Over the last four Olympic Games, Michael Phelps has won so many medals that some people might think that winning multiple medals at the Olympics is not a difficult task.
But it is. Especially when we talk about gold medals in individual events.
Instagram’s Swimming Stats page has published the swimmers with the most Olympic gold medals in individual events. Phelps is a clear outlier, with 13. But, before Phelps, only one swimmer had won five individual events at the Olympics. Winning four or five gold medals is a task for a few.
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Let’s put this into perspective. Speaking only of individual events, almost 8,000 athletes have swum at least one event at the Olympic Games. Only 327 of them have won at least one gold medal. 93 of them have won multiple medals. And, as you can see on the post, only 12 have won four medals or more.
Let’s forget about Phelps for one moment. Hungary’s Krisztina Egerszegi accomplished an amazing feat during the 1988, 1992 and 1996 Olympics: winning five Olympic gold medals in individual events – 200 back in 1988; 100, 200 back, and 400 IM in 1992; 200 back in 1996 – something that no swimmer had done before in 100 years of Olympic Games, and only Phelps would manage to surpass.
(In fact, Egerszegi could have won six gold medals. In 1996, her backstroke lead-off time in the 4×100 medley relay was faster than the winning time in the 100 backstroke final, an event she opted not to compete in.)
Apart from Phelps and Egerszegi, 10 swimming legends have managed to win four Olympic gold medals in individual events. Two of them won those four gold medals in a single edition: Mark Spitz and Kristin Otto. Roland Matthes, Tamás Darnyi, Alexander Popov, Yana Klochkova, and Kosuke Kitajima won double gold in two Olympics. Janet Evans, Inge de Bruijn and Katie Ledecky won three gold medals in one Olympics, and one gold medal in another.
So, in the future, when you see a swimmer winning their fourth gold medal in an individual event, you’ll certainly be watching a swimming legend.
Katinka Hosszu has three gold medals, and she can equal or even surpass Egerszegi if she wins at least two gold medals in Tokyo.
Katie Ledecky needs to win “only” two individual events in Tokyo to move into the #2 spot, which seems very likely. Best case scenario, she’ll win the 200, 400, 800, and 1500 free, and will have eight gold medals in individual events. An impossible feat, some would say 20 years ago. After all, it took 100 years for the Olympic Games to see one single swimmer, Krisztina Egerszegi, win five gold medals. Swimmers like Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky and Katinka Hosszu are truly raising the bar.
As someone has pointed out, a swimmer with no Olympic gold medals is five medals behind the second ever, who is eight medals behind Michael Phelps. So it is easier to move from last to second than it is to move from second to first.