A Brief History
On August 9, 1936, Clevelander and Ohio State University athlete James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens won his 4th Gold Medal at the 1936 Olympics, by anchoring the 4 X 100 m relay, winning in a world record time of 39.8 seconds. An international sensation, Owens was not even the first Olympic athlete to win 4 Gold Medals in an Olympics! Here we list 10 Greatest Olympic Athletes, or at least as we see it. (No special order to the list.)
1. Jesse Owens, 1936.
Not only a spectacular performance at the 1936 Olympics, but Owens also set the long jump world record in 1935 and it lasted until 1960 when US Olympian Ralph Boston finally broke the enduring record. Owens of the US team was provided a pair of Adidas track shoes for the 1936 Olympics, the first time an African-American sponsored a product at the Olympics. The 4 events won by Owens in 1936 were the 100 m dash, the 200 m dash, the long jump, and the 4 X 100 m relay.
2. Carl Schuhman, 1936.
This German athlete set a high bar for those Olympians that followed by winning 4 Gold Medals in the first Modern Olympics in 1896. Incredibly, this wunderkind competed in the Team Horizontal Bar, Team Parallel Bars, and Individual Horse Vault, winning Gold in those 3 events. He also competed in, but did not win, in the Individual Pommel Horse, Individual Parallel Bars, Individual Horizontal Bar, and Individual Rings. For gymnasts to compete in many gymnastic events is not unusual, but Carl also competed in the completely unrelated event of Greco-Roman Wrestling, in which he won another Gold Medal! Carl narrowly missed medaling in 3 different sports when he came in 4th in weightlifting. For any Olympian to compete in 2 different sports is rare, but to get Gold Medals in 2 sports and compete in 3 completely different sports is unheard of. With so many talents he could easily tip WWE betting odds.
3. Carl Lewis, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996.
It is rare enough for an athlete to compete in 4 separate Olympics, but not only did track and field legend Carl Lewis of the USA compete in 4 different Olympics, he won at least 1 Gold Medal in each one, for a total of 9 Olympic Gold Medals (tied with 3 other athletes for 2nd place all-time) and 1 Olympic Silver Medal. His best Olympic Games was the 1984 event in which he matched Jesse Owens’ feat of 1936, winning Gold in the 100 m dash, 200 m dash, 4 X 100 m relay, and long jump. Obviously, Lewis excelled in other than the Olympic Games, with 8 World Championship Gold Medals and setting several world records along the way. His Indoor Long Jump World Record has stood since 1984! Lewis is 1 of only 3 Olympians to win a Gold Medal in the same event (Long Jump in 4 consecutive Olympics. Lewis would have competed in the 1980 Moscow Olympics, but the US boycotted those games. In 1999, the International Olympic Committee voted Lewis the Sportsman of the Century, the IAAF elected Lewis World Athlete of the Century, and Sports Illustrated named him Olympian of the Century.
4. Mark Spitz, 1968,1972.
The all-time leading winner of Olympic medals among Jewish athletes, Spitz won a total of 9 Olympic Gold Medals to go with his single Bronze and Silver Olympic Medals. In 1972, Spitz won a then record 7 Gold Medals in 7 events entered (swimming), and every performance set a World Record. His mark of 7 Golds in a single Olympic Games stood until Michael Phelps won 8 Gold Medals in 2008. Incredibly, Spitz was reportedly disappointed with his performance at the 1968 Olympics, in which he won 2 Gold Medals, a Silver Medal and a Bronze Medal!
5. Michael Phelps, 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012, 2016.
The first American male swimmer to qualify for and compete in 5 Olympic Games, Phelps is the winningest Olympian of all-time, with a stunning 23 Olympic Gold Medals (13 in individual events) and a total of 28 Olympic Medals. At the 2008 Olympic Games, Phelps set the record of winning 8 Gold Medals in a single Olympics. In 2000, Phelps was only 15 when he qualified for and competed in the Olympics for the US team, the youngest US Olympian in since 1932. After the 2012 Olympics, the weary Phelps announced his retirement, but he changed his mind and came back for the 2016 Olympic Games, winning an additional 5 Gold Medals and a Silver Medal to add to his haul of the precious metals. During his swimming career, Phelps set 39 World Records, which is in fact a World Record in itself! That is a level of performance that can sway even the best betting offers!
6. Larisa Latynina, 1956, 1960, 1964.
This Ukrainian woman competing as a Soviet Union gymnast has the female record for Olympic Gold Medals at 9 (tied with 3 other male athletes for 2nd most Olympic Golds all-time), and earned a total of 18 Olympic Medals. Larisa’s 9 Olympic Gold Medals are the most ever won by an Olympic Gymnast of either sex. Her record of 18 total Olympic Medals stood from 1964 until beaten by Michael Phelps in 2012. Larisa is arguably the Greatest Female Olympian (at least by this author’s standards).
7. Ole Einar Bjorndalen, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014.
Holy Biathlon, Batman! Ole competed in 6 consecutive Winter Olympics, winning a Winter Olympics record 13 Olympic Medals, including 8 Winter Olympics Gold Medals. Competing in the incredibly arduous skiing and shooting event known as Biathlon, Ole is the most accomplished competitor in the history of that sport. To go with his Olympic success, Ole has also won 45 World Championship Medals, including 20 World Championship Gold Medals and 6 World Cup titles. No surprise that this Norwegian is known as “The King of Biathlon” and is the winningest Winter Olympics athlete of all-time.
8. Paavo Nurmi, 1920, 1924, 1928.
Known as “The Flying Finn,” this Finnish runner sure could finish a race! He won an Olympic second best 9 Gold Medals (tied with 3 other athletes for 2nd all-time) and a total of 12 Olympic Medals (3 were Silver Medals). At one stretch Paavo won 121 races of 800 or more meters in a row, and was unbeaten over his entire career (14 years) in Cross Country and the 10,000 m race. Nurmi achieved fame by setting the world record in the mile, the 5000 m and 10,000 m runs and holding those records all at the same time (1923), a feat never matched. In all, Nurmi set official world records 22 times, and added unofficial records for a total of 58 world records. Nurmi would have competed in the 1932 Olympic Games, but was disqualified in a controversial decision that questioned his amateur status. Nurmi is such a national hero in Finland that his portrait appears on their 10 Mark bill!
9. Misty May-Treanor, Kerri Walsh-Jennings, 2004, 2008, 2012.
This dynamic duo won the Gold Medal at 3 consecutive Olympic Games in Beach Volleyball, an incredible synergistic combination of 2 athletes forming an unbeatable team. In the 2012 Olympics they extended their unbeaten streak to 32 consecutive sets until losing a set to the Schwaiger sisters from the Austrian team, but went on to win the match and a 3rd Olympic Gold Medal. Walsh-Jennings (6’3”) and May-Treanor (5’9”) both also competed in the 2000 Olympics with different partners and neither medaled. Walsh-Jennings competed in the 2016 Olympics with a different partner (May-Treanor had retired) and won an Olympic Bronze Medal.
10. Venus and Serena Williams, 2000, 2008, 2012.
These fantastic American sisters have won 3 Olympic Gold Medals in Women’s Doubles Tennis, and may well have won a 4th in 2004 but for Serena not being able to compete due to injury. They each have an Olympic Gold in Women’s Singles Tennis for their individual efforts. Of course, they have had stunning success in non-Olympic events as well, with 30 Grand Slam Women’s Singles titles between them and 14 Grand Slam Women’s Doubles titles together. Additionally, Venus added an Olympic Silver Medal in Mixed Doubles Tennis in 2016. They are the most successful female Olympians in the sport of tennis in Olympic history. They are arguably the Greatest Sister Athletes of All-Time (according to moi).
Question for students (and subscribers): Please nominate those athletes you think deserve inclusion in such a list in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Hurley, Michael. The World’s Greatest Olympians. Heinemann, 2011.
McKay, Andrew. Michael Phelps: The Inspirational Story Behind One of Olympic’s Greatest Swimmers. Lulu.com, 2016.