It’s all but impossible to kick off a discussion of men’s Olympic medalists without constructing a lexical shrine to The One Who Conquered The Olympics, Mr. Michael Phelps. However, because his remarkable exploits have been well-documented here on this site, I’ll attempt to exercise restraint.
As with the women’s medals discussion, we’ll look at individual only and relay-inclusive medal totals, as well as medal percentages as a function of the number of events offered per games. Things get a little hairy in the earliest games, but we’ll cross those bridges as we get to ’em.
For a more complete look at how the games have changed over the history of the event, see the women’s article. For the men, with the exception of the earliest games where some really crazy events were introduced – and summarily abandoned, there was a mostly steady expansion of the event schedule. No event has been offered every single games, but the 100 freestyle has been contested in all but one (1900). Additionally, the 200, 400, and 1500m freestyles, 100m backstroke, 200m breaststroke, and 4x200m freestyle relay have all been swum at each games since 1908. 1904 in St. Louis was a bit of an anomaly because the competition happened in yards.
In normalizing medal-winning percentages, I’ve still broken up competitors pre- and post-1968, because that was when the events began to crystallize into their current form. I haven’t included any non-standard events in any of the numbers, for more of an apples-to-apples comparison across years. The earlier games still cause problems – for reasons including the fact that winning one medal out of a possible 2 is absolutely not the same as winning eight medals out of a possible 16 and the fact that competition was a little less stiff way back when. Just as an example, the 400 freestyle in 1904 had 4 competitors, and due to bad “pool” conditions, it was not unusual for swimmers to withdraw from races. Swimming pre-1908 more resembles open water swimming than it does the controlled and predictable pool environment of today’s games, as 1908 was the first year where the competition took place in a bounded pool (or pool-like, as the 1908 “pool” was essentially a glorified mud pit) area.
Total Medals, Including Relays
|Michael Phelps (USA)||22|
|Mark Spitz (USA)||11|
|Matt Biondi (USA)||11|
|Ryan Lochte (USA)||11|
|Gary Hall, Jr. (USA)||10|
|Ian Thorpe (AUS)||9|
|Alexander Popov (RUS)||9|
|Roland Matthes (GDR)||8|
|Jason Lezak (USA)||8|
|Charles Daniels (USA)||7|
|Pieter van den Hoogenband (NED)||7|
|Aaron Peirsol (USA)||7|
|Grant Hackett (AUS)||7|
|Kosuke Kitajima (JPN)||7|
|Tom Jager (USA)||7|
Phelps, Phelps, Phelps. Stunning dominance with equally stunning consistency. Nearly twice the number of individual medals as the next one down on the list (Ryan Lochte) and exactly twice the number of total medals including relays (twice than Mark Spitz, Matt Biondi, and Lochte, each of whom has 11 medals to his name).
Plenty of inches have been dedicated to the extraordinary exploits of Phelps, Lochte, and Spitz, so I won’t retread. Other than to say that given just how great Lochte and Spitz are/were, the fact that Phelps’ career haul is the sum of those two is just mind-blowing. I like Biondi’s story a lot. He got a relatively late start in the sport and was a 2-sport athlete in college, winning NCAA titles in both swimming and water polo. He did his best to avoid the spotlight, and his humble demeanor betrays the fact that in 1988, he won a phenomenal 7 medals, 4 of them in world record time, and 5 of them gold. And it could easily have been 6, as he pulled somewhat of a reverse-Phelps (or, more accurately, Phelps performed a reverse-Biondi) when touched out by .01 in the 100 fly by Anthony Nesty of Suriname on a weirdly-timed finish.
Moving on down the relay-inclusive list, we’ve got Gary Hall, Jr. (10 total/5 individual), Jason Lezak (8 total/1 individual), and Tom Jager (7 total, 2 individual) as the remaining American sprint specialists. Both of Jager’s individual medals were in the 50 freestyle: silver in its inaugural offering in 1988 and bronze in 1992. Lezak shows tenacious persistence in his medal record. He swam on 2 medal-winning relays in 2000, 2004, and 2008, and one in 2012. His lone individual medal finally came in his 3rd Olympics at age 32 as the oldest member of the US team. That’s some serious grit. Hall split his medals between relays and individual events during his 3-games run from 1996 – 2004. Both he and his father, Gary Hall, Sr, have won medals in 3 separate Olympic Games, though his father swam, um, somewhat different events (200 fly/400 IM primarily, though his final medal was in the 100 butterfly).
Ian Thorpe‘s career was a bit shorter than his fans had hoped, but he still ended up with 9 total medals from his 2 games appearances, tied with the great Alex Popov over his 3 games. Popov’s medals, though, were mostly from 1992 and 1996, where he won 2 golds and 2 silvers in each. The undeniable sprint king took gold in both the 50 and 100 freestyles in consecutive games, following up with a silver in the 100 freestyle in Sydney. Roland Matthes, with 8 career medals, and Aaron Peirsol, with 7, have similar medal counts but very different stories. Matthes’ accomplishments, due to the East German machine, fall (fairly or unfairly) under a cloud of doping suspicions. However, his swimming exploits were indeed remarkable. He won both the 100 and 200 backstrokes in 1968 and 1972 (from 1967-1974 he never lost a backstroke race) and also won medals in the medley relay and 4×100 freestyle relay. He also has individual international medals in butterfly and freestyle to his name, though not from the Olympics. Peirsol was also a great freestyler and butterflier, though he rarely had the chance to exhibit this on the world stage. He did swim on the 4 x 200 freestyle relay at World Championships in 2003, but overall Peirsol was essentially a specialty purist. That makes his 7 medals all the more impressive. With only one relay to swim and 2 individual events per games, he still amassed one of the greatest medal counts of all time over his 3 games – during the first of which, in 2000, he was a just rising high school junior. Kosuke Kitajima is yet another stroke specialist on the list with 7 career medals, all of which came in breaststroke. His legacy, other than the medals he’s won and the records he’s left in his wake, includes his primal victory scream and his rule-defying pullouts that were retroactively legalized and began us down the proverbial slippery slope.
Rounding out our top medal-winners of all time are Charlie Daniels, Pieter van den Hoogenband, and Grant Hackett, each with 7 total medals as well. Daniels won the bulk of his medals (5/7) in 1904, the somewhat sparsely-attended, freestyle event-loaded, anomalous games in St. Louis. He’s credited with making significant contributions (such as the 6-beat kick) to modern freestyle technique via what was then known as the “American Crawl.” Neither v/d Hoogenband nor Hackett inspired sweeping changes to a stroke, but both were excellent freestylers, between the 2 of them winning an Olympic medal in every freestyle race (v/d Hoogenband in the 50/100/200, and 4×100/4×200 relays, and Hackett in the 400/1500 and 4×200 relay). van den Hoogenband won medals in 2000, 2004, and 2008, but he nearly also medaled in 1996 at age 18; he placed 4th in both the 100 and 200 freestyles. In 2000, a slow Dutch prelim 4×100 freestyle relay, in which v/d Hoogenband did not take part, eliminated his medal chances in that event. Hackett, were it not for an unfortunately timed virus during the 2000 Games at home in Australia, could easily have added a couple more medals to his total. He had incredible staying power in a grueling event, and his Olympic medal total belies his superlative career.
Total Medals, Individual Only
|Name||# Medals||Events||# Events|
|Michael Phelps||13||(100/200 fly, 200 free, 200/400IM)||5|
|Ryan Lochte||7||(200 back, 200/400IM)||3|
|Mark Spitz||6||(100/200 free, 100/200 fly)||4|
|Matt Biondi||5||(50/100/200 free, 100 fly)||4|
|Ian Thorpe||5||(100/200/400 free)||3|
|László Cseh||5||(200 fly, 200/400 IM)||3|
|Pieter van den Hoogenband||5||(50/100/200 free)||3|
|Aaron Peirsol||5||(100/200 back)||2|
|Alexander Popov||5||(50/100 free)||2|
|Gary Hall, Jr.||5||(50/100 free)||2|
|Roland Matthes||5||(100/200 back)||2|
Only one new name appears if we just look at individual medals – László Cseh. He didn’t have the opportunity to swim on medal-contending Olympic relays and picked a pretty lousy (or excellent, depending on how you look at it) time in history to be a butterfly and IM specialist, but he’s still medaled in each of the 3 Olympics in which he’s competed. In 2004, as a rookie, he won bronze in the 400 IM with a broken foot. In 2008, his 3 silver medals (200/400 IM, 200 fly) all came behind the Phelps gold medal machine. Said machine, Michael Phelps, is the only male swimmer to have won Olympic medals in 5 different individual events (Shane Gould did so for Australia at the 1972 Olympics). Had Tracy Caulkins gotten a shot in 1980, though, things might be different (she had international medals in IM, freestyle, breaststroke, and butterfly by 1980, showing arguably more impressive versatility).
Shifting gears a bit now to consider single-games medal hauls, the pre- and post-1968 landscapes are quite different. No swimmer won more than 2 individual medals at a games between 1908 and 1964. These double medal-winners include:
1908: Frank Beaurepaire (ANZ), Henry Taylor (GBR)
1912: Harold Hardwick (ANZ), Jack Hatfield (GBR), George Hodgson (CAN)
1920: George Vernot (CAN), Norman Ross (USA)
1924: Andrew Charlton (AUS), Arne Borg (SWE), Johnny Weissmuller (USA)
1928: Andrew Charlton (AUS), Arne Borg (SWE)
1936: Jack Medica (USA), Shunpei Uto (JPN)
1948: Jimmy McLane (USA), John Marshall (AUS)
1952: Ford Konno (USA)
1956: Murray Rose (AUS), George Breen (USA), Tsuyoshi Yamanaka (JPN)
1960: Murray Rose (AUS), John Konrads (AUS)
1964: Don Schollander (USA), Allan Wood (AUS)
bold = double-gold
Bear in mind, though, that except for in 1956 and later this was out of a possible 5 events, so 2 medals represents 40% of the possible medal total. Arne Borg and Andrew Charlton were the only repeat double-medalists with the 5-event lineup, and both did so in 1924-1928. Murray Rose repeated in 1956 and 1960, and though he wasn’t aided by the additional event (he was a 400/1500 freestyler) his medal percentages aren’t the cool 40% that the others’ are. Interestingly, nearly all of the men listed won their medals in the 400/1500 freestyles.
Frank Beaurepaire is just one of many men on this list with a remarkable story. He caught influenza at the London Olympics in 1908 but still managed, amazingly, to win silver and bronze medals. He was barred from the 1912 Olympics (at which he almost certainly would have medaled) by FINA for earning money teaching swimming lessons and thus allegedly compromising his amateur status. The decision was reversed in 1914, but this was of no help to him at the non-existent 1916 Games. During World War I, he served in Egypt, England, and France. By 1920, 12 years had passed since his first Olympic appearance (not even Dara Torres experienced 12 years between Olympic appearances), and there he won bronze in the 1500 freestyle and silver in the 4×200 relay; he withdrew mid-race from the 400 freestyle final due to illness, probably a by-product of the freezing cold pool in Antwerp. In 1924 he repeated his medals from the previous games, and by this point he had won medals spanning 16 years, although an Olympic gold medal ultimately eluded him.
Here are the top single games medal hauls post-1964, with both medal percentages and absolute counts:
Individual Medals Only, Single Games
|Name||Year(s)||# medals||% medals|
|Michael Phelps (USA)||2004, 2008||5||38.46% (5/13)|
|Mark Spitz (USA)||1972||4||33.33% (4/12)|
|Matt Biondi (USA)||1988||4||30.77% (4/13)|
|John Naber (USA)||1976||3||27.27% (3/11)|
|Michael Gross (FRG)||1984||3||25% (3/12)|
|Charlie Hickcox (USA)||1968||3||25% (3/12)|
|Ryan Lochte (USA)||2008||3||23.08% (3/13)|
|Ian Thorpe (AUS)||2004||3||23.08% (3/13)|
|László Cseh (HUN)||2008||3||23.08% (3/13)|
|Pieter van den Hoogenband (NED)||2000||3||23.08% (3/13)|
|Daniel Kowalski (AUS)||1996||3||23.08% (3/13)|
|Massimiliano Rosolino (ITA)||2000||3||23.08% (3/13)|
|Sun Yang (CHN)||2012||3||23.08% (3/13)|
Medals Including Relays, Single Games:
|Name||Year(s)||# medals||% medals|
|Michael Phelps (USA)||2004, 2008||8||50% (8/16)|
|Mark Spitz (USA)||1972||7||46.67% (7/15)|
|Matt Biondi (USA)||1988||7||43.75% (7/16)|
|John Naber (USA)||1976||5||38.46% (5/13)|
|Ian Thorpe (AUS)||2000||5||31.25% (5/16)|
|Ryan Lochte (USA)||2012||5||31.25% (5/16)|
|Jim Montgomery (USA)||1976||4||30.77% (4/13)|
|Charlie Hickcox (USA)||1968||4||26.67% (4/15)|
|Jerry Heidenreich (USA)||1972||4||26.67% (4/15)|
|Michael Gross (FRG)||1984||4||26.67% (4/15)|
|Michael Wenden (USA)||1968||4||26.67% (4/15)|
|Mike Heath (USA)||1984||4||26.67% (4/15)|
|Roland Matthes (GDR)||1972||4||26.67% (4/15)|
|Alexander Popov (RUS)||1992, 1996||4||25% (4/16)|
|Gary Hall, Jr. (USA)||1996, 2000||4||25% (4/16)|
|Michael Klim (AUS)||2000||4||25% (4/16)|
|Pieter van den Hoogenband (NED)||2000||4||25% (4/16)|
|Sun Yang (CHN)||2012||4||25% (4/16)|
These are the elite single-games 3+ individual/4+ total medal-winners. Phelps, Spitz, and Biondi are the only swimmers in the modern era to earn more than 3 individual medals at a single games or more than 6 including relays. Thorpe is the only non-American to have won more than 4 medals in a single games. We have quite a few new names on these lists when compared to the all-time totals: John Naber, Michael Gross, Charlie Hickcox, Daniel Kowalski, Massimiliano Rosolino, Sun Yang, Jim Montgomery, Jerry Heidenreich, Michael Wenden, Mike Heath, and Michael Klim. However, the two lists aren’t too different from one another. Save for a few names, the swimmers who excelled individually also contributed to winning relays (and vice versa). The individual list is slightly more geographically diverse (read: less American-dominated – 11/18 on the relay-inclusive list vs. 6/13 on the individual list), but not by much. Really, I’m just amazed at the consistently incredible showing from the American men. It’s quite a legacy.
John Naber’s 1976 Olympic haul is legendary. If Spitz hadn’t preceded him, it would have been the greatest haul in history to that point (in modern times, anyway), with 4 golds and 1 silver. He was one of those dangerous swimmers who had a world-best primary stroke and an excellent (read: silver medal-winning) secondary event. In addition to Spitz, two other swimmers in 1972 had historic performances: Heidenreich and Matthes, both with 4 total medals. 1968, the first year of the more modern event schedule, saw two dominant swimmers: Hickcox and Wenden. Hickcox was Matthes’ backstroking predecessor; in 1968 he won gold in the 200/400 IM in 1968 to accompany his medley relay gold and 100m backstroke silver. Wenden won the 100/200 freestyles in addition to relay silver and bronze medals.
Michael Gross was arguably one of the greatest swimmers of all time. His Olympic performances do no justice to his dominance throughout the 1980’s, and one can only wonder what might have been had he been on, say, American instead of West German relays. He was truly dominant in the 200 butterfly between 1981 and 1988, except for during the 1984 Olympic final, where he suffered a rare and ill-timed defeat. In addition to his extraordinary butterfly, Gross was also an exceptional middle-distance freestyler.
Kowalski and Rosolino had one brilliant Olympic year each, in 1996 and 2000, respectively. Both won medals in the 200 and 400 freestyles, with Kowalski adding his third in the mile and Rosolino adding his in the 200 IM. Sun Yang, the final name on the individual medal list, is a story still unfolding, although unless his 100 freestyle develops into something on par with his 200/400/1500, it’s hard to imagine his single-games tally increasing in 2016 and beyond. This just goes to show how rare and special it is to find a swimmer capable of medaling in more than 3 individual events.
The final three we haven’t talked about yet are Heath, Montgomery, and Klim. Heath was a 200 freestyle specialist who was the only male triple relay medal-winner of the 1984 Games (though his medley relay medal is from his prelim performance). Montgomery was a 100/200 freestyle specialist who won medals in both races (gold and bronze, respectively) in addition to 2 relay golds. Klim swam on all three medal-winning Aussie relays in 2000 (including the hotly contested 4×100 freestyle relay in which he led off with a world record and Australia won gold), won silver in the 100 fly, and finished .01 out of the medals in the 100 freestyle. He also picked up medals in 1996 and 2004.
That’s about all I’ve got. In putting this together, I found reading about these swimmers (from earlier days, in particular) to be both fascinating and inspiring. For every Frank Beaurepaire, there are 10 more riveting stories of overcoming life’s serious obstacles. Really, Hollywood should stop with the unoriginal endless sequels and start making movies about swimmers… When looking for inspiration, what could be better than looking to the winningest Olympians in history?
note: updated to include Shane Gould’s medals in 5 individual events)