Search online for "the greatest Olympian of all time" and undoubtedly the answer will predominantly be swimmer Michael Phelps, though with the success of Usain Bolt at the 2016 Rio Olympics he is not a sure fire winner. Phelps has been labeled the greatest ever Olympian due to his record number of gold medals won, but medal count should not be the only criteria for determining the greatest ever Olympian. He is the most decorated athlete, but is he the greatest?
Phelps and Bolt are also on everyone's mind as they competed in recent Olympic games, however there are many greats that are not in our recent memory. The Olympic Games has showcased some great athletes over a long time period, from a large range of international sports. A close look at the facts and figures of all Olympians will throw up many other athletes that should also be considered for the title of the Greatest Olympian.
The number of medals should not be the only criteria for the greatest Olympian. Here are some other factors which should be considered:
- The most gold medals
- The most total medals
- The win percentage (medals divided by attempts)
- The number of medals available in their sport.
- The number of medals from individual events
- The number of different events the athlete attempted
- The number of Olympics competed in
- The athlete who was the most dominant
- The athlete who overcame adversity
- The athlete who broke records
- The athlete who best shows the Olympic spirit, humility and sportsmanship.
What Do You Think?
In the first poll on this site about the greatest Olympian, I narrowed it down to a list of nine athlete for you to vote as the greatest. Out of these athletes - Michael Phelps, Carl Lewis, Steve Redgrave, Paavo Nurmi, Mark Spitz, Larissa Latynina, Jesse Owens, Jim Thorpe, Nadia Comaneci - it was Phelps the clear winner, with a significant lead over Steve Redgrave, Jesse Owens and Carl Lewis. This poll was run up until the 2016 Olympics. With Phelps adding to his record medal haul, and Bolt adding to his greatness with another sprint treble, it has come down to a race between these two athletes. The current Greatest Olympic Athlete Poll (started after Rio) gives you only a choice between these two athletes (the result? the swimmer is still clearly the most popular).
Greatest Olympian Lists
Though it is easy to place Phelps or Bolt as the greatest ever, they have not always ranked on top of other similar lists, particularly for lists created before 2016.
- Calculation to determine The Greatest Olympian Ever as determined by several criteria, with standing jumper Ray Ewry from early last century leading the list.
- The Most Dominant Olympian of All Time after factoring in individual event medals and medal winning opportunities was also standing jumper Ray Ewry.
- The Top-100 Olympic Athletes — according to NBC journalist Joe Posnanski the greatest of all time is Jesse Owens (though he listed Phelps as no.1 in 2012)
- The Greatest Olympian of All Time as voted by Canadians - winner was Clara Hughes. A poll on the CBC Community website in Aug 2012 has the greatest Olympian of all time Canadian speed skater and cyclist Clara Hughes with 34% of the vote.
- The International Olympic Committee named Carl Lewis "Sportsman of the Century," in November 1999.
- Top Olympic Medal Winners — two lists, ranking athletes by the most number of medals, and also by total gold medals won. Michael Phelps leads both lists.
Greatest Olympic Athlete?
In a slightly different twist, a poll on ESPN Sport Science conducted in 2012 looked at the Greatest Olympic Athlete of All Time. The voting was based on the best athlete (not player) who has a combination of strength, speed, endurance, quickness, durability and the other attributes that make an athlete elite. The winner was Michael Phelps with 82% of the votes.
- Vote now: Who is the Greatest Olympian (Summer) of All Time?
- More about the Olympics
- All time greatest index of sports