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The Most Successful Olympians of All Time

We all love watching the Olympics and seeing records broken. One year it’s the swimmers and gymnasts at the Summer Games, and two years later it’s snowboarders and speed skaters at the Winter Games. The Olympics are for anyone who appreciates athletics at the highest level.

One of the main reasons the Olympic Games are so esteemed is because of the most glorified athletes who have competed and won medals. We wanted to celebrate these individuals who have soared to heights that most can only dream of reaching. The men and women who have not only performed well on the world’s biggest and brightest stage, but the ones who are considered the best of all time.

If you were hoping to find a list of the athletes whose accomplishments at the Olympics Games stand out above the rest, it’s time to get comfortable. Grab a beverage and start reading as we dive into the “crème de la crème!”

Ray Ewry

Born
October 14, 1873
Birth Place
Lafayette, Indiana
Olympics Competed At
1900 Paris, 1904 St. Louis, 1908 London
Olympic Medals Won
8 (All Gold)
Sport
Jumping – Standing high, long, and triple

If you haven’t heard of Ray Ewry, don’t be alarmed. Ray was obliterating the competition long before any of us were born. It is pretty difficult to get your name on a list of the greatest Olympians who ever lived when you only participated in a total of eight events. However, when you win a gold medal in all eight, you wind up in a class all by yourself.

At the 1900 Summer Olympics in Paris, Ewry took part in all three of the jumping events (standing high, long, and triple) and took home three golds, despite all events taking place on the same afternoon. The 1904 Games in St. Louis were like the movie Groundhog Day for Ray. He captured gold in all three events to put his run at a perfect 6-6.

The only way the International Olympic Committee (IOC) could prevent Ray from winning three more gold medals at the 1908 Summer Games in London was to eliminate the standing triple jump event. Ray went on to win the gold medals in the standing high and long jumps, just as he had done at the 1906 Intercalated Games in Athens.

The IOC no longer recognizes the Intercalated Games as “official Olympic events,” or we would be talking about Ray Ewry as the “10-10 guy.” Even if you want to get technical and discount his two medals from Athens, it cannot be denied that Ray Ewry competed in eight events and has eight gold medals to show for it.

Not bad for a kid who was succumbed to a wheelchair as a child while suffering from poliomyelitis (polio). Instead of never being able to walk again, Ray defied the odds and now finds his name on the short list of the most distinguished Olympic athletes ever.

Paavo Nurmi

Born
June 13, 1897
Birth Place
Turku, Finland
Olympics Competed At
1920 Antwerp, 1924 Paris, 1928 Amsterdam
Olympic Medals Won
12 (9 Gold, 3 Silver)
Sport
Track and Field

The “Flying Finn” was known for running long distance races. When the product of Turku, Finland ran, nobody could keep up with him. He competed 12 times over the course of 3 Olympics and won 12 medals. Remarkably, 9 of those medals were gold, tying him for the second most golds won all time.

Imagine racing the 10,000-meter race for 14 years and never losing once. You don’t have to imagine anymore, all you have to do is look at Paavo’s lifetime on the track.

Nurmi was a “walking world record machine.” He set 22 official world records, more than anyone else on the track.

Our favorite mark was the one he achieved in 1923. He became the first man or woman to concurrently hold the world records in the mile, 5,000 meter, and the 10,000 meter races. To this day no one else has been able to simultaneously hold all three records, and don’t hold your breath for it to occur again.

As you can see, he didn’t just win gold medals, Paavo had a flair for setting records. During the 1924 Games in Paris, Nurmi flashed his brilliance and won 5 golds. This included setting the world record in the 1,500 meter and the 5,000 meter less than 60 minutes apart from one another. The only reason he didn’t capture the gold in the 10,000 meter race like he did in ’20 and ’28 was because his coaches thought that 5 races in the heat was enough and didn’t permit Nurmi to enter the 10k.

Track and field athletes who aspire to go out and break records can look to Paavo Nurmi as the man who did that better than anyone else in history.

Jesse Owens

Born
September 12, 1913
Birth Place
Oakville, Alabama
Olympics Competed At
1936 Berlin
Olympic Medals Won
4 (All Gold)
Sport
Track and Field

Jesse Owens is simply a one-of-a-kind athlete. That term may get tossed around loosely and may be overused, but Owens was one of the true exceptions that warrants the distinction. Before we get into his performance at the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin, we must first reminisce about “the greatest 45 minutes in sport.”

The setting was the 1935 Big Ten Championships Track Meet in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan. To get a full grasp of what Jesse did you have to consider that he fell down a flight of stairs, injuring his back just five days before the meet. He had to be helped out of the car once the team arrived, and Jesse could barely bend over and touch his knees. It is actually mind-boggling that Owens went on to do what he did considering the circumstances.

You will want to check out the link above, but the short version of the story is that Owens competed in four events that day, setting World Records (WR) in three of them and equaling a WR in the other. He achieved these milestones with literally less than a 10-minute break in between. The level of grandeur these feats fall under is exactly as they are called — arguably the most heroic 45 minutes in the history of sports. What’s scary is we haven’t even scratched the surface regarding his performance in Germany the following year.

We will preface his showing in Berlin by telling you that the dormitory that Jesse slept in has been turned into a living museum to help us remember how incredible his accomplishments are. Jesse competed in the 100 meter, 200 meter, 4 x 100-meter relay, and the long jump. He won the gold medal in each event.

People like to complicate things and talk about the color of his skin and the era he ran in. It was fairly straightforward, ladies and gentlemen. Jesse Owens was simply a faster runner and a better jumper than any other man or woman who came before him, and it wasn’t even close.

Larisa Latynina

Born
December 27, 1934
Birth Place
Kerson, Ukrainian SSR, Soviet Union
Olympics Competed At
1956 Melbourne, 1960 Rome, 1964 Tokyo
Olympic Medals Won
18 (9 Gold, 5 Silver, 1 Bronze)
Sport
Gymnastics

Your curiosity of who is the greatest female Olympian of all time is now over. The answer is Soviet Union’s Larisa Latynina. She absolutely burst onto the scene at the 1956 Summer Games in Melbourne, Australia. She took home 6 medals, including 4 gold.

Many indoor gymnasts become specialists in specific areas or events, but Latynina was a “specialist” at anything that involved a leotard and a gym floor. In her first go-around at the Olympic level as a 19-year old, Larisa won gold medals in the floor exercise, vault, all-around, and team events, while still managing a silver medal in the uneven bars and a bronze in the team apparatus event.

She must have liked how the 6 medals looked at her mantle back home, because Larisa came to the 1960 Games in Rome and left with 6 more medals. Clearly, this was her lucky number, because she again took home an incredible 6 medals in Tokyo at the 1964 Games, running her total up to 18.

Her 9 gold medals won are tied with 3 others for the second most ever. Whether you want to talk about the most dominant gymnasts of all time or female Olympians in general, it doesn’t change whose name sits atop. We will continue to see amazing performances on the gymnastics floor, but we may never see someone as consistently good across the board as Larisa Latynina was during her career.

Mark Spitz

Born
February 10, 1950
Birth Place
February 10, 1950
Olympics Competed At
1968 Mexico City, 1972 Munich
Olympic Medals Won
11 (9 Gold, 1 Silver, 1 Bronze)
Sport
Swimming

Before there was Michael Phelps, it was Mark Spitz’s name who came up when people talked about the greatest male swimmer to ever suit up in the Olympics. His 9 gold medals are only eclipsed by Phelps, but don’t be mistaken for dismissing Mark’s dominance in the pool. He competed in a pair of Olympic Games, first in 1968 at Mexico City.

Spitz was no stranger to success, despite being a first-time Olympian. He won 5 gold medals at the 1967 Pan American Games and had already set 10 world records. Believe it or not, he was actually disappointed that he won 2 golds, a silver, and a bronze in Mexico City. There are hardly enough words to celebrate what Spitz did during his next crack at the Summer Olympics 4 years later in Germany.

Mark’s showing at the 1972 Games in Munich was borderline inconceivable. He entered 7 events and you will have to take a look for yourself to see how they turned out.

RaceTime
200 Meter Butterfly2:00.70
4 x 100 Meter Freestyle Relay3:26.42
200 Meter Freestyle1:52.78
100 Meter Butterfly54.27
4 x 200 Meter Freestyle Relay7:35.7
100 Meter Freestyle51.22
4 x 100 Meter Medley Relay3:48.16

The reason we have each of the 7 events and their times listed is because Mark won a gold medal and set a new world record in all 7.

Not only did Mark win 7 gold medals, but he did so in record-setting fashion, quite literally. He was an absolute man on a mission. Apparently, Spitz had conquered everything in swimming that he wanted to by the end of the ’72 Games, so much so that he retired from competitive swimming. He was only 22-years old and prime of his career, raising the eyebrows of proclaimed fans of the sport.

Who knows what Mark would have accomplished had he trained for the 1976 Games. Regardless, in only two appearances, Mark goes down as one of the most decorated Olympians of all time.

Nikolai Andrianov

Born
October 14, 1952
Birth Place
Vladimir, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union
Olympics Competed At
1972 Munich, 1976 Montreal, 1980 Moscow
Olympic Medals Won
15 (7 Gold, 5 Silver, 5 Bronze)
Sport
Gymnastics

It is awfully hard to deny a man with 15 Olympic medals a spot on our list of the greatest Olympians of all time. Only Michael Phelps and Larisa Latynina have won more medals, and it’s hard to see anyone catching up to Nikolai anytime soon.

The gymnast from the Soviet Union was a fixture during the three Olympic Games he took part in. After getting his feet wet with a gold, silver, and bronze medal at the 1972 Games in Munich, Andrianov took full advantage of his opportunity in 1976. He was awarded 7 medals in Montreal, including 4 golds.

It is hard to say that Nikolai had an event he was best at considering he won titles on the vault, parallel bars, pommel horse, and horizontal bar, to name a few. We didn’t even mention that the floor exercise was perhaps his favorite event, winning 2 golds and a silver in his 3 attempts.

If you take a look at what Andrianov achieved in gymnastics in the World and European Championships, his list of medals won balloons to 46. Don’t sleep on Nikolai Andrianov when discussing the top Olympians who have ever lived. His accolades have earned him a spot in that conversation.

Carl Lewis

Born
July 1, 1961
Birth Place
Birmingham, Alabama
Olympics Competed At
1984 Los Angeles, 1988 Seoul, 1992 Barcelona, 1996 Atlanta
Olympic Medals Won
10 (9 Gold, 1 Silver)
Sport
Track and Field

Carl Lewis is the type of athlete that comes around once per generation. Carl was destined for greatness from the very beginning as his mother was a competitive hurdler and his sister was a talented long jumper. Having the proper genes to be successful is the first step, but you can’t achieve what Carl did without putting in the hard work.

Known as a premier long jumper coming out of the University of Houston, Lewis started to be recognized for his abilities as a sprinter. He was forced to wait until the 1984 Games in Los Angeles to make his Olympic debut after the United States boycotted the 1980 Summer Games in the Soviet Union.

It was well worth the wait for Carl as he shredded the other runners in LA in ’84. He stormed to the top of the podium in all four events competed in. There was no match for his speed in the 100 meter and 200 meter races, and his United States Team had no problem winning the 4 x 100 relay. He also won a gold medal in the long jump, hardly breaking a sweat.

The following video shows Carl Lewis in action during 1984 Games.

There was no doubt that the American Track and Field Team had a dominant figure that would be around for a while. This held true as Lewis would go on to win gold medals at the 1988 Games in Seoul and the 1992 festivities in Barcelona. His illustrious Olympic career came to an end at the 1996 Games in Atlanta where we saw Lewis hoist the gold once again in the long jump.

If you take into account what Carl Lewis was able to accomplish at the World Championships and other notable events like the Pan American and Goodwill Games, it’s quite astonishing to think of how full this man’s trophy case must be.

Bjørn Daehlie

Born
June 19, 1967
Birth Place
Elverum, Norway
Olympics Competed At
1992 Albertville, 1994 Lillehammer, 1998 Nagano
Olympic Medals Won
12 (8 Gold, 4 Silver)
Sport
Cross-Country Skiing

Simply put, Bjørn Daehlie was the fastest cross-country skier in the world in the 1990s, and it wasn’t even all that close. In just 8 years from 1991-1999, Daehlie won 29 medals between the Olympics and the World Championships. Cross-country skiers have a pretty high bar set for them to reach thanks to Bjørn.

His 8 gold medals are tied for the most ever by a Winter Olympian. After having tremendous runs in his first two appearances, all Daehlie did in Nagano in 1998 was win three more golds and a silver. It was, in fact, the second time he won gold medals in the 10 kilometer race, the 50 kilometer race, and the 4 x 10 kilometer race.

Had it not been for a devastating back injury while roller skiing in 1999, we would likely have seen Daehlie add more medals to his collection. He attempted to rehabilitate himself and gain the strength necessary to get back on his skis. Unfortunately, he was never able to return to the tip-top shape he was in prior to the accident.

The good news for Bjørn is that he has turned himself into quite the entrepreneur and businessman, flourishing as a fashion and real estate mogul in his home country of Norway. He might wear a suit and tie instead of a racing suit nowadays, but Daehlie has undoubtedly parlayed his skills on the mountain into his second career.

Ole Einar Bjørndalen

Born
January 27, 1974
Birth Place
Drammen, Norway
Olympics Competed At
1994 Lillehammer, 1998 Nagano, 2002 Park City, 2006 Turin, 2010 Vancouver, 2014 Sochi
Olympic Medals Won
13 (8 Gold, 4 Silver, 1 Bronze)
Sport
Biathlon

The title of the most decorated winter Olympian of all time was firmly in the grasp of Bjørn Daehlie until his Norwegian counterpart showed up on the scene. Nicknamed “The King of Biathlon,” Ole Einar Bjørndalen has won 13 Olympic medals, 8 of them being of the gold variety.

He has excelled at every level of Biathlon and it was on full display in Park City in 2002. He became the first and only biathlete to win every event at a single Winter Olympics. If you think that age caught up with Ole, remind yourself that at age 40, he captured a gold medal at in the Sprint event at Sochi (2014).

Throw in his 44 World Championship medals (20 gold) and you get an idea of how much of an icon Bjørndalen is amongst Olympic athletes. You would need to create a full page in order to commemorate everything else that Bjørndalen has achieved with a set of skis and a rifle, but you can get a glimpse of the type of career he has had. No other winter Olympian has stood on the podium as many times as Ole Einar Bjørndalen has and we don’t expect that to change in the near future.

Michael Phelps

Born
June 30, 1985
Birth Place
Baltimore, Maryland
Olympics Competed At
2000 Sydney, 2004 Athens, 2008 Beijing, 2012 London, 2016 Rio de Janeiro
Olympic Medals Won
28 (23 Gold, 3 Silver, 2 Bronze)
Sport
Swimming

Where shall we start with Michael Phelps? Simply put, Phelps is the most iconic male or female to ever take part in either the Summer or Winter Olympic Games. His 28 medals dwarf the next closest (18 by Larisa Latynina) by a significant margin. To help put things in perspective, look at the “career gold medals list” if you take Phelps out of the equation.

We have 4 Olympians with 9 gold medals and a host of others with either 8 or 7. Michael Phelps has won a jaw-dropping 23 gold medals between the 4 Olympic Games he has competed at, completely obliterating everyone else who has ever lived.

We should have known back in 2000 when the 15-year-old boyish looking teenager from Maryland qualified for the United States squad. By the time he had matured into a 19-year-old, all bets were off for anyone else that had a chance going into the 2004 Games in Athens.

He came out absolutely guns blazing, posting gold medals and Olympic records in the 100 and 200 meter butterfly, as well as the 200 meter medley. His gold medal in the 400 meter medley and time of 4:08.26 wasn’t just an Olympic record, it was also a new world record.

If you thought Michael would bask in his glory and this would be his climax, you obviously don’t know the personality and determination Phelps carries. What he did next at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, China was unprecedented.

8 events. 8 gold medals. 7 World Records and 1 Olympic Record.

Check Michael out here setting a new world record in the 200 meter freestyle in Beijing.

American male swimmer Mark Spitz had previously held the record for most gold medals won in a single Olympics with 7 at the 1972 Games in Munich. Phelps surpassed the mark and won 8 gold medals in historic fashion. Spitz would go on to say that he thought that Phelps was not only the greatest swimmer or Olympian of all time but perhaps the single greatest athlete ever.

Considering everything Phelps has achieved, it’s hard to argue with his point.

Usain Bolt

Born
August 21, 1986
Birth Place
Sherwood Content, Jamaica
Olympics Competed At
2004 Athens, 2008 Beijing, 2012 London, 2016 Rio de Janeiro
Olympic Medals Won
8 (All Gold)
Sport
Track and Field

Nicknamed the “Lightning Bolt,” Usain Bolt is the fastest sprinter we have ever seen step foot on planet Earth, at least at the Olympic level. We understand this is a pretty heavy claim, but it’s also the flat-out truth. In a day and age where sprinters specialize in certain races, it’s remarkable that Usain Bolt holds the world record for both the 100 meter and 200 meter races.

The “triple-double” achieved by Usain during the 2008, 2012, and 2016 Summer Games is a feat that we can safely say won’t be matched anytime soon. His triple-double of winning gold medals in both the 100 meter and 200 meter races at three consecutive Olympics is closer to unfathomable than believable, but somehow it happened.

For someone who dominated the 100 and 200 meter race so forcefully, it is only fitting that he holds the official world records in both. It was at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin where we witnessed history take place. He didn’t just set new world records , he shattered them. His times of 9.58 and 19.19 seconds respectively both were more than a full tenth of a second faster than the previous marks, which happened to be set by Usain as well.

At the Summer Games in London (2012) and Rio (2016), Bolt tacked on gold medals in the 4 x 100 relays, including another WR of 36.84 seconds. Suddenly Usain found himself with 8 gold medals, catapulting himself into rarefied air amongst the greatest athletes to ever participate in the Olympics.

The Jamaican native retired in 2017 with nothing left to prove to himself nor the Track and Field world. It will take an incredibly gifted runner to come along and best what Bolt was able to accomplish in the short sprints.

The Takeaway

Whether you are a fan of Summer Games or the Winter Games, the Olympics are like no other sporting event in the world. The most famous Olympians who have set records and won the most medals are the biggest reason the Games have become so significant.

Our Olympic enthusiasts wanted to discuss some of those athletes that have stamped their footprints in Olympic history forever. What these men and women were able to accomplish during their careers is the reason they made it to this landing spot of the greatest Olympians of all time.

The level of focus and determination it takes to win even one gold medal is something we could only dream about. The fact that Michael Phelps was able to win 23 of them is not easy for us to comprehend. Only the perfect storm of God-given ability and incredible willpower could turn someone into an athlete capable of producing 28 Olympic medals, not to mention a plethora of world records.

If you appreciate gold medals, you will like guys like Ray Ewry and Usain Bolt. Both men stood on the highest portion of the podium 8 times at the Olympic level. There are 4 athletes who can claim 9 gold medals (second most all-time behind Phelps) and we made sure to cover them all.

You may not have known that Paavo “The Flying Finn” Nurmi set the bar for all long distance runners to chase after. It was Larisa Latynina that showed all female gymnasts they could excel in numerous areas on the gym floor by winning medals in 7 different events during her 3 Olympic Games.

We wanted you to be fully aware of who the most decorated men and women Olympians are and what they have achieved. The competitors we included on this page stood out to us amongst all the medal winners. We never intended on creating an article to talk about all the males and females who have just found “success” at the Olympic level.

We saved this guide for only the finest and most noteworthy athletes. The Olympic legends who will always be remembered for what they accomplished and the records they set. We hope to add members to this guide in the future, but it will require some pretty substantial performances to join this company.