Here's a look at 30 of those athletes who I consider to be the greatest in Summer Olympics history. Note: Over the course of more than years of Olympics and tens of thousands of athletes, undoubtedly there will be some that are missed or forgotten about. Still, these 30 athletes are in my opinion some of the greatest ever.
In the Olympics, he won a silver medal in men's freestyle wrestling, and bronze medals in two-hand lift, all-around dumbell and team tug-o-war. For that, he deserves at least a spot in the rankings, because no athlete has ever accomplished that feat besides him. Wilma Rudolph was a bronze medalist in the Olympics in the meter relay at 16 years old in track and field. At the Olympics in Rome, she won gold medals in the meters, meters and meter relay, as she earned the nickname "The Tornado.
During those Olympics, he won the gold medal in the decathlon both times, meaning he was the best all-around track and field athlete at both Olympics. The only problem with Thompson's gold medals is that they came during boycotted Games , with top U. However, he did set world records during that stretch of years and he won the world championship. Bob Mathias won Olympic gold at the and Summer Olympics in track and field at the ages of 18 and 22 during those Olympics.
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In , he won the decathlon by points, which was the largest margin of victory in the decathlon up to that time. Redgrave won gold in the coxed four in and , while he also won golds in the coxless pairs in , and He also took home a bronze in the coxed four in To be that consistent over that period of time makes him one of the best, if not the best Olympic rower of all time.
Had the U. At 16 years old, he won silver in in the 10m platform, while taking gold in the 3m springboard and 10m platform at both the and Olympics. However, in , his gold came close to not happening after he hit his head on the springboard during the preliminary rounds. Louganis was able to recover from the concussion and went on to win the gold medal. Years later, when Louganis co-wrote his autobiography, Breaking the Surface, he revealed he found out he was HIV-positive weeks before the Olympics, causing ire among the diving community that he would put his opponents at risk.
Regarded as the greatest swordsman ever by CNN , Aladar Gerevich won a gold medal at six straight Olympics, with the war-torn years being in the middle. In the and Olympics, he won gold as part of the sabre team and bronze in sabre individual in , then had to wait as no Olympics were contested in and because of World War II.
However, Gerevich remained on top after the war, winning gold in sabre team and sabre individual in , gold in sabre team and silver in sabre individual in and sabre team golds in and He responded by challenging all of the members of the sabre team, defeating each one of them. Due to more television exposure and ability for endorsement deals, Jackie Joyner-Kersee took women's track and field to the next level.
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Beginning her Olympic career in , Joyner-Kersee took silver in the heptathlon. In , she won double gold in the heptathlon and long jump. In , she won gold again the heptathlon and bronze in the long jump, finishing out her Olympic career in with a bronze in the long jump.
During the s, Paavo Nurmi was considered the best middle- and long-distance runner in the world. In particular, he won five individual gold medals in the Olympics, winning the 1, meters, 5, meters, individual cross-country, 5, meter cross-country team and 3, meter team. Unfortunately, Nurmi was unable to run in the Olympics because he received money for his running, thus making him a professional.
Ray Ewry won eight gold medals in the Olympics, and two gold medals in the Intercalated Games, which is no longer counted in the Olympic total.
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Ewry won gold in the standing long jump , and , standing high jump , and and standing triple jump and And all this was after he contracted polio as a child, which relegated him to a wheelchair, but not for the rest of his life like doctors feared when he originally contracted the illness. As a member of the East German team, she won gold in K-1 meters , K-2 meters and K-4 meters and a silver in the K-1 meters After the fall of the Berlin Wall and Germany again became one, Fischer won five more golds and three silvers.
In , she won gold in K-1 meters and silver in K-4 meters; in she won gold in K-4 meters and silver in K-2 meters; in she won double gold in K-2 meters and K-4 meters; in , she won gold in K-4 meters and silver in K-2 meters. With 13 overall Olympic medals, Edoardo Mangiarotti is one of the most successful fencers of all time. In , , and , he won a gold in team epee, while also winning gold in the individual epee in and gold in the team foil in His silver medals came in the team foil , and , team epee in and individual foil in Raising two children, while training for the Olympics, earned her the nickname "The Flying Housewife.
Later, it was found out after giving birth to her third child in early , she had won those four gold medals while pregnant. Edwin Moses is mostly known for having not lost a meter hurdle race over the course of nine years, or races.
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His Olympic record may not look as stunning as others, with two golds and one bronze, but he still has to be considered one of the best of all time. In , in his first international competition, Moses won the gold medal and set a world record for the event at But the Olympics was her coming out party, as she won gold in in the individual all-around, vault and balance beam, and a silver in the team event.
In the Olympics, she won gold in the individual all-around, vault, uneven bars and floor exercise, while taking silver in the balance beam and team competition. But the Czechoslovakian gymnast was very outspoken in her views about Soviet-style communism during the Olympics. While at the Olympics, she continued to voice her views, which may have cost her a few titles. After having appeared to win the gold on the floor exercise, the judging panel upgraded the preliminary scores for Soviet Larisa Petrk, declaring a tie for the gold. In terms of individual gold medals, his total of eight is second all time to Michael Phelps' 11, a fact that's even more impressive considering Ewry suffered from polio as a child and nearly lost the use of his legs.
He also won two golds in the Intercalated Games in Athens, but those medals are no longer recognized by the International Olympic Committee. Standing nearly 6'6", Rose was a back-to-back champion in the shot put in and , and became the first athlete in the sport to throw a shot more than 50 feet. He won a silver in the event in , and earned a third gold in the two-handed shot put, in which the competitors had to throw the shot both right-handed and left-handed.
It was the only time the event would be part of the Olympics. Fellow American gymnast Anton Heida won five gold medals at the St. He had lost most of his left leg after it was run over by a train when he was a kid. He earned his other golds in the parallel bars and foot rope climb. After winning the and meter individual races, Sheppard earned his third gold of the games as the final runner on the men's medley relay squad.
That year, the format of the race involved the first two teammates going for meters, the next going , and the final athlete running the last half of the race. Sheridan earned his first gold in in the discus throw then repeated in , also earning another gold for the Greek discus, a similar sport in which athletes threw the disc from a raised platform.
He also earned a bronze in the standing long jump that year, and medaled in high jump, long jump, discus, shot put, and stone throw at the Intercalated Games. When not competing, he served 12 years in the NYPD. Considered one of the greatest athletes of all time, Thorpe competed in both the pentathlon and decathlon at the Stockholm games in The pentathlon consisted of the long jump, javelin throw, meter run, discus throw, and meter run.
The decathlon featured the same events, minus the meters, and added the meters, shot put, high jump, meters, meter hurdles, and pole vault. Thorpe won eight of the 15 individual events that comprised both contests. The following year, a newspaper revealed that Thorpe was paid to play semi-professional baseball before the games, violating rules that mandated that all Olympic athletes must be amateurs.
The IOC stripped him of his medals, and he went on to play pro football and baseball. His medals were reinstated by the IOC in , 30 years after his death at age A member of the U. Navy, Lee racked up five gold medals, and seven total, for his shooting performances, making him the most successful participant of the games in Antwerp. He later became a Rear Admiral and won the Navy Cross for his actions commanding a fleet during the battle of Guadalcanal. Twelve years after winning boxing gold as a light-heavyweight in , Eagan returned to the Olympics and won as part of the four-man bobsled team, making him the first person to medal in the summer and winter games.
Outside the Olympics, she starred in basketball and on the LPGA tour, winning 41 events and 10 majors.
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On top of that, she faced off with men in several PGA events, competed in billiards, softball, and baseball, and performed as a singer and harmonica player. Just a year after competing in the pole vault, long jump, javelin, and 1,meter run for the first time, the year-old Mathias' superior athleticism won him the decathlon in , making him the youngest track and field medalist in Olympic history. He played in the Rose Bowl for Stanford football and won another decathlon gold in , then later served as a captain the Marines and a four-term Congressman from the Fresno area of California.
In , Button landed the first double axel in a figure skating competition to become the first American champion in the sport. Nineteen-years-old at the time, he remains the youngest man to ever win the event. He repeated in , in part by landing a triple loop, the first successful triple-jump in competition. Sullivan Award, which is given to the best amateur athlete in America. A back-to-back gold medalist in and '56, O'Brien created a new method of throwing the shot, starting with his back to the field and twisting around to add momentum to his toss.
This radical change in style led him to 17 shot put world records, including the first throw to break 60 feet. Despite winning contests in a row prior to the games, he finished that event with a silver. One of the best women divers of all time, McCormick — who once practiced by jumping off a bridge in Long Beach, California — won the springboard and platform events in , then successfully defended her titles four years later. Oerter won gold in the discus at every summer Olympics from to , becoming the second athlete to win an individual event at four consecutive games.
Just before going pro, Ali — then known as Cassius Clay — won the light heavyweight gold medal at the Rome Olympics, which were also the first games to be televised internationally. He later claimed to have thrown his medal into the Ohio River after a white restaurant refused to serve him, though friends later said he simply lost it. In , he lit the torch at the Atlanta Olympics and received a replacement medal. Hampered by an injury, Johnson won silver in the '56 decathlon, then narrowly beat Taiwanese rival Yang Chuan-Kwang four years later.
After retiring, he became an actor and sportscaster, worked with the Special Olympics and was one of the men who subdued RFK assassin Sirhan Sirhan. Fleming's victory in marked a return to dominance for U. Figure Skating, just seven years after the entire team was killed in a plane crash en route to the World Championships.
Her gold medal was the only one won by the States during these games, and she became a national hero. After winning the meter gold in '64, Tyus ran a world-record time of Teammates at San Jose State, Smith and Carlos faced off in the meter race, with Smith winning gold with a world record time of Carlos finished third, behind Australia's Peter Norman. When the three men — all donning Olympic Project for Human Rights badges — went to the podium to receive their medals, Smith and Carlos removed their shoes and stood in black socks as a tribute to black people in poverty.
Then, during "The Star-Spangled Banner," they bowed their heads and gave the traditional "black power" salute of a raised, black-gloved fist. The duo was heavily criticized at the time, even receiving death threats, though the moment is now seen as one of the most important of the Civil Rights Movement. As a high school student, Fosbury had trouble with the conventional high jump "straddle" method and failed to even clear five feet in his attempts. He started tinkering with his approach, and eventually invented the now-dominant style of jumping backwards over the bar, a technique that became known as the "Fosbury Flop.
Nearly all high jump competitors use the flop method now. After about 15 minutes, the announcer revealed the distance, but Beamon, unfamiliar with the metric system, still didn't know how far the jump was. Beamon collapsed in shock, and his record stood until , when American Mike Powell broke it at the World Championships. Spitz won four medals, including two gold, at the games, but it was his performance four years later that made him one of the most successful Olympians of all time.
He won gold in all seven events in which he participated, setting world records with each victory. The seven golds in one Olympiad was a record until Michael Phelps won eight in In , he earned gold in the event with a world record point total of 8, Louganis' consecutive victories in both the 3-meter springboard and meter platform dives made him the only man to ever sweep both events in back-to-back Olympics.
The games were particularly difficult for Louganis: Six months earlier, he was diagnosed with HIV, and during a preliminary round, he hit his head on the diving board and suffered a concussion. He later became an active LGBT rights advocate. The year-old Hamill won gold thanks in part to a free skate that earned her unanimous first place votes from all nine judges.
She quickly became one of America's sweethearts thanks to her trademark bob haircut. Pace then won gold again in at the Los Angeles Olympics, one of only two men to win events in the games surrounding the boycott.