Let’s say up front: This list is ridiculous. It is utterly absurd to compare Olympic athletes, different sports, different eras, and try to put them in a tidy list numbered from 1-100. We are comparing Fanny Blankers-Koen, a Dutch track athlete known as “The Flying Housewife” because she dared compete after her children were born, to Naim Suleymanoglu, a powerful Turkish weightlifter to Misty May-Treanor, an American beach volleyball star, to Sir Steve Redgrave, a knighted rower who won five gold medals at five Olympics.
A list of the 100 greatest Olympians in order? Pointless. Of course.
So let’s get started.
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100. Eric (the Eel) Moussambani, Swimming, Equatorial Guinea
He appeared to almost drown swimming 100-meters at the Sydney Games … but he finished. It took him twice as long as Michael Phelps, and he obviously didn’t win any medals. But he did win some hearts and reminded us that striving is what it’s all about.
99. Huberg Van Innis, Archery, Belgium
He won two gold medals at the 1900 Olympics and then returned to the Games in Antwerp 20 years later to capture four more golds at the age of 54.
98. Duke Kahanamoku, Swimming, United States
Though he gained more fame for popularizing surfing, he first won three golds and two silvers in the swimming competitions at the 1912, 1920 and 1924 Olympics.
97. Dorando Pietri, Marathon, Italy
Here is one of the great stories in Olympic history. Pietri was a pastry chef in Italy. He was a small man, barely 5-foot-3, but he loved to run. At the 1906 Intercalated Games in Athens, he was leading the marathon by at least five minutes when he got sick and had to stop.
Two years later, at the 1908 Olympics in London, he again surged into the lead but with just over a mile to go he began to feel sick again. He ran into the stadium for the last 400 meters, and he did not even know where he was. He came in the wrong way and had to be redirected by officials. He then fell down. He got up ran a little longer and fell down again. And again. And again. And again. Five times in all, Pietri fell, though his lead was so big that nobody else entered the stadium.
The umpires helped him up after he fell. It was written that several people basically pushed him over the finish line. Pietri crossed that line first and the crowd went crazy for him. And then, in came American Johnny Hayes. The Americans were particularly despised in Great Britain in 1908 because they had complained loudly after the British did not have an American flag for the Opening Ceremonies (officials said they couldn’t find one — those were different times). So, basically, NOBDOY wanted Hayes to win.
But after Hayes crossed the line, there was an immediate protest put up — umpires and fans are not allowed to help a marathon runner. There was much confusion (apparently, in the madness, someone lodged a complaint against Hayes because it was reported he too had received some help). When it finally cleared, Pietri was disqualified and Hayes was awarded the gold medal.
Pietri received a silver cup from the Queen of England for his efforts, though, and he was a beloved Italian hero.
96. Ben Ainslie, Sailing, Great Britain
The first person to win medals in five different Olympic Games in sailing and a four-time Gold medalist.
95. Karnam Malleswari, Weightlifting, India
Was a two-time World Champion and then briefly retired from the sport, but she returned in 2000 to win bronze and become the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal.
94. Andras Balczo, Modern Pentathlon, Hungary
The only three-time Olympic champion in the Modern Pentathlon, but he often turned down the acclaim he received back home because he was a staunch opponent of the ruling party. “The greatest gift a man can have,” he said, “is a strong will.”
93. Anastasia Davydova, Synchronized Swimming, Russia
Won five Olympic gold medals to go along with her 12 world championships. She now coaches.
92. Eric Liddell, Track, Great Britain
Was the favorite to win the 100-meter dash at the 1924 Olympics but refused to compete because the heats were held on a Sunday. Chose instead to compete at 400-meters even though he had not been especially competitive in the event internationally. On the day of the race, however, he was handed a note which said “Those who honor me I will honor” (Samuel 2:30) and, inspired, set a world record and won Olympic gold. His story was retold in the Oscar winning movie “Chariots of Fire.”
91. Isabell Werth, Equestrian, Germany
She is a five-time gold medalist in dressage. In her post-Olympic career she has been twice suspended after her horse was found to have used an illegal substance.
90. Ivano Balic, Team Handball, Croatia
Widely viewed as the greatest team handball player ever, he led Croatia to the gold medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
89-88. Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings, Beach Volleyball, United States
They won three gold medals together and, in addition to being the greatest beach volleyball team ever, they have helped bring legitimacy to their sport.
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87. Chris Hoy, Cycling, Great Britain
The most successful Olympic cyclist ever with seven medals, six of them gold. Hoy now writes children’s books about a cyclist named “Flying Fergus.”
86. Allyson Felix, Track, United States
She is a four-time Olympic gold medalist and the defending champion at 200-meters. In Rio, she will try to become only the the third woman to win the 200- and 400-meter double.
85. Lisa Fernandez, Softball, United States
Led the United States to three consecutive gold medals. She holds the Olympic record with 25 strikeouts in a game against overmatched Australia in 2000.
84. Omar Linares, Baseball, Cuba
A star on the 1992 and 1996 gold-medal winning teams for Cuba. Linares, many scouts believe, would have been Major League superstar had he been given the chance to play in his prime.
83. Ralf Schumann, Shooting, Germany
The only shooter to win the same event at three different Olympics (he won the 25-meter rapid fire pistol).
82. Kim Rhode, Shooting, United States
Winner of three golds in double trap and skeet — in her gold-medal winning skeet performance she tied the Olympic record with 99 hits out of 100.
81. Valentina Vezzali, Fencing, Italy
She won six Olympic gold medals in foil over three Olympics. Vezzali is now a member of the Italian parliament.
80. Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali), Boxing, United States
Ali was still called Cassius Clay and he breezed to gold with a knockout and three consecutive unanimous decisions in the light heavyweight division. He would later say he threw his gold medal into the Ohio River after he was refused service in a restaurant, but it’s likely that Ali created the story.
79. Joe Frazier, Boxing, United States
Frazier did not actually qualify for the Olympics in 1964 but got to go after Buster Mathis was injured. He knocked out his first two opponents but in his third fight — where opponent Vadim Yemelyanov’s corner threw in the towel — Frazier badly hurt his left hand. He was the only one who knew that he was fighting the gold medal match against Germany’s Hans Huber with a broken thumb. He won gold by a 3-2 decision.
78. Mary Peters, Pentathlon, Great Britain
She was a symbol of unity during the Troubles. After she won gold in 1972, she was warned not to return home to Northern Ireland because, as a Protestant who won a medal for Great Britain, her life would be in danger. But she insisted on returning and was greeted with a throng of supporters.
77. Bruce Jenner (Caitlyn Jenner), Decathlon, United States
Before she took on the name Caitlyn, before celebrity and reality TV and all the rest, Bruce Jenner amazed everyone by smashing the world record in the decathlon at the 1976 Olympics. Jenner then ran around waving a small American flag, something that John Belushi would mimic in a Saturday Night Live skit. Jenner quickly became one of the biggest celebrities in the country.
76. Manuel Estiarte, Water Polo, Spain
Played in a record six Olympics (leading the tournament in scoring five times), and led Spain to gold in 1996 after a heartbreaking loss to Italy four years earlier.
75. Mary Lou Retton, Gymnastics, United States
Won the Olympic individual overall gold medal at the Soviet-boycotted Games of 1984 and inspired a whole new generation of Americans to become gymnasts.
74-72: Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Jerry Lucas, Basketball, United States
The three stars on the extraordinary 1960 Olympic basketball team which is almost certainly the greatest amateur team ever assembled. The U.S. easily took gold and won games by an average of 42 points.
71. Zhang Yining, Table Tennis, China
Won back-to-back gold medals in both singles and doubles at the 2004 and 2008 games. She retired at the top of her game and worked to popularize her sport worldwide.
70. Johnny Weismuller, Swimming, United States
He won five freestyle gold medals in 1924 and 1928, but is much better known for his jungle yell as Tarzan in six MGM movies.
69. David Hemery, Track, Great Britain
Hemery won the 400-meter hurdles in such dominating fashion — setting a world record and breezing to the line a second ahead of West Germany’s Gerhard Hennige — that the BBC’s David Coleman famously said at the finish: “Hennige second, and who cares who’s third, it doesn’t matter.”
68. Olga Korbut, Gymnastics, Soviet Union
Captured the world’s heart by winning gold in the floor exercise and, particularly, on the balance beam at the 1972 Olympics.
67. Cathy Freeman, Track, Australia
She was the first Australian Aboriginal to win Olympic gold in an individual event when she did it in the 400 meters in Sydney. The pressure on Freeman was beyond intense – she had lit the torch to launch the Olympics – and those who were there the night she won in front of 80,000 will never forget it.
66. Dan Gable, Wrestling, United States
He won the 1972 gold without allowing a point, this even though he suffered a knee injury and a separate head injury during the competition. Gable went on to become the greatest wrestling coach in NCAA history.
65. Yelena Isinbayeva, Pole Vault, Russia
Two-time gold medalist, she was one of the athletes to light the torch at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.
64. Reiner Klimke, Equestrian, Germany
Competed in six Olympics from 1960 to 1988 and won six gold medals in dressage.
63. Kristin Otto, East Germany, Swimming
The first woman to win six gold medals in a single Olympics. She did it in 1988, before the Berlin Wall came down, and ever since then many of her teammates admitted to heavily doping with performance enhancing drugs. Otto is strongly believed to have used PEDs herself — the secret police files released in 1994 suggest as much — but she has always denied it. “I worked very hard for those medals … it was not all drugs,” she said.
62. Nomura Tadahiro, Judo, Japan
The only judoka to win three Olympic gold medals.
61. Guo Jingjing, Diving, China
Perhaps the greatest female springboard diver ever, she won four gold medals.
60. Regla Torres, Volleyball, Cuba
Led Cuba’s women’s volleyball team to three gold medals (1992, 1996 and 2000) and was named the best player of the 20th century by the FIVB, the international volleyball federation.
59. Karch Kiraly, Volleyball, United States
Led the United States men’s volleyball team to two gold medals and was also named the best player of the 20th century by the FIVB. Kiraly then returned at age 36 for beach volleyball, and he teamed up with Kent Steffes to win a third gold medal.
58. Jenny Thompson, Swimming, United States
Won 11 medals — eight of them gold. All eight were as part of U.S. relay teams.
57. Natalie Coughlin, Swimming, United States
The first woman to win back-to-back golds in the 100-meter backstroke. She won 12 medals in all.
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56. Dara Torres, Swimming, United States
Won 12 medals — four of each color — and in 2008 became the oldest swimmer (at 41) ever to compete at the Olympics.
55. Gert Fredriksson, Canoeing, Sweden
A canoeing legend, Fredriksson won six gold medals over four Olympics — 1948 in London, 1952 in Helsinki, 1956 in Melbourne and 1960 in Rome.
54-52. Lisa Leslie, Teresa Edwards, Diana Taurasi, Basketball, United States
Leslie and Edwards won four gold medals, Taurasi three so far, and together they formed the greatest women’s basketball teams ever assembled.
51. Naim Suleymanoglu, Weightlifting, Turkey
“The Pocket Hercules” won three consecutive gold medals, the last a stirring competition with Greece’s Valerios Leonidis.
50-40: Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Scottie Pippen, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Chris Mullin, Clyde Drexler, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Basketball, United States
The often imitated but never to be duplicated “Dream Team.” Changed the Olympics forever.
39. Babe Didrikson, Track, United States
Her athletic career is so overpowering — Hall of Fame golfer, All-American basketball player — that it’s easy to forget that at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles she won gold in the 80-meter hurdles and javelin (setting Olympic records in both) and won silver in the high jump. She would have won gold in the high jump as well but judges ruled that she used an illegal technique in her final jump.
38. Ray Ewry, Track, United States
Won 10 gold medals from 1900-1908 in the standing long jump, the standing high jump and the standing triple jump. Ewry had contracted polio as a child and had spent some of his younger years in a wheelchair.
37. Elisabeta Lipa, Rowing, Romania
Won medals in six different Olympics and won eight medals overall, five of them gold.
36. Haile Gebrselassie, Track, Ethiopia
One of the greatest marathon runners of all time, he won back-to-back 10,000-meter gold at the 1996 and 2000 Olympics.
35. Ian Thorpe, Swimming, Australia
The Thorpedo won nine medals, five of them gold, at two Olympics.
34. Richard Fosbury, High Jump, United States
Invented a whole new way to high jump — now known as the Fosbury Flop — and won Olympic Gold at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.
33. Matt Biondi, Swimming, United States
Biondi won 11 medals, eight of them gold. He broke the world record in the 50-meter freestyle at the 1988 Games, but it was relay swimming that marked Biondi. He swam on six relay teams and the U.S. won all six races.
32. Fanny Blankers-Koen, Track, Netherlands
She was known as “The Flying Housewife” because she made the rare decision at the time to compete even after she got married and had children. She became the first Dutch athlete to win gold in track and field when she won the 100 meters on a muddy track at the 1948 Olympics. She proceeded to win the 200, the 80 meter hurdles and she anchored Netherland’s gold-medal winning 4×100 meter relay team, coming back from third place.
31. Daley Thompson, Decathlon, Great Britain
Just the second decathlete to win gold medals at back to back Olympics.
30. Boris Shakhlin, Gymnastics, Soviet Union
Winner of 13 medals, seven of them gold, including the individual all-around competition in 1960.
29. Aladar Gerevich, Fencing, Hungary
Gerevich won six golds, his first in 1932 and his second an astonishing 28 years later in 1960. Had it not been for two Olympics canceled because of the war, Gerevich might have won medals and an unprecedented eight Olympics.
28. Abebe Bikila, Marathon, Ethiopia
Won back-to-back marathons in 1960 and 1964. He won the first one running barefoot.
27. Nikolay Adrianov, Gymnastics, Soviet Union
He held the record for most medals won with 15 until it was broken by Michael Phelps. Of the 15 medals, seven were gold including the individual all-around competition in 1976. That year he also won gold in the vault, rings and floor exercise.
26. Al Oerter, Discus, United States
The first athlete to win the same event at four consecutive Olympics. Oerter won his first discus gold in 1956 when he was 20. He won his last in 1968 in Mexico City when he was the old man of the event at age 32. “Let’s put it this way,” he told me once. “You’ve got to love it.”
25. Brigit Fischer-Smith, Canoeing, Germany
Won an astounding eight gold medals over six Olympics — this even though she had to miss the 1984 Olympics because it was boycotted by East Germany. She was 18 when she won the K-1 500 meter race in Moscow in 1980. She was 42 when she was part of the K-4 team that won the 500-meter race in Athens. That’s one canoeing family — her niece Fanny won a gold medal in Beijing and her brother Frank won four World Championships.
24. Greg Louganis, Diving, United States
He’s the only man to sweep the springboard and platform event at consecutive Olympics. He won four gold medals in all, though it is the gold he won after cracking his head on the springboard during the preliminary rounds in 1988 that everyone remembers most.
23. Sawao Kato, Gymnastics, Japan
Winner of 12 medals, eight of them gold, including back-to-back individual all-around titles in 1968 and 1972.
22. Bob Beamon, Long Jump, United States
He won just the one gold medal — in the 1968 long jump — so his place this high on the list is probably pretty dubious. But his one jump so shook the earth that you could argue he belongs even higher. People will forget he almost did not make the final that year; he fouled on his first two jumps and needed a sensible but pressure-packed jump on the third just to qualify. Then, in the final, he jumped 8.9 meters, or 29 feet 2 1/2 inches. He broke the previous world record by almost two feet. It was a quantum leap forward in the history of Olympic competition, a space-age jump into the future. The women’s long jump record in 1968 has been beaten by two feet. The men’s triple jump record is three feet longer than in 1968. But in almost 50 years only one man — Mike Powell — has jumped longer than Bob Beamon did that day, and this year no one in the world has come within a foot and a half of Beamon’s jump. Beamon realized he had done something extraordinary and he almost collapsed in shock. “You have destroyed this event,” the great long jumper Lynn Davies told him.
21. Sir Steve Redgrave, Rowing, Great Britain
Went to five Olympics. Won golds at five Olympics. One of the most beloved athletes in the history of Great Britain.
20. Pyrros Dimas, Weightlifting, Greece
Emigrated to Greece from Albania just before the 1992 Olympics and promptly won the gold medal, shouting “For Greece!” as he made the winning lift. He set two world records at his second Olympics and won gold again. He won his third gold in Sydney in 2000. And then, though no weightlifter had ever won medals in four straight Olympics, he was compelled to compete in Athens for love of country. He was too old. He was hurt. But in the moment, he found a way to make the lift that won him the bronze medal. And as I wrote then: “He left his shoes on the stage — shoes for someone else to fill — while the Greek crowd cheered and cried and danced and hugged.”
19. Jim Thorpe, Track and Field, United States
Maybe my favorite fact about Jim Thorpe’s sweep of the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics is that he won four of the five events in the pentathlon. The one event he did not win? The javelin throw. Why not? He had never thrown one before. He finished third in the javelin throw anyway.
18. Bob Mathias, Decathlon, United States
Maybe my favorite fact about Bob Mathias’ back-to-back decathlon victories is that in 1948, he was so unsure of the decathlon rules — he had competed in his first decathlon just two months earlier — that he almost fouled out of the shot put and he almost failed to clear any height in the high jump. He won anyway and, for a moment, became perhaps the most famous athlete in the United States. He promised to never go through all that again, but he returned four years later and won the decathlon by a staggering 900 points, the largest gap in Olympic decathlon history. That year he also played fullback for Stanford making him the only man to win an Olympic gold medal and play in the Rose Bowl in the same year.
17. Lasse Viren, Track, Finland
He was famous for his brutal workouts, which is what you might expect from an athlete who swept the 5,000- and 10,000-meters at consecutive Olympics. In 1972, Viren was bumped in the 12th lap of the 10,000-meter run and he fell to the ground. He got back up and won the gold medal. Seven days later he won the 5,000 meters. Seven days after that, he went to a track meet in Helsinki — and broke the 5,000-meter world record.
16. Michael Johnson, Track, United States
The only man to sweep the 200- and 400-meters at the same Olympics. How fast was he going when he hit the corner in the 200-meters? “My dad bought me a go-kart as a kid. There was a big hill at the end of the road. And I could make that go-kart go downhill so fast, it was like flying. … “It’s the only thing that really compares to running this fast.”
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15. Aleksandr Karelin, Greco Roman Wrestling, Russia
He won three consecutive gold medals — first for the Soviet Union, then for the Unified Team, then for Russia. When American Rulon Gardner upset him in 2000, it was one of the greatest upsets in Olympic history — and probably the most memorable thing I’ve ever seen in sports — but it does not detract from the career of the nearly-unbeatable Russian who used to train by carrying refrigerators up stairs.
14. Alexei Nemov, Gymnastics, Russia
Won 12 medals, four of them gold, including the individual all-around title in 2000. It should have been 13 medals. In 2004, when Nemov was 28 and viewed as the old man of gymnastics, he put together a staggeringly difficult routine on the high bar. It was, in many ways, the crescendo performance of Nemov’s career; his contribution to gymnastics was his determination to push the boundaries and do harder and harder routines than had ever been tried before. The crowd got it. The judges did not. they scored him 9.725, which put him out of medal contention.
Well, the crowd wouldn’t have it. They booed. And booed some more. And booed more more. For 15 minutes, they booed so loud that the competition was stopped and the judges hastily got together to talk it over. The judges then announced that, hey, what do you know, a couple of math errors, turns out Nemov’s score was actually 9.762. But even that score was too low for a medal, and the crowd’s boos grew darker until Nemov himself stepped out and held up his hand in both gratitude and a sense of decency. It was one of the most glorious Olympic moments, especially because it followed one of the worst.
13. Emil Zatopek, Track, Czechoslovakia
In 1952, he did something that will never be done again — he won the 5,000-meter, the 10,000-meter AND the marathon at the same Olympics. It’s hard to put that achievement into words, but perhaps the best way is to simply say that it was the first martathon Zatopek had ever run. He had won back-to-back 10,000 meters races, but that’s only six or so miles. He was so baffled about how to run a marathon that he apparently walked up to British world record older Jim Peters, thrust out his hand, and introduced himself: “I am Zatopek,” he said. Peters already knew. In 1948, Zatopek had beaten him in the 10,000-meters by a minute and a half, a beating so thorough that it is said Peters never ran the 10,000 meters again. Peters retreated to the safety of the marathon.
Now here was Zatopek again, though Peters did not see him as a serious contender in a marathon. An hour into the race, Zatopek pulled alongside Peters and asked if the pace was too fast. “No,” Peters said in an effort to get in Zatopek’s head a little bit, “It’s too slow.” “Oh,” Zatopek said, and so he took off, leaving Peters and the rest of the world in his wake, winning the marathon by two and a half minutes. The Guardian reported that he looked like “a man who had taken a brisk country walk.”
12. Wilma Rudolph, Track, United States
She contracted polio and scarlet fever as a child. She wore a brace until she was 9. She grew up in segregated Tennessee and was, in her younger days, painfully shy. So how did Wilma Rudolph became the fastest woman in the world? How did she sweep the 100- and 200-meters at the 1960 Olympics and then anchor the world-record 4×100 meter relay team? She would say that she was inspired by Jesse Owens. But more: “I believe in me more than anything in this world.”
11. Teofilo Stevenson, Boxing, Cuba
He never turned professional so we will never know for certain where Stevenson would have ranked in the stratosphere of great heavyweights with Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and the like. He was offered $5 million to fight Ali, but he turned it down, famously saying, “What is one million dollars compared to the love of eight million Cubans?” Anyway, his three heavyweight gold medals will stand the test of time; that will never happen again. His greatest individual moment was when he upset American Duane Bobick at the 1972 Olympics — up to that point, the U.S. viewed the heavyweight gold medal as an American birthright. Stevenson knocked out all five contenders at the 1976 Olympics. In 1980, with the U.S. boycotting, Stevenson knocked out his first two opponents and won the last two fights by easy decision.
10. Florence Griffith-Joyner, Track, United States
On July 16, 1988, Florence Griffith-Joyner ran a 10.49 100-meter dash at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Indianapolis. This remains the world record.
Two months later at the Olympics in Seoul, Florence Griffith-Joyner ran a 21.34 200-meter run. This remains the world record.
Not sure what else needs to be said.
9. Nadia Comaneci, Gymnastics, Romania
She won five gold medals in total, but what Nadia is remembered for is perfection. Her 10.0 score on the uneven parallel bars (marked 1.0 because the scoring device did not have place for enough digits) broke open the possibility that an athlete could, in a small way, be perfect.
8. Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Track, United States
The heptathlon events include: The 100-meter hurdles, high jump, shot-put, 200-meters, long jump, javelin throw and 800 meters. When Jackie Joyner Kersee won the heptathlon in 1988, she was by far the best female athlete in the world. She already had the five best heptathlon scores ever recorded. She was a star college basketball player. And six days after she put the heptathlon record up where no one has even come close, she went out and won the long jump. Four years later, she won the heptathlon again. Four years after that, she won another bronze in the long jump.
7. Paavo Nurmi, Track, Finland
It’s all but impossible to define the toughness of Nurmi, who won nine gold medals. He once won the 5,000-meter and the 1,500-meter on the same day. He set Olympic records in both. He was famously intense; my favorite Nurmi fact is that when Zatopek, who would win the 5,000, 10,000 and marathon at the same Olympics, felt like he was spent he would shout to the heavens: “I am Nurmi! I am Nurmi!”
6. Mark Spitz, Swimming, United States
Spitz’s remarkable 1972 achievement — the first athlete to win seven gold medals at the same Olympics — was driven by disappointment. In 1968, he failed to win a single individual event, even though he was the prohibitive and world record-holder in the 100-meter butterfly and the best swimmer coming into the 100-meter freestyle. He came in claiming he would win six golds, he left Mexico City with two golds, both relays. He was then determined to do something unprecedented, and he did that in Munich, winning the 100- and 200-meter freestyles and the 100- and 200-meter butterflies in world record time, and then leading three U.S. relay teams to gold medals and world records. Seven golds. Seven world records.
5. Carl Lewis, Track, United States
Ten medals. Nine gold. Back-to-back wins in the 100-meter dash.
Oh, and I’m convinced he once jumped 30 feet.
4. Usain Bolt, Track, Jamaica
What is left to say about Bolt? Winner of six golds. Swept the 100-, 200- and 4×100-meter relays at each of the last two Olympics. World-record holder at 100- and 200-meters. The greatest sprinter of all time. What’s left to say about Bolt? We might find out in Rio.
3. Larisa Latynina, Gymnastics, Soviet Union
Still the record-holder for most individual medals won at the Olympics with 14. She won the individual all-around twice, in 1956 and 1960, and won silver in 1964. She won three medals in vault, three medals in the floor exercise, three on the uneven bars and two on the balance beam, When you consider that all-time medal winner Michael Phelps won 11 individual events, you can appreciate Latynina’s greatness.
2. Michael Phelps, Swimming, United States
Twenty-two medals. Eighteen golds.
1. Jesse Owens, Track, United States
When I did a similar list four years ago, I had the order different — had Phelps at No. 1 and Owens at No. 4. The reasoning, I guess, was that while Owens’ performance in 1936 was singular — he won four gold medals and set two world records in the most heated environment imaginable — it was still one Olympics compared to lifetime achievements of Latynina and Phelps and Nurmi and so on.
But what Owens did in 1936, with Nazism on the rise, with Hitler himself in the crowd, is the most remarkable achievement in the history of the Olympics. He won the 100-meter, the 200-meter, the long jump and was part of the gold-medal winning 4×100-meter relay team. In the moment, he overcame the racism of his own country and the rising hatred in another. He’s the greatest Olympian of them all.