The Olympic Games are regarded as the world’s premiere sporting event with more than 200 countries participating and thousands of athletes contending for gold. The event is organized by the International Olympic Committee, and is held every two years, alternating between the Summer Games and the Winter Games. Since the inauguration of the Summer Games in 1896 and the Winter Games in 1924, the Olympics have skyrocketed from a small-scale event hosting 42 competitions and 250 athletes from 14 nations to a grand spectacle with 300 competitions and over 10,000 athletes from 205 nations.
The tradition of awarding medals, with gold for first place, silver for second and bronze for third, started in 1904. These medals, that can never be valued with money, have, in the 118-year history of the modern Olympics, become a jumping-off point for the participating athletes to become heroes and luminaries in their home countries. Besides that, for the athletes, the Olympic Games have today become an opportunity to start off a career that can eventually make them one of the most celebrated sportspeople in their field of play.
These 10 athletes listed below, in their prime, were the very cream of the crop at the Olympic Games, winning several gold medals and instilling a massive sense of national joy and pride amongst their home fans. So, here’s a look at these 10 athletic heroes who won the most gold medals in the history of the Olympic games.
10. Ray Ewry – Athletics – 8 Gold Medals (1900-08)
Ray Ewry (1873-1937) was an American track and field athlete, lauded as one of the most successful Olympians of all time. He has 8 Olympic gold medals under his belt, all of which he won in standing high jumps. At the 1900 Olympics in Paris, Ewry won gold medals in all three standing jumps: the standing long jump, the standing high jump and the standing triple jump. Much to the delight of the then-best standing jumper in the world, he won all three medals in the same day in 1900, and successfully defended them all at the 1904 Olympics, held in St. Louis. Ewry won his last two gold medals at the 1908 London Olympics in the standing high jump and the standing long jump.
9. Matt Biondi – Swimming – 8 Gold Medals (1984-92)
Matt Biondi is a former world record-holder and Olympic champion in swimming. He won 11 medals (8 gold, 2 silver and 1 bronze) in the 1984, 1988 and 1992 Summer Olympic Games, held in Los Angeles, Seoul and Barcelona respectively. He won five gold medals in Seoul, setting world record in 50m free style and three relay events. Nicknamed “The California Condor”, Biondi had set a total of 7 individual world records during his career. The now 48-year-old was also inducted into the “International Swimming Hall of Fame” and the “United States Olympic Hall of Fame”.
8. Jenny Thompson – Swimming – 8 Gold Medals (1992-04)
Jenny Thompson is one of the most decorated Olympians of all time, winning 12 medals (8 gold, 3 silver and 1 bronze) in swimming. Competing in the four Summer Olympics from 1992 to 2004, she won 2 golds in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, 3 golds in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and 3 golds in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. She also won 2 silver medals in Athens in 2004. Thompson held the world record in the 50m and 100m freestyle during her participation at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. In 1999, Sports Illustrated ranked her as the 62nd greatest female athlete of all time.
7. Sawao Kato – Gymnastics – 8 Gold Medals (1968-76)
Sawao Kato is a former Japanese gymnast and one of the most successful Olympians of all time. In the three Olympic Games he participated in from 1968 to 1976, Kato won 12 medals including 8 gold, 3 silver and 1 bronze. With that, till today he holds the records for winning the most Olympic gold medals among male gymnasts and Japanese Olympians. Kato, in the prime of his career, was one of the very best in floor exercises, parallel bars, team competition and all-around. In 2001, he was inducted into the “International Gymnastics Hall of Fame”.
6. Birgit Fischer – Canoeing – 8 Gold Medals (1980-04)
Birgit Fischer is both the youngest (age 18) and the oldest (age 42) Olympic Canoeing champion. She has 8 Olympic gold medals under her belt, and has participated in six different Olympics, a record she shares with Aladar Gerevich. She won 3 gold medals with East Germany and 5 gold medals with the reunited nation. In addition to that, Birgit won 4 Olympic silver medals, one for East Germany and the other three for Germany. She is one of the most successful and decorated female Olympians in history. In 2004, she was named the “German Sportswoman of the Year”.
5. Carl Lewis – Athletics – 9 Gold Medals (1984-96)
Carl Lewis was a dominant sprinter and long jumper who won 9 gold and 1 silver for a total of 10 medals in the Olympics. His first participation in the Olympics came in the 1984 Los Angeles Games, where he supremely won 4 gold medals. Lewis then won 2 gold medals each in the 1988 Seoul Olympics and the 1992 Barcelona Olympics before claiming his last gold medal in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. He topped the world rankings in 100m, 200m and long jump events many times from 1981 to the early 1990s. The International Olympic Committee voted him the “Sportsman of the Century”, and he was named the “Olympian of the Century” by Sports Illustrated.
4. Mark Spitz – Swimming – 9 Gold Medals (1968-72)
Mark Spitz is an American former swimmer and Olympic champion. He won 9 gold, 1 silver and 1 bronze medal during the 1968 Mexico City Olympics and the 1972 Munich Olympics. His win of 7 golds in the 1972 Munich Olympics remained a world record for over 35 years, until Michael Phelps broke it by winning 8 gold medals in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Spitz’s only world record that remains unbroken is his setting of 7 different world records in 7 different events; the same events in which he won those 7 gold medals. Swimming World Magazine named Mark Spitz the “World Swimmer of the Year” in 1969, 1971 and 1972.
3. Paavo Nurmi – Athletics – 9 Gold Medals (1920-28)
Paavo Nurmi (1897-1973) was a dominant middle and long distance runner in the early 20th century. Nicknamed the “Flying Finn”, Nurmi was undefeated for 121 races in distances upwards of 800m, and remained unbeaten in 10,000m and cross country events during his career. He won 3 gold and 1 silver medal in the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, 5 gold medals in the 1924 Paris Olympics and 1 gold and 2 silver medals in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympic, totaling 9 gold and 3 silver medals at the Olympic Games. Nurmi is one of the most successful Olympians of all time, and the third athlete with the most gold medals in Olympics history.
2. Larisa Latynina – Gymnastics – 9 Gold Medals (1956-64)
Larisa Latynina is a former Soviet gymnast who won 14 individual Olympic medals and 4 team medals between 1956 and 1964. She won a total of 18 Olympic medals, a record that remained unbeaten for 48 years until American swimmer Michael Phelps surpassed it on 31 July, 2012. Latynina won her first 4 gold medals at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, and then went on to win 3 gold medals at the 1960 Rome Olympics and 2 gold medals at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The now 79-year-old is credited for establishing the Soviet Union as a undeniable force in gymnastics. She is the most successful female athlete and the second athlete with the most gold medals in Olympics history. She retired in 1966. In 1998, Larisa Latynina was inducted into the “International Gymnastics Hall of Fame”.
1. Michael Phelps – Swimming – 18 Gold Medals (2004-12)
Michael Phelps became the leading Olympic gold medal winner back in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He has a total of 22 Olympic medals under his belt, of which 18 are gold and 2 are silver and bronze each. Phelps won 6 gold medals in the 2004 Athens Olympics, 8 gold medals in the 2008 Beijing Olympics (breaking the record of Mark Spitz’s 7 for the most number of gold medals won by an athlete in a single Olympic event) and 4 gold medals in the 2012 London Olympics. He is a world record holder in the 100m butterfly, 200m butterfly and 400m individual medley. Michael Phelps has been named the “World Swimmer of the Year” seven times and the “American Swimmer of the Year” nine times. In 2008, the 28-year old was awarded “Sportsman of the Year” by Sports Illustrated.