The 9 Greatest Olympic Athletes in History

Any athlete that reaches the Olympics is admittedly already at the peak of sporting achievement. Today, we'll look at those who have changed the history of the games.
The 9 Greatest Olympic Athletes in History

Last update: 27 May, 2020

Many of these athletes accomplished their feats when the competitions were broadcast in black and white, whilst others are more current and even more famous. In this article, we’ll look at the nine greatest Olympic athletes in history.

The greatest Olympic athletes in history

Below we’ve compiled a list of athletes who changed the history of the games. They’re legends for the medals they’ve won or the records they’ve set, and as a result, they’re the greatest Olympic athletes in history:

1. Michael Phelps

This former American swimmer is the most successful athlete at the Summer Olympics. He’s won no less than 28 medals (23 gold) in four editions of the Games (from Athens 2004 to London 2012).

MIchael Phelps holding an Olympic gold medal.

In his second Olympic Games, in Beijing 2008, he took eight gold medals, five of which were in individual events. That same year, Phelps also set two new records, in the 400 meters individual medley and the 4 x 100 meters freestyle relay.

2. Paavo Nurmi

Paavo Nurmi certainly set a milestone in the history of the Olympic games and sport in general. This Finnish middle and long-distance specialist set no fewer than 22 world records and took 12 medals (nine gold and three silver) in the four editions that he competed in, from Antwerp 1920 to Amsterdam 1928.

In the 14 years of the ‘flying’ Finn’s career, he was undefeated in all cross-country and 10,000 meters events.

3. Nadia Comaneci

Also known as ‘Nana’, Comaneci was a gymnast who achieved the highest score at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. At those Olympic Games, she won three gold medals, one silver, and one bronze.

Nadia Comaneci, one of the greatest Olympic athletes in history.

Nadia Comaneci is the only Olympic athlete to have achieved a perfect score. Her short career in Olympic gymnastics would end in Moscow 1980, after taking two gold and two silver medals. According to experts, Comaneci still remains the best to have competed.

4. Jesse Owens: greatest Olympic athletes in history

This American athlete was one of the most outstanding runners of the thirties when he set no fewer than three consecutive world records. He took four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Games in the 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump, and 4 x 100-meter relay.

A face shot of Jesse Owens, one of the greatest Olympic athletes in history.
Image: BBC.

5. Mark Spitz

Another swimmer and another American one at that! Spitz was the first athlete to win seven gold medals in a single Olympics (Munich 1972), an achievement that was finally beaten by Phelps in 2008.

Before that, Spitz had won four medals (two gold, one silver, and one bronze) at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. In his short career (he retired at the age of 22 to pursue a career in real estate), this swimmer won a total of 26 medals across different competitions.

6. Emil Zátopek: greatest Olympic athletes in history

This Czech long-distance specialist was at the top of his game at the Olympic Games in London 1948 and Helsinki 1952. He was the first runner to break the 29-minute mark in the 10,000 meters, and his nickname “the human locomotive” wasn’t without foundation. He had five Olympic medals to his credit, four gold, and one silver.

7. Larisa Latynina

Born in Ukraine, she is the most decorated woman in the history of the Olympic Games, with no fewer than 18 medals in artistic gymnastics. Until 2012, she was the athlete with the most Olympic medals (Phelps beat her record in London 2012). Larisa took part in the games in Melbourne 1956, Rome 1960, and Tokyo 1964.

Larissa Latynina competing.
Image: Marca.

8. Carl Lewis: greatest Olympic athletes in history

We can’t leave out the “son of the wind” of this list. The United States-born athlete was a sprinter and long-jump specialist, winning 10 medals (nine gold and one silver) between Los Angeles 1984 and Atlanta 1996.

Carl Lewis taking a run up.

9. Usain Bolt

Last but not least, we come to the fastest man in the world. Born in Jamaica, Bolt holds eight Olympic titles as a sprinter: Beijing 2008 (two), London 2012 (three), and Rio 2016 (three).

Of course, there are many other great Olympic athletes who didn’t make it onto this list. Some of them include Johnny Weissmuller (Romanian swimmer), Abebe Bikila (Ethiopian marathon runner), Bob Beamon (American jumper), and Teófilo Stevenson (Cuban boxer).

Is there anyone else you’d add to this list of Olympic stars?

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.