LONDON — Michael Phelps emerged from his last medal race ahead by one-and-a-half body lengths. Maybe two. This was Tuesday night, the last 50 meters of the 4×200-meter freestyle relay. This has long been an American event — going in, U.S. swimmers had won the gold at 10 of the previous 12 Olympics in which they competed. This was an American event this night, too. The U.S. team had put it away early. All Phelps had to do was coast home.
But this meant more. This race would give Phelps his record 19th Olympic medal. Nineteen! It’s mind-boggling. India does not have 19 medals. The whole country. In its entire history. There are more than a billion people in India. Phelps’ medal assortment would include 15 gold medals (more than Mexico, the whole country), two silver (the second won earlier in the night) and two bronze.
Phelps has always said that he isn’t counting medals. So what is he counting? Maybe his ranking among the greatest summer Olympians ever?
Any list of the best summer Olympians is absurd, of course. How could you compare a sprinter to a javelin thrower, much less an archer to a diver to a table tennis player? It’s a ridiculous exercise — that is, if you are really trying to rank the greatest Olympians of all time. But maybe the point here is something a bit different.
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19. Pyrros Dimas, weightlifter, Greece
Dimas grew up in Albania and immigrated to Greece just before the 1992 Olympics. At those, his first Games, he jerked 446 pounds over his head to win the gold medal, and while he was doing so he shouted, “For Greece!” At his second Olympics, he carried the Greek flag to lead out all the athletes in Atlanta and then set two world records for his second gold. In Sydney, the gold-medal lift was 474 pounds. That gave him three golds, which tied him with the famous Pocket Hercules (Naim Suleymanoglu) and Georgia’s Kakhi Kakhiashvili for the most gold medals for a weightlifter.
But it was at his fourth Olympics where Dimas, by then 32 years old, rose above. Those Games were in his country, in Athens, and he was suffering from injuries and age. No weightlifter had won medals in four straight Olympics. He carried the flag for Greece again, and the competition was one of the most emotional things I’ve ever seen. The noise was astounding. People barely noticed Giorgi Asanidze, who won gold. The focus was on Dimas. He would say he was inspired by his country, and he understood his duty, and he somehow lifted enough to win the bronze, his fourth medal.
He left his shoes on the stage — shoes for someone else to fill — while his countrymen cheered and cried and danced and hugged.
18. Jim Thorpe, decathlete, United States
They say Thorpe won the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics with shoes he found in the garbage. That probably says all that needs to be said.
But let’s add this: In the pentathlon, he won four of the five events. The one event he did not win was the javelin. He had never thrown one before, and finished third. Then he set the world record in the decathlon. It is said that King Gustav V gave him his medal and said, “You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world.”
The medals were later taken away when it was reported that he had made some money playing baseball. The medals were given back long after he died.
Interlude: One time, a few years ago, I asked Al Oerter what drove him. (Oerter died about five years ago.) But in his youth he won the discus four Olympics in a row — 1956, 1960, 1964, 1968 — and I asked him why. This was in a time when there were harsh rules about Olympians making any money, and there was no great television exposure for athletes. Oerter’s body was in more or less constant pain. Why go on?
“Some people shrink under the pressure,” Oerter said. “But for me, that was always the fun part. It was always best when people were wondering if you had one last great throw in you.”
17. Lasse Virén, distance runner, Finland
A list of the greatest Olympians — especially a list done unscientifically like this one — cannot just pick those who won the most medals. There has to be something more, something indelible, something for the rest of us to grab and hold and remember.
Virén won four gold medals — the 5,000 and 10,000 meters in Munich in 1972, and then swept those two again in Montreal in 1976. The Finnish long-distance runners were famous for their brutal workouts — this going all the way back to the famous Paavo Nurmi. They believed that for a runner to reach the peak, he or she must train until they have nothing at all left, until they are entirely empty. Virén believed this more deeply than anyone.
And in 1972, in the 12th lap of the 10,000 meters, he and another runner bumped and Virén fell to the ground. He promptly got up, got back in the race and won it in world-record time. A week later, he beat a star-studded field — including American legend Steve Prefontaine — to win the double.
Four days after the Olympics ended, Virén returned home and competed in a 5,000-meter race in Helsinki. There, he set the world record.
16. Michael Johnson, sprinter, United States
In time, he would win four gold medals – the 4×400-meter relay in Barcelona, the 200 and 400 meters in Atlanta, and the 400 meters in Sydney. But, again, it’s more than numbers.
In 1996, at the Atlanta Olympics, Johnson ran the 200 meters faster than any human ever had before. That record of 19.32 seconds was broken by Usain Bolt a dozen years later, but there was something bigger than time in Johnson’s run. There was something about the way he turned the corner, the roar of the American crowd, the idea that we were all watching a human do something beyond imagination.
“My dad bought me a go-kart as a kid,” Johnson told us after that race, and we were not sure where he was going. We sat there mesmerized. “There was a big hill at the end of the road. And I could make that go-kart go downhill so fast, it was like flying.”
We all looked at him, both impressed and puzzled.
“It’s the only thing,” he said, “that really compares to running this fast.”
15. Bob Mathias, decathlete, United States
He was 17 years old and not entirely sure of all the rules when he competed in his first decathlon at the London Olympics in 1948. He would say that his coach had simply suggested the decathlon because he was good at a lot of things. “Coach probably taught me out of a manual,” Mathias said in an interview with American Track and Field late in his life. But he was such an extraordinary athlete that he still won the gold medal by more than 150 points.
Four years later, he knew the rules. He was at Stanford then — he had led the Cardinal to the Rose Bowl that season — and he was fully developed as an athlete. He had competed in nine major competitions — and won all nine. At the 1952 Olympics, he won by more than 900 points — by far the largest margin in Olympic decathlon history.
Two years later, there was a movie about his life called “The Bob Mathias Story.” He played the lead role. It was said that nobody else possibly could.
14. Emil Zátopek, long-distance runner, Czechoslovakia
He won the 5,000, 10,000 and marathon at the Olympics in Helsinki in 1952, which has to rank as the most brutal triple in Olympic history. And the story of how he won the marathon is one of the best in Olympic history.
Zátopek had never run in a marathon before. While 10,000 meters is a brutal race, it is only about six miles — not even one-fourth the distance of a marathon. Zátopek had no idea how someone ran 26 miles, so according to a wonderful collection of stunning Olympic moments in The Guardian he wandered up to British world record-holder Jim Peters before the race and said, simply, “I am Zátopek.”
Peters tried to ignore him, but about halfway into the race Zátopek pulled alongside Peters and asked if the pace was too fast. Peters, attempting to trick Zátopek into burning himself out, said, “No, it is too slow.” Zátopek nodded and took off. Peters eventually dropped out of the race with cramps.
And Zátopek won the marathon by more than two and a half minutes.
13. Wilma Rudolph, sprinter, United States
Rudolph contracted polio when she was 4. In her childhood, she also had scarlet fever. She wore a leg brace until she was 9 years old. She grew up in a segregated world in Tennessee. She worked through all of it, ran through all of it, because she was the fastest woman in the world. At the 1960 Olympics in Rome, she won three gold medals — the first U.S. woman to do that — and she swept the 100 and 200 meters.
When someone asked her how she did it, what drove her through it all, she offered a quote that has become her most famous. She said: “I believe in me more than anything in this world.”
12. Alexei Nemov, gymnast, Russia
He won 12 Olympic medals — including the all-around gold medal in 2000 — but it was the medal he did not win that perhaps secured his legacy. In 2004 in Athens (his last Olympics) he had a sensational routine in the high bar. Nemov was famous for the extreme difficulty of his performances, and this one was particularly hard. You really have to see it for yourself.
When the judges gave him what seemed a ridiculously low score of 9.725 for that performance, the crowd began to boo. And boo. And boo. It was so loud and fierce that the competition was actually stopped, and the judges actually raised his score a bit. But not enough, and the boos kept coming until finally Nemov himself stepped out and held his hand up to the crowd, asking them to please settle so the competition could go on.
Interlude: Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt has said that he came to London to “become a legend.” Nobody knows yet how he will do … and obviously his performance here will help set his legacy.
That said, he’s already a legend. His 100-meter, 200-meter sweep in Beijing — shattering world records in both events — was otherworldly. I’ve often said that the most amazing thing to me in live music is when someone can take an acoustic guitar and silence a huge crowd with the power of the music.
Well, it’s possible that the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen in sports was Bolt simply running 100 meters.
11. Aleksandr Karelin, Greco-Roman wrestler, Russia
I have written about him often, but usually as the foil for the astounding upset by American Rulon Gardner. Karelin’s Olympic brilliance — three gold medals, one silver — is the reason why Gardner’s upset was so amazing in the first place. Karelin won every world championship in his weight class from 1989 through ’99, and had gone six years without allowing a single point. His famous move, the Karelin Lift, involved picking enormous men off the mat and smashing them, a feat of strength so awesome that the other wrestlers found themselves in awe.
Then, this was a man who would train by carrying refrigerators up stairs.
10. Florence Griffith-Joyner, sprinter, United States
No woman has ever come close to Flo-Jo’s 100-meter time of 10.49 set at the Olympic Trials in 1988. No woman has ever come close to Flo-Jo’s 200-meter time of 21.34 set at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.
With Griffith-Joyner, the rest is fog. There have been those who said that her 100-meter time at the ’88 trials was dramatically wind-aided, but there was a wind-meter malfunction. There have been those who said that Griffith-Joyner had to be using performance-enhancing drugs because of the remarkable improvement she made in 1988. There also have been those who point out that she never failed a drug test, though she was specifically singled out because of the rumors.
Griffith-Joyner died after an epileptic seizure in 1998, when she was just 38 years old. To the end of her life, she denied ever using steroids. Her records in the two most celebrated sprint events continue to outlive her.
9. Teófilo Stevenson, boxer, Cuba
It might be difficult to fully comprehend the impact that Stevenson’s upset victory over American Duane Bobick at the 1972 Olympics had on Cuba. Of course, there were — and still are — deep tensions between the two countries. And the United States had dominated heavyweight boxing: George Foreman had won in 1968, Joe Frazier in 1964.*
*People tend to forget this — I forgot it — but Cassius Clay, who would become Muhammad Ali, actually was a light heavyweight when he won the gold medal in Rome in 1960.
When Stevenson and Bobick fought, everything stopped in Cuba. The fight was close until the third round. Then Stevenson unleashed. He knocked Bobick down three times, until the referee finally stopped it. That fight was not for the gold medal, but Stevenson won that easily. In 1976 he won gold again — and along the way knocked out American hopeful John Tate in the first round. He knocked out all five of his opponents in those Olympics. In 1980, the U.S. did not compete. Stevenson won his third gold medal.
Interlude: One sure thing about Olympic sports is that there’s a constant push forward and upward. Faster. Higher. Stronger. All that. No matter how fast Michael Phelps swims, someone will swim faster someday. No matter how far Bob Beamon jumps, someone will jump farther someday. The sub-four-minute mile was an astounding barrier in 1954 — Roger Bannister breaking it will be called the athletic achievement of the century — but 50 years later, high school kids are doing it.
But every now and again, an athlete comes along who seems to be from 20 years in the future. That was Janet Evans when she was 15 and 16 years old. She was a distance swimmer — 400 meters, 800 meters, 1,500 meters — and she simply invented a new standard for how much the human body can do.
In the 400 meters, she set the world record at the Olympic Games in Seoul. That record would last for more than 17 years.
In the 800 meters, probably her best Olympic distance, she set the world record three times in 1988 and 1989. Her last record held for almost 19 years.
In the 1,500 meters, which is not an Olympic event for women, she broke the world record by four seconds when she was 15. In that incredible Olympic year of 1988, she broke that record by MORE THAN EIGHT SECONDS. That record lasted more than 19 years.
She could not sustain that sort of brilliance, of course. Who could? But after three gold medals in Seoul — she won the 400, 800 and the 400 individual medley — she won another gold in the 800 in 1992.
8. Nadia Comaneci, gymnast, Romania
In all, she won nine Olympics medals — five of them gold — but her impact on the world’s imagination revolved around perfection.
The story goes that when Comaneci was just 5, Béla Károlyi saw her doing cartwheels on the playground and asked her if she would like to try gymnastics. She was a prodigy. She won her first Romanian Championship when she was 9.
She was just 14 when she competed at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, and she scored her first perfect 10 on the uneven parallel bars. When you watch her performance now, you are struck by how much gymnastics have changed — it is a bit like watching a 1950s basketball game. But, more, you are struck by the precision and artistry of every move.
It was such a jolt that the scoreboard was incapable of displaying a 10. Instead her score showed up as a 1.00. Over those Olympics, she would score six more perfect 10s. It was those 10s that forever changed gymnastics and the way people would look at sports. Suddenly, perfection was not only the goal; it was ACHIEVABLE. This made all the difference. A generation of young girls wanted to be the next Nadia.
One of those was an 8-year-old named Mary Lou Retton, who would move to Texas to train with Károlyi. When she won the all-around gold in 1984, that inspired even more. And so on. And so on.
7. Mark Spitz, swimmer, United States
It is easy to forget that, before he became the most decorated Olympic athlete at a single Games, Spitz was a bust. He had gone into the Olympics in Mexico City promising to win six gold medals. He won two, but both were in relays; he did not win a single individual gold. He was beaten by a teammate in the 100-meter butterfly, an event in which he was thought to be unbeatable. He won bronze in the 100-meter freestyle. He had won four medals, but he would say that he viewed those Olympics as a failure.
He went to Indiana University to train for Doc Counsilman, and there, he found his peak. In Munich, 1972, he won seven gold medals and set world records in all seven events.
6. Jackie Joyner-Kersee, track and field athlete, United States
She grew up in a tough environment in East St. Louis, but her remarkable athletic talents were clear early. When she was still in high school, she qualified for the U.S. Olympic team in the long jump. That was 1980, and the U.S. boycotted the Moscow Games.
She then went to UCLA, where she was a four-year starter on the basketball team and one of the greatest women players in school history. She took some time off to train for the heptathlon in Los Angeles, and she won the silver medal. Then she concentrated full time on training, and in 1988 pulled off one of the most remarkable doubles in Olympic history. She won the heptathlon — setting a world record that still stands — AND she won the long jump.
In 1992, she won the heptathlon again and got a bronze medal in the long jump. In 1996, she won another bronze in the long jump. That means she competed in four Olympics, and it would have been five had the U.S. not boycotted Moscow.
Sports Illustrated called her the greatest female athlete of the 20th Century.
5. Larisa Latynina, gymnast, Soviet Union
You know that Phelps, by winning his 19th medal, passed Latynina for most in Olympic history. But what you might not know is that Latynina actually still holds the record for most INDIVIDUAL medals at the Olympics. And Phelps might not catch her.
Latynina was a brilliant Soviet gymnast at three Olympics — 1956, 1960 and 1964. She won the all-around gold medal in 1956 and 1960. She won the floor exercise all three years. Latynina then went on to coach the Soviet gymnastics team, which won gold in 1968, 1972 and 1976.
Back to those numbers: In total, 14 of Latynina’s 18 Olympic medals are individual events. The other four are team medals.
Phelps, meanwhile, has won 19 medals; eight of those, though, came in relay races. That leaves 11 individual medals. This is not to in any way take away from Phelps’ amazing performance, but it just shows again that it’s awfully hard to compare a swimmer and a gymnast.
4. Jesse Owens, track and field athlete, United States
There was a man on the block where I grew up who said he knew Owens. It is possible that he did not know Owens, but he said he did, and one time he said that he asked Owens what it was like to achieve what is almost certainly the greatest Olympic feat in American history: to win four gold medals in 1936, in Germany, under the outstretched arm of Adolf Hitler.
“What did he say?” I asked.
“He said: ‘I wasn’t trying to beat Hitler. I was trying to beat the fast guys who were on the track with me.’”
3. Paavo Nurmi, distance runner, Finland
Unlike so many of the others on this list, Nurmi was not a prodigy. He grew up dirt poor, and he quit school when he was 12 to support his family. It was in the Army that he found that he had an athletic will — nothing could break him.
He was a harsh man, and he was remarkably consistent. He almost never spoke, and when he did, he had nothing good to say. He never smiled. He ran like a metronome — rarely speeding up at the end, but never slowing down throughout. He was like racing a machine.
Nurmi won three gold medals at the 1920 Olympics, but it was in 1924, in Paris, where he became a legend. On the same afternoon, he had to run the 5,000 meters and the 1,500 meters. He knew he would win; he tested himself before the Olympics and ran both races on the same day — he set the world record in both. At the Olympics, things went exactly as planned.
Two days later, he competed in the 10,000-meter cross-country race on a day so hot that only one quarter of the competitors even finished. Nurmi won by more than a minute.
In all he won 12 medals, nine of them gold, but perhaps the most remarkable legacy involves Emil Zátopek, No. 14 on this list. It is said that when the training was getting to Zátopek, when he felt like he could not go on any longer, he would scream for inspiration: “I am Nurmi! I am Nurmi!”
2. Carl Lewis, track and field athlete, United States
The tally: 10 medals, nine of them gold. Winner of the 100 meters in 1984 and 1988. Winner of the long jump at four straight Olympics. Anchor of two gold-medal 4×100-meter relay teams.
Here’s what Lewis told me about the Olympics: “I don’t miss it. I really don’t. I loved it then. I loved the competition. But I don’t miss it. I don’t look back and wonder what would happen if I was around now. You race in your time. If Jesse Owens was running now, wouldn’t he be the best? The best people beat anyone and everyone in their time. I had my time.”
1. Michael Phelps
And finally, we get to the point. You cannot choose the greatest Olympians. Not really. Just on this list, diver Greg Louganis is missing. Where is the great long-distance runner Kip Keino? Where is brilliant German kayaker Birgit Fischer, who won gold medals in 1980, 1988 (skipped 1984 for a boycott), 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2004? Where is the Ethiopian Abebe Bikila, who won back-to-back marathons (1960, 1964)? Where are all the great decathletes, such as Daley Thompson, Rafer Johnson and Bruce Jenner? Where is swimmer Jenny Thompson, who won 12 medals? Where is the great equestrian Reiner Klimke, or Japan’s great judo star Tadahiro Nomura? Where is Steve Redgrave, viewed by many as Britain’s greatest Olympian, who won a rowing gold at every Olympics between 1984 in Los Angeles and 2000 in Sydney?
You could go on like this for a long time. But the point is not really to choose the greatest Olympians but to show how remarkable they were, how driven, how extraordinary. The point is to say that when Phelps won his record 19th medal, he was crowned, more or less universally, as the greatest Olympian. And that is an extraordinary thing.
Phelps’ story is so familiar that it hardly seems worth repeating. He was a phenom himself. His parents divorced when he was nine, he threw himself into his swimming, he set his first national record at age 10, and he made the Olympics for the first time when he was 15.
He has said that he has wanted to stretch the idea of what’s possible. That’s really at the heart of so many of these great Olympians. In 2004 in Athens, Phelps won six gold medals and two bronze. That was mind-blowing — the first time any athlete had won eight medals at a non-boycotted Olympics — but it wasn’t enough. In 2008, he won eight gold medals.
This year, through Tuesday, he has already won three medals — one gold and two silvers. He will win more.