The modern Olympic Games have been running every fourth summer since 1896 and every fourth winter since 1924. Over that time, hundreds of brilliant Olympic athletes have thrilled us while pushing the limits of athletic achievement.
Here are the greatest 10 Olympic athletes of all time.
1. Michael Phelps
We begin with the most decorated Olympic athlete of all-time — American swimmer Michael Phelps. Throughout four summer games stretching from 2004 to 2016, Phelps compiled a mindboggling 28 medals and 23 gold medals, far surpassing the lifetime totals of any other athletes who competed in the Olympics.
Phelps was blessed with a body uniquely suited to competitive swimming. He paired that natural advantage with a tireless work ethic to dominate the field of swimming like no one had ever seen before.
2. Marit Bjorgen
Michael Phelps is the king of the Summer Olympics when it comes to medal count, and Norwegian cross-country skier Marit Bjorgen is the queen of the Winter Olympics.
Over a career spanning five Olympics from 2002 to 2018, Bjorgen earned 15 medals, two more than the next highest winter games total. And her eight gold medals are in a three-way tie for first with two other winter games participants.
What makes Bjorgen’s career achievements so unbelievable is the fact that she was a late starter. In her first two Olympics, 2002 in Salt Lake and 2006 in Turin, Bjorgen dealt with illness and other misfortune and only managed a combined two silver medals.
3. Usain Bolt
Even within the pantheon of Olympic achievements, the 100-meter dash as seen as something of a benchmark. So, in 2008 when Usain Bolt shattered the previous world record while slowing down to celebrate before he crossed the finish line, the world knew it had seen something special.
Bolt competed in nine events over his Olympic career spanning three games from 2008 to 2016.
In the 100 meters and 200 meters, he won gold every time. In the 4×100 meter relay, he won gold twice and had a third stripped away due to a teammate’s doping violation despite winning the gold there too. Bolt’s Olympic career is simply perfection.
4. Takashi Ono
Arguably the greatest Olympic athlete from Japan, and one of the finest Olympic athletes ever, is gymnast Takashi Ono. Ono competed over four Olympic games from 1954 to 1962 and won 13 medals including five gold medals.
Male gymnasts like Nikolai Andrianov and Sawao Kato would later rival his accomplishments in the field. However, Ono was the first truly great male gymnast to make his mark on Olympic history.
5. Nadia Comaneci
Many gymnasts regard the perfect 10 score an unattainable goal. Many use it to strive harder in the sport. Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci, on the other hand, made the perfect 10 seem almost routine over her Olympic career.
Over the two Olympics in which she competed, Comaneci recorded the first perfect score ever awarded and nine 10.0 ratings while winning nine Olympic medals. And it’s impressive to note that Comaneci did this over only two Olympic games, 1974 and 1980.
6. Carl Lewis
One of the most dominant track and field athletes ever was American Carl Lewis, who reigned over the 100-meter dash and long jump over his celebrated Olympic career.
Lewis won four gold medals and a silver in various running events, but his most sustained success was in the long jump. From 1984 to 1996, Lewis won the long jump each Olympics for a total of four consecutive gold medals.
7. Larisa Latynina
Before Michael Phelps rewrote the Olympic history books, Soviet Gymnast Larisa Latynina held the record for most Olympic medals with 18 and shared the record for most gold medals with 9.
Her performances at the 1956 and 1960 Olympics, in particular, were astounding. Seven gold medals, three silvers and a bronze meant that Latynina medaled in virtually every event she competed in, an unprecedented feat for 50 years.
8. Paavo Nurmi
Distance running isn’t always regarded as a glamorous event. But in the 1920s, Finnish distance runner Paavo Nurmi became one of the world’s biggest stars with his exploits in the field.
In two Olympics from 1920 to 1924, Nurmi simply couldn’t be touched. He won eight gold medals and one silver, giving the world its first look at an absolutely dominant Olympic athlete winning multiple events in a Games.
9. Teofilo Stevenson
Many of the names on this list have medal counts stretching into double digits, and Cuban boxer Teofilo Stevenson’s three gold medals may look paltry in comparison. But the sport of heavyweight Olympic boxing has never seen a greater champion than Stevenson. He had won three consecutive gold medals and drew comparisons to Mohammed Ali.
Like Nadia Comaneci, Stevenson might have done more had it not been for his government boycotting the 1984 Olympics. As a result, he was denied the chance to defend his crown for the third time.
10. Edoardo Mangiarotti
Our last entry on the list is a man who reigns supreme in the sport of fencing, Italian Edoardo Mangiarotti. Mangiarotti was born into a famous Italian fencing family. His father worked with Edoardo since boyhood to make him the greatest fencer in the world. He even switched his hand from right to left to make his style more difficult for opponents.
This tutelage paid off in the form of 13 medals, three more than any fencer has ever achieved. But what truly makes Mangiarotti’s greatness so incredible is this fact: He won his first gold medal in 1936, and his second medal in 1948.
As a result of World War II, Mangiarotti missed the opportunity to participate in two Olympic games. If only he had the chance, he surely would have taken his medal totals to further heights.
The history of the Olympics is so rich and varied that another two dozen athletes could easily stake a claim to being on this list. And in the end, saying that one athlete is greater than another is a matter of opinion.
But what can’t be disputed is that these ten athletes left an indelible mark on the history of the Olympics. They are among the brightest lights to ever shine on the world stage.