As the Tokyo Games began last week, some of the world’s greatest athletes came together to participate in the greatest sporting spectacle.
The Olympics that was first held in 1896 in Athens has seen some of the greatest names in sporting history take part and create history. Today we look at ten of the greatest Olympians of all time to participate in the Games.
(Note: This list is not about the athletes with the most number of medals but also the impact they had on the sport and the legacy they left behind)
One might argue that Usain Bolt, Carl Lewis, or Michael Phelps are probably the greatest male Olympians of all time, but none of them had quite an impact like Jesse Owens.
Owens, one of the sport’s most natural athletes, excelled at the 100m, 200m, relay, and long jump events. Owens’ most incredible Olympics was the 1936 Berlin Games, which might go down in history as one of the most significant moments in world sports.
During a time, where the world was being dominated by the Nazi supremacists, the Berlin Olympics was taking place under the watchful eyes of Adolf Hitler, who hoped that the dominant ‘Aryan race’ would make significant inroads at the Games too.
But it wasn’t to be, as Owens took the 100m gold, clocking 10.3s and 200m in 20.7s. After taking two of the main running events, Owens went on to win the long jump event with a stunning 8.06m leap. Owens took a fourth gold in the 4*100m relay, setting a world record at the time with his team, clocking an impressive 39.8s. Although, due to the Second World War, Owens did not participate in any further Olympics, his tally of four gold medals weigh far more than they should. Owens not only ran and won a racing event, but the American track and field athlete also was racing against the Nazi supremacy, and he was able to beat it at their home. Living in an era where coloured people coloredked down upon, Owens’ on-track dominance made him an important symbol in the struggle for equality.
Unlike the other athletes on this list, Owen might not have as many medals as they do, but Owens’ medals weigh far more than any others will ever do.
Statistically speaking, Michael Phelps is the greatest Olympian of all time. His tally of 28 medals, out of which 23 are gold, is simply astonishing. His closest rival has less than double the amount. Matt Bondi, Jenny Thompson have eight golds each while Mark Spitz has nine gold medals but apart from these three, no other swimmers have managed to get even more than six gold medals. Phelps has 23.
Phelps’ first Olympic appearance was at the 2000 Sydney Games, where aged 15, he became the youngest person in the USA team. He nearly won a medal on debut as he went on to finish fifth in the 200m butterfly. Since then, there has been no looking back for the American swimmer. At the 2004 Athens Games, he almost broke Mark Spitz’s world record of most gold medals at a single event (seven). Phelps won six golds and two bronzes. After coming so agonizingly close to the world record, Phelps did go on to smash the record as he took a record eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Games, winning every event he participated in and created a world record in seven of those. At the 2012 London Games, his fourth Olympic appearance saw him continue his dominance as he took four golds and two silvers, and he retired subsequently. Leading up to the 2016 Rio Olympics, Phelps staged a remarkable comeback, coming out of retirement at 31 to win an astonishing five golds and one silver.
Usain Bolt holds the crown for being the fastest man ever. If you go on to win the 100m event three times, you are guaranteed greatness.
Although he made his debut at the 2004 Athens Games, an injury saw him get eliminated in the first round, leaving the Jamaican with a bitter feeling. By the time he went to his second Olympics, he already had the world record for 100m and headed in the event as one of the favourites. And he did not disappoint, taking the 100m with a world record timing of 9.69s and winning the 200m and 4 *100m relay events too, creating world records in each of them. Bolt clocked a record-breaking 19.3s in the 200m event and went on to create another record with his Jamaican team as they crossed the line in the 4*100m men’s relay by clocking 37.1s. Heading into his third Olympics, Bolt took the 100m, 200m, and 4*100m relay once again, with Bolt bettering his previous 100m time with a 9.63s. His Jamaican relay team once again smashed the world record with a stunning 36.84s timing. As he entered the 2016 Rio Olympics, his critics doubted whether the Jamaican would be able to take the titles as he was not in the best of shape. Those white noises did little to deter Bolt as he once again took all three (100m, 200m and 4*100m) medals, becoming the first person to do a ‘triple triple.’
Nadia Comaneci will be remembered as the ‘perfect athlete.’ Comaneci’s ‘perfect 10′ score at the 1976 Montreal Games helped her go down in history as one of the best gymnasts. She is also known for helping grow the sport throughout the globe. Blessed with exceptional technique and skill, Comaneci was involved with the sport since a young age. Already having raised from rows at the American Cup in 1976, a 14 year old Comaneci received, what would a 14-year-old believe as unthinkable, six perfect 10s and went on to win the gold medals in the individual all-around, balance beams, and uneven bars events. She became the first person in the sports’ history to score a perfect 10. Four years later, at the Moscow Olympics, Comaneci added two more gold medals to her tally, winning the balance beam and floor exercise events along with taking two silver medals.
Her short and extremely promising career faced a roadblock due to political unrest and Comaneci’s decision to defect from Romania to the United States. Still, irrespective of her personal life decisions, Comaneci remains one of the sport’ most celebrated and decorated athletes. She also holds the records for being the first gymnast to score a perfect 10 and being the youngest ever gymnast to win a gold, a record that is unbreakable as the age to participate has been raised according to the current rules to 16 years.
Comaneci’s most significant legacy lies in her popularising the sport worldwide, inspiring thousands of young gymnasts to follow their dreams.
Nine gold medals, with seven of them coming in one event, Mark Spitz has his place in history as one of the greatest Olympic swimmers of all time. The American participated in two Olympic Games, at the 1968 Mexico City Games and 1972 Munich Games, respectively, and won a total of nine gold medals, a silver and bronze, to splash his way into the record books. After solid performances in the 1965 Maccabiah Games and 1967 Pan American Games, Spitz went into his debut Olympic riding high on confidence. Such was the 18-year-olds confidence that he had infamously stated that he would win six gold medals at the 1968 Games. Although that did not come true, Spitz did manage to take home two gold medals in the relay events but failed to win any of the individual events.
Determined to make up for his performance four years ago, a possessed Spitz came to the 1972 Munich Games, with his sight just on gold. And this time around, the American did not disappoint. Spitz entered seven events at the Munich Games, 100m freestyle, 200m freestyle, 100m butterfly, 200m butterfly, 4*10m freestyle relay, 4*200m freestyle relay and 4*100 medley relay. He won gold in all seven of those events, creating new world records in each of those events.
Spitz’s record for the most number of gold medals at a single Olympic stood for 36 years until his fellow American swimmer Michael Phelps broke it by winning eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Games.
Regarded as one of the greatest track and field athletes, very few dominated the sport like Lewis did in between 1979 – 1996. Lewis entered his first Olympics at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, coming off the back of a strong World Championship and having a genuine chance to win all of the four events he was taking part in (100m, 200m, 4*100m relay and long jump). If Lewis managed to win those, he would emulate Jesse Owens’ feat at the 1936 Berlin Games.
Lewis took the 100m with relative ease, clocking 9.99s, almost 0.2s ahead of his nearest rival. He bagged his second gold at the long jump event, which was marred by controversy. Lewis took a calculated decision in the long jump event, taking only the necessary jumps and fouling the rest to make sure he didn’t injure himself for the remaining events. Although he took few jumps, those were enough as Lewis took gold with a 8.54m jump. Lewis set an Olympic record on the way to his third gold, in the 200m with a 19.8s timing, and finally matched Owens’ achievement when he won gold in the 4*100m relay, with a then world record timing of 37.83s. The following Olympics, at Seoul, saw Lewis successfully defend his 100m and long jump titles and took silver in the 200m race. After Ben Johnson, who had initially won the 100m race, was disqualified for testing positive for steroids, the win was handed to second-place Lewis. This also meant Lewis’ time of 9.92s went on to become a new Olympic record.
By the time the next Games came along in Barcelona, Lewis was in his twilight year and failed to qualify for the 100m or 200m events. However, Lewis managed to take two golds after narrowly beating out Mike Powell in the long jump event by 0.03m. Lewis then anchored a then-world record run in the 4*100m relay, where he covered his final leg in 8.85s, which was the then fastest official recording of the anchor leg. Lewis’ last Olympic appearance came at the 1996 Atlanta Games, where he just managed to qualify for the long jump event. His gold medal at the long jump event made him only the third Olympian to win the same individual event four times.
Known as the Flying Finn, Nurmi was one of the greatest middle and long-distance runners to have ever graced the sport. By the time he retired, Nurmi had 22 world records for races between 1500m and 20km, nine gold medals, three silver medals, and went undefeated for 121 races in races above 800m. Simply put, there haven’t been many who have been as dominant as Paavo Nurmi.
Nurmi had a splendid Olympic debut at the 1920 Antwerp Games, taking home the silver in the 5000m and winning gold in 10000m, cross country race, and the cross country team event. Four years later at the 1924 Paris Games, Nurmi was bogged by a knee injury but overcame that physical discomfort to take home the 1500m and 5000m wins, two events which were schedule on the very same day – just two hours apart! Not only did Nurmi go on to win both the events, but he also took home the 3000m team event and two cross country events to become the first athlete to win five gold medals at a single Olympic Games. Nurmi’s record breaking Paris Olympics is to date an unthinkable achievement given the distances and record he set for two events on the very same day, just hours apart!
Four years later, Nurmi competed in his third and final Olympic Games at Amsterdam where he won the 10,000m race and took the silver medals in the 5000m and steeplechase events. Controversy stopped the record-breaking Finn from taking what could have been a tenth and even more medals as before the 1932 Los Angeles Games, Nurmi was branded as a professional athlete by the Swedish Olympic Committee, in turn not allowing him to compete in the Games.
Only Michael Phelps has more individual medals in Olympic history than Larisa Latynina. Latynina, to date, holds the record for most Olympic medals in gymnastics, with 18.
In her first Olympic appearance at the 1965 Melbourne Games, Latynina bagged four gold medals and one silver and one bronze in the uneven bars and team apparatus events. And after a successful World Championship in 1958, Latynina entered the 1960 Rome Games as the favorite. She led the Soviet Union to another gold win at the team event and took two golds herself in the all-round and floor exercise events. She also secured a double silver haul in the uneven bars and balance beam events and a bronze in the vault event.
As the defending world champion, heading into the 1964 Tokyo Games, Latynina added two golds in the team and floor exercise events and took home two silvers in the all-round and vault event and bagged a double bronze in the uneven bars and balance beams events. By the end of the 1964 Games, she had nine gold medals, 18 Olympic medals, and is the only woman to have won nine gold medals and be the only female athlete to hold the record for most Olympic gold medals.
Although Latynina remains one of the most decorated athletes in the sports’ history, what will stand out is not the number of medals she won but how she helped the Soviet Union become a dominant force in gymnastics.
Stevenson was the first boxer to win the gold medal in the same division three times. The Cuban made his debut at the super-heavyweight division at the 1972 Munich Games.
Stevenson smashed his way through to the final, with his semi-final opponent stating that he had never been hit so hard in his career. Stevenson went on to take the gold after his opponent in the final forfeited because of a broken thumb. After winning the inaugural World Championships in 1974, Stevenson won his second gold at the 1976 Montreal Games, forcing his opponent in the final to throw in the towel during the third round of the bout. After his second Olympic win, Stevenson was offered $5 million to take on Muhammad Ali, but the Cuban famously turned down the offer, as he did not want to become a professional.
Stevenson took his third and what would be final Olympic gold at the 1980 Moscow Games, having beaten Pyotr Zayev in the final, becoming only the first boxer to win three Olympic medals in the same division. Stevenson, who was still in his prime, could have easily won a fourth and fifth medal at the 1984 Los Angeles and 1988 Seoul Games, but due to the political unrest prevalent at the time, Cuba boycotted both the events, denying Stevenson further Olympic glory.
Florence Griffith Joyner, also known as Fl-Jo, was arguably one the greatest women track and field athletes of all time. Her world record in 100m and 200m still stands today, more than 30 years later.
Being involved with the sport since a young age, Griffith was a successful track and field athlete at the University level, which helped her qualify for the 100m event in the 1980 Moscow Games, But due to the U.S boycott of the Games, Griffith had to wait another four years to make her Olympic debut. In 1988, Griffith took home the silver medal in the 200m event at the Los Angeles Games. Heading into the Seoul Games in 1988, Flo-Jo had already broken the world record at the U.S Olympic Trial, for 100m, clocking an astonishing 10.49s. At the Games, Griffith broke the Olympic record twice and set the 200m world record with a time of 21.34s to take gold. She took gold in the 100m event as well, with a time of 10.54s and wrapped up the campaign by adding two more medals by taking gold in the 4*100m relay and silver in the 4*400m relay. Griffith left Seoul, having won four medals, three of which were gold and one silver. At the time, she had the second-most medals for a female track and field athlete in history, only behind Fanny Blankers-Koen.
Even though she retired shortly after the 1988 Games and made unsuccessful comeback attempts later on, Griffith’s legacy lies in what she did on the track. As a trendsetter for female athletes worldwide Griffith’s records have not been broken yet. When she set the records, her time in the 100m trials was faster than that of the men’s timings in the same event in countries such as Norway, Turkey, New Zealand, and Ireland!