"That's so easy that I could do it," is a phrase that will be repeated countless times around televisions airing the Olympics this month.
The short response is, "No, no it's not." The longer answer is a bit more complicated.
Every Olympic sport absolutely has a distinct degree of difficulty and because of that we decided to rank events to see which would actually be the easiest to win gold.
Our criteria was simple: Imagine you are 21 (if you are 21, way to go, friend!) and have never played any Olympic sport. If you started training today, which sport would be the easiest in which to score a gold medal and which would be hardest, with all the other ones ranked in between. (If it's a team sport, you can't sit on the bench - you have to play.)
Before you get all upset about the ranking of your favourite sport, one caveat: there are about 1,000 medals up for grabs at the Summer Olympics and it's next to impossible to win any of them. We're simply trying to find which sports are less impossible than the others.
The easiest Olympic sports are so similar we had a tie for the "win". Though it's probably unwise to insult the two Olympic sports in which competitors use actual weapons, it's hard not to think that men and women with a lot of time and a steady hand couldn't master the same art as Robin Hood, Sammy "The Bull" Gravano and 2012 air pistol gold medallist Jin Jong-oh. Also, even if you're mediocre you could still hit a bullseye by complete accident, sort of like Gwyneth Paltrow did when she won that Oscar.
Have you seen a pirate movie? Those guys don't seem especially smart or athletic, yet there they are plundering and escaping into the horizon all because of boat savvy. If they can do it, learning to harness the power of wind and moving a few jigs and booms doesn't seem all that tough. And if all else fails, just become best buds with sailing tycoon Larry Ellison and politely ask him to buy you a medal.
3. Rhythmic Gymnastics
It's gymnastics for people who can't walk the balance beam. This is a competition (not a sport, a competition) that values grace as much as athleticism and grace can be taught - I've seen My Fair Lady. Hmm, that's a reference only rhythmic gymnastics fans are going to understand.
4. Modern Pentathlon
Yes, you need to become proficient in five sports but that's a lot easier than becoming sublime in one. The five sports of MP are shooting, fencing, running, show jumping and swimming. How good do you have to be in each? NOT VERY! I was a good, but far from great, swimmer back in my day and my 200 freestyle at age 15, which wasn't even in the top 16 of my county, would have been the fastest at the MP US nationals. Given that, it can't be all that hard to become decent enough in the other sports to beat other athletes not good enough to make it in a singular Olympic pursuit, right?
5. Synchronised Swimming
Did you know there used to be a solo synchronised swimming event at the Olympics? Say it out loud. Solo synchronised swimming. Anyway, now that contradiction in terms is out of the Games it's just regular ol' syncing and I imagine that's far more difficult than it sounds. Not "actual sport" difficult but still pretty hard. Because, again, we're not saying it's easy to win a medal in any of these sports. But there's definitely a pecking order and we seek to decipher it. It is our obligation.
You know who's won the last two NCAA fencing titles? Columbia.
7. Field Hockey
Team sports are a completely different animal than individual ones. The question isn't how long it would take to become one of the world's top three athletes, it's what threshold you have to reach to not become a complete on-field liability. I think field hockey is the team sport that would be both the easiest to relatively master and the best in which to hide yourself.
Again, we're not trying to become Messi here. We're trying to get good enough on defence that you're not afraid of the ball and/or taking a couple of slide tackles. Think about it: national teams sometimes win after playing 75 minutes of 10 vs. 11. So, for soccer (assuming you can get yourself on a great national squad), you just have to make sure you're not worse than nobody.
The origin story of divers is invariably the same - they weren't clicking at swim practice so they wandered over to the diving well. There, the best used the power of repetition to become world-class at a sport that solely involves doing as much twisting and flipping as gravity will allow in between jumping off a board and hitting water. In gymnastics you create your own gravity. In diving, a ladder and reinforced steel does it for you. Also, diving has judges and judges make it easier to medal by a factor of 100.
It's like diving, without the water and self-loathing.
11. Rugby Sevens
The hardest part about rugby is being able to pull off a rugby shirt. If you're not from Australia or New Zealand and aren't named Clint, that's harder than you realise. The whole sevens part of Olympic rugby makes this pursuit more difficult for the obvious reason that there's fewer players on the field than in a regular game, but provided you could toughen up a bit and be willing to lose some teeth, you'd be able to hang on. (Just not to an opponent's hair, please.)
This was the hardest sport to rank so putting it in between rugby and handball sounded about right. Like any sport, there's a certain knack you need in order to be successful, but of all sporting qualities to improve, strength is the easiest. There's only so fast you'll be able to run, but with enough time in the weight room and in the boat, you could eventually work your way through the rapids with some success.
Have you seen those European handball players? It's like a dozen dudes who look like Chad from The Bachelorette. This sport bears the brunt of many jokes but given that there's little football and lacrosse in European countries, where do the big guys go? The ball of the hand, y'all. Don't hate. Respect.
Sixty-three nations have competed in badminton competitions at the Olympics. Four have won gold medals, with China having the most gold, silver and bronze medals, respectively. This suggests the sport isn't popular worldwide and therefore doesn't have a talent gap as much as it has an interest gap. Quit your job, spend your days hitting shuttlecocks and, who knows, maybe you could go compete.
15. Table Tennis
Oh, ping-pong is an Olympic sport. Haha. Haha. It's the only Olympic sport that doubles as a drinking game. LOL. ROTFL. Yeah, take your sneering disdain for table tennis and see how that works out against Ma Long, the Chinese favourite for gold. That man takes no prisoners. With enough practice you could maybe become great at the sport. And the fact that it's a one-on-one game helps with the theoretical ease of advancing in an Olympic tournament.
We've climbed a step here from "you have a 0.001 per cent chance to medal" into the "you're not winning a medal unless you've untapped some heretofore unknown talent like amazing upper body strength or an imperviousness to lactic acid buildup" category. The reason rowing is up this high is because there is an off-chance you're 5'3" and weigh 54kg, in which case you could step right in, become a coxswain and ride the broad shoulders of Princeton men to a silver. However, if you're just a regular person of regular height and build then you have as little chance of winning rowing gold as the Winklevoss twins have of ever regaining their dignity.
Are you an athlete in Putin's Russia and/or have easy access to clenbuterol? If the answer to both is no, you're going to have a tough time breaking into cycling. An aside: we averaged the different disciplines of cycling rather than split them up into their many categories because, well, it's cycling. That being said, BMX would be at, or near, the top of the list while the velodrome races would be far harder. Road racing would be in the middle.
18. Track (Field Events)
There's an obvious difference between long jump, shot put, high jump and javelin but the one common thread is that you are neither fast enough nor strong enough to compete in any. Still, I suppose that with the right weight training and technique, you could teach yourself to become good enough in the, say, discus. But unless you're the size of an NFL offensive lineman you could work all your life and not come within dozens of metres of the world's best shot putter and hammer thrower.
19. Water Polo
In terms of competition, this might be the toughest Olympic sport. But if you were able to learn how to swim decently and gained the power to tread water, maybe - just maybe - you could sneak onto a solid water polo team and not mess things up too much.
20. Basketball/21. Volleyball
The two hardest of all the Olympic team sports for the simple reason that there's no place to hide. Basketball actually ranks easier than volleyball because of the disparity between Team USA and the rest of the world. Even with you on the floor, four NBA players would still dispatch with Tunisia, even if the opponent's offensive game plan was just a circled picture of you drawn on a whiteboard. There's a general parity between Olympic volleyball teams and the game is more inclusive of all players on the floor. Translation: Kevin Durant would never have to look your way.
22. Judo/23. Taekwondo
Most of the reasons for these sports' rankings are mentioned next, but we put these two a step lower because there are less people taekwondoing out there than boxing.
The sport is ditching the headgear in Rio, going back to the old days when fighters went into the ring only with a set of gloves, a pair of trunks and their will. This changes things massively. Before, you could theoretically figure out some savvy footwork, build some punching strength and hope to have the same judges that screwed over Roy Jones in Seoul, all while the headgear protected you, a little, from getting punch drunk. Now, good luck.
Same idea as modern pentathlon (becoming good in three sports rather than great in one) except that triathletes are far better in their three sports than the MPers are in their five. Also, swimming a mile, biking 25 and running a 10K back-to-back-to-back is no joke.
26. Beach Volleyball
Is it a team sport if there's only one other teammate? Whatever your definition, beach volleyball is tougher than regular volleyball because while there's a chance you could get decent enough at beach volleyball to have a great partner cover for you, there's only so much you can do when you're 50 per cent of the squad.
You can teach a horse to jump but can you teach a man to teach a horse to jump?
We have seven sports left and we've finally made the jump to sheer impossibility. Whereas you almost certainly weren't going to make the podium in triathlon, you 100 per cent absolutely, positively aren't going to do it in any of the remaining sports. But a ranking is a ranking, so we'll try and figure out which impossible task is slightly less impossible than another. Wrestling leads our list solely because there are enough windows of possibility (penalty on opponent, you building up enough strength and getting lucky with a move, bad judging) for you to do something.
The same goes with our last judged sport. The stop watch or scoreboard doesn't lie, but the Russian judge can.
In continuing our splitting of hairs, weightlifting at least has the weight classes that divides the field. But again, it doesn't matter how much time you spend at Planet Fitness, the only clean and jerk competition you'd be able to win is if you got very into personal grooming and taking seats on the subway from old ladies, pregnant women, disabled veterans and children. (High-fives self.)
There is no such dividing of the field in tennis. Whether you were to face Novak Djokovic or the 64th seed in the first round, the over/under on points you'd win right now would be 0.5. If you started playing every day, it'd be 10 years and the over/under would stay the same, only for games instead of points.
The specifics of our rules hurt the most in swimming. Other sports can be learned. But if you're 21 and didn't know how to swim beyond floating around in the pool, then it'd take years just to get good enough where you'd be able to start a training regimen equal to the top 12-year-olds in the country.
33. Track (Racing)
You can't teach two things: savvy and speed. If you can run well and have some endurance, then maybe you could train your way into a respectable finish at the marathon or 10K. In the 100? Your twitch reflexes are so slow that by the time you'd ponder winning gold, Usain Bolt would be in his victory pose. (And you might be thinking: What about racewalking, the oft-mocked sport requiring Shakira-like hips and a fine-tuned technique? The answer is: Don't smirk. The bronze-medal time in London in the 20K - just under a half-marathon - was 79 minutes. That's about a 6:20 mile, a blazing pace that 99 per cent of amateur runners couldn't hit while running, let along walking.)
The Olympics' hardest sport is one with history and stats to back up that status. The US Open is actually open to all recreational golfers and every year, thousands who have the handicap cutoff try and make the field. With that, no commoner in modern times has ever been within a Bubba Watson drive of smelling the top of the leaderboard. Of course, winning a golf medal is going to be even harder in 2020 when the IOC kicks the sport off the program.