He narrowly missed out on claiming two medals in the same event though as his other horse finished fourth.
No other equestrian event has even seen a shared medal of any colour as there are so many tie-breakers (six) involved before two riders will be considered tied. So, while a draw is possible, it is not realistically very likely to happen.
Shared Gold Still Possible?: Yes
Men have shared far more golds than women in Olympic gymnastic events as you can see below. Despite the high number of shared golds, events do have two tie-breakers they call upon in case two competitors end up with the same score. Even though scores go to three decimal places, tied scorecards are more common than you might think. When it happens, the gymnast with the higher execution score will be ranked higher. Failing that, the higher start value takes priority. If both scores are the same after that then the medal will be shared.
|Event||Number of Times Featuring a Shared Gold|
|Men’s Pommel Horse||5|
|Men’s Horizontal Bar||3|
|Women’s Balance Beam||2|
|Women’s Uneven Bars||1|
Shared Gold Still Possible?: Yes
The three tied golds in swimming have all come in shorter distance events, as you might expect. The shorter the distance, the smaller the gap between athletes, at least on average. The first shared medal of any kind for a swimming event was for the colour gold and this came in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
Two Americans, Carrie Steinseifer and Nancy Hogshead shared the medal in the women’s 100m freestyle and 16 years later two more Americans, Anthony Ervin and Gary Hall Jr, finished joint first in the 50m freestyle. The trend almost continued in 2016, back in the women’s 100m freestyle, but Penny Oleksiak, who tied with America’s Simone Manuel, was born just north of the border, in Canada.
Shared Golds Still Possible?: No (barring a technical mishap)
Many of you reading this might not think synchronised (now artistic) swimming should even be an Olympic sport but bear with us because this shared gold medal is an interesting one. For the women’s solo competition at the 1992 Olympics, Kristen Babb-Sprague was initially the sole recipient of the gold medal. One of the judges though had mistakenly entered ‘8.7’ rather than ‘9.7’ into the computerised system for one of Sylvie Frechette’s performances. The Brazilian judge, Ana Maria da Silveira Lobo, had spotted her mistake immediately but she had no common tongue with the Japanese assistant referee.
This meant when Frechette entered the final round, she trailed by Babb-Sprague by too great a margin to claim first place and settled for second. Months later though, following the efforts of Dick Pound, an IOC executive board member, the International Swimming Federation swapped her silver for a gold. Babb-Sprague was allowed to keep her own gold too despite the fact she would have finished second, had the scores been correctly applied at the time.
Shared Golds Still Possible?: No
The two shared gold medals in weightlifting came back in 1928 and 1936, which may surprise you a little. After all, it seems perfectly possible that the two strongest athletes in a weight category could lift exactly the same amount. Well, ties are no longer possible in the sport because if two athletes lift the same weight, the one who lifted the weight first gets the highest placing.
Shared Golds Possible?: No
Although wrestling has never had a shared gold medal (only a shared bronze in 1920), it probably should have. In the 1912 Olympics, Anders Ahlgren of Sweden took on Ivar Bohling of Finland in the gold medal match. The pair wrestled for nine hours but this was apparently not enough time to determine a winner as the contest was deemed a draw. Rather than both taking a gold medal, the pair were forced to settle for silver on the grounds that ‘nobody actually won’ the match.
Events That May See a Shared Gold in Future
Any athletics event based on time, for example the 100m or 200m, could potentially see a split gold medal. This has not happened yet but two Jamaicans shared silver in the women’s 100m during the Beijing Olympics. The same also applies to other swimming races as it is possible for two athletes to finish at the same time (within a hundredth of a second accuracy). Interestingly, swimming previously used to time to one-thousandth of a second, something which saw Tim McKee lose the gold medal in the 1972 Olympics 400m individual medal.
This is something seen in indoor cycling events but for swimming, with athletes moving at a much slower pace it proved to be very controversial. As such, following that Olympics swimming went back to only timing athletes down to the one-hundredth of a second.
Each Olympic sport has its own tiebreaker rules and, in many cases, these will always prove sufficient for separating two competitors. It is only a small minority that cannot implement either enough tiebreakers or any that would be perceived as fair. In swimming, for example, you could award it to the swimmer with the best semi-final time but to many this would not be a fitting way of denying someone a gold medal.
Are Shared Golds Less Common Than Before?
In the first 15 Olympic Games (1896 to 1964) there were 59 events that saw a shared medal. In the subsequent 14 Olympics, there have been 58 events with a shared medal so there is no real evidence to say they are becoming increasingly rare. This may be a little surprising given the improvements in technology that allow us to see increasing small gaps between athletes but such technology only applies to a small number of events. High definition photo-finish technology has proven useful in a 1500m race but technology will not help separate two athletes in a judge-ranked sport like gymnastics.
Additionally, as we found out with swimming though, some sports do not want to separate competitors who ended up half a millimetre apart, even though they could. The 2008 Olympics had cameras that could take photos 3,000 times a second, yet we still saw a dead heat in the women’s 100m as official timings only went to one-hundredth of a second.
Sharing Success in Other Sports
It is rare to see two players or teams sharing the top prize in any other sport but it can happen. In 2021, Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Raith Rovers were both declared joint winners of the Scottish Challenge Cup. The global health crisis at the time prevented the final match of the 2019/20 edition of the tournament from being played. The tournament itself was abandoned the following year but the plan was to play the postponed final from the previous season. This never materialised though due to the only public health issues, leading to both clubs sharing the title instead, a decision both clubs welcomed.
Although few sports see much in the way of shared success, horse racing is something of an exception. The chance of a dead heat per individual race is extremely low, but there are so many races across the world that they end up being reasonably common, even in high-profile races. The 2011 version of the highly prestigious Irish St Leger, to give just one example, ended with Duncan and Jukebox Jury sharing the title. Back in the day, horses would often compete in a run-off shortly afterwards to decide the winner but this is a thing of the past these days. In modern racing, horses and their connections simply share the title and the prize money as horses are in no real position to run back-to-back contests.