Ranking Athletes at the Olympics

Who is the greatest ever Olympic athlete? Following his success at the 2016 Rio Olympics, Michael Phelps has now cemented his position as the most decorated - clearly leading the tally of the most number of gold medals and the most total medals. However, just counting medals won may not be the fairest system for determining the most successful athletes from the Olympic Games, there are some alternative weighted ranking systems which will be compared below. These other systems use various points for each of the gold, silver and bronze medals.

Below is the rank and comparison of the best of the Olympic Games athletes, using the all-time medal counts of athletes from the Olympic Games and the different weighted ranking systems to get weighted scores for each medal awarded (results from 2016 included). We have also used the same weighted ranking systems to compare the success of countries in 2008.

Athlete Comparison Table: Phelps Wins Whichever Way

The most commonly used method for comparing the success of athletes at the Olympic Games is to compare the number of gold medals won or total medals won. The athlete who leads both lists is US swimmer Michael Phelps with 23 gold medals. His total medal count is 28, with Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina second on 18 medals (9 golds). Four other athletes have nine gold medals, but not as many total medals as Latynina.

olympic posterBased on the comparison below of the top athletes using all the different ranking systems listed, Phelps is the leader using all methods. Whether a 3:2:1, 4:2:1, 5:3:1, 5:3:2 or 6:2:1 weighting method is used, the results are the same for the top two athletes. Mostly each of the systems give a very similar result. There are some differences for particular athletes that make some ranking systems better than others. What the systems do best is to give a better representation of the results of an athlete like Usaon Bolt, who has a large number of gold and no minor medals. Bolt ranks high based on gold medals (6th), low based on total medals (25th), and probably more realistically ranked between 10 and 15 using the weighted ranking systems.

Table: The Top Athletes ranked by total gold medals, with their ranking order based on other ranking methods.

  ranking systems
Athlete sport Gold Silver Bronze total
sort by gold sort by total 3:2:1 4:2:1 5:3:1 5:3:2 6:2:1
Michael Phelps Swimming 23 3 2 28 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
Larisa Latynina Gymnastics 9 5 4 18 2 2 2 2 2 2 2
Paavo Nurmi Athletics 9 3 0 12 3 7 4 3 3 4 3
Mark Spitz Swimming 9 1 1 11 4 12 9 6 8 9 4
Carl Lewis Athletics 9 1 0 10 5 17 11 9 10 11 5
Usain Bolt Athletics 9 0 0 9 6 25 15 12 14 15 10
Birgit Fischer Canoeing 8 4 0 12 7 8 5 5 5 5 6
Sawao Kato Gymnastics 8 3 1 12 8 9 6 7 6 6 7
Jenny Thompson Swimming 8 3 1 12 9 10 7 8 7 7 8
Matt Biondi Swimming 8 2 1 11 10 13 12 11 11 12 11
Ray Ewry Athletics 8 0 0 8 11 32 21 17 19 21 15
Nikolai Andrianov Gymnastics 7 5 3 15 12 3 3 4 4 3 9
Boris Shakhlin Gymnastics 7 4 2 13 13 4 8 10 9 8 12
Věra Čáslavská Gymnastics 7 4 0 11 14 14 13 13 12 13 13
Viktor Chukarin Gymnastics 7 3 1 11 15 15 14 15 15 14 14
Aladár Gerevich Fencing 7 1 2 10 16 18 19 18 20 18 17
Edoardo Mangiarotti Fencing 6 5 2 13 17 5 10 14 13 10 16
Isabell Werth Equestrian 6 4 0 10 18 19 18 19 16 19 19
Ryan Lochte Swimming 6 3 3 12 19 11 16 16 17 16 18
Allyson Felix Athletics 6 3 0 9 20 26 22 21 21 23 20
Hubert Van Innis Archery 6 3 0 9 21 27 23 22 22 24 21
Akinori Nakayama Gymnastics 6 2 2 10 22 20 24 23 24 22 22
Valentina Vezzali Fencing 6 1 2 9 23 28 27 25 27 28 24
Gert Fredriksson Canoeing 6 1 1 8 24 33 32 29 30 32 27
Chris Hoy Cycling 6 1 0 7 25 39 34 33 34 36 28
Jason Kenny Cycling 6 1 0 7 26 40 35 34 35 37 29
Vitaly Scherbo Gymnastics 6 0 4 10 27 21 28 26 31 25 25
Reiner Klimke Equestrian 6 0 2 8 28 34 36 35 36 33 30
Pál Kovács Fencing 6 0 1 7 29 41 39 37 38 39 33
Rudolf Kárpáti Fencing 6 0 0 6 30 44 44 40 42 44 37
Nedo Nadi Fencing 6 0 0 6 31 45 45 41 43 45 38
Kristin Otto Swimming 6 0 0 6 32 46 46 42 44 46 39
Amy Van Dyken Swimming 6 0 0 6 33 47 47 43 45 47 40

The Weighted Ranking Systems (more details)

Topend Sports Ranking Method

My compromise weighting method (Topend Sports 6:2:1 ranking system) incorporates both gold and total medal counts - it gives the most credit for gold medals (6 points), but then still some credit for the minor medals - so if an athlete has a large number of the minor medals without the corresponding golds then they may still rank well. As this method gives the most points for gold medals, it most closely matches the ranking for the gold medal only system.

There are a couple of examples on this table where the Topend system appears to give a better result. This system rates Gymnast Nikolai Andrianov (7-5-3=15) on equal with another gymnast Sawao Kato (8-3-1=12), which on face value seems fair. Also Carl Lewis on 9-1-0=10 ranks the same as canoeist Birgit Fischer on 8-4-0=12.

Not All Sports Are Equal

One things that is clear from this table is that athletes from the sports of swimming, gymnastics and athletics are highly represented, as a result of the many more medals available in these sports, particularly if you compare it to the team sports such as football, handball and hockey where there is only one of each medal available at each Olympiad. Not only are there more medals available in some events than others, and the number of events in which medals are available overall have changed over time. Because of this, we had done additional analysis to compare only within each sport, and find the highest ranked athletes from each sport.

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