Take A Look at the Historic Progression of Men’s Olympic Swimming Medal Leaders

With just about two weeks remaining until the Tokyo Games get underway, we continue to take a look at some of the big moments and stats in Olympic swimming history. Our friends at SwimmingStats released an Instagram infographic detailing the historical progression of men’s all-time Olympic swimming medal leaders, which you can watch below.

Early on Hungary’s Zoltan Hamay and the USA’s Charlie Daniels dominated the swimming early in the modern Games. Hamay won five across 1900 and 1904, while Daniels won five in 1904 alone, then each added another pair of medals in 1908. While there were many great swimmers in the intervening years, no one would earn more than five medals for decades to come. Finally, Australian distance specialist Murray Rose broke through with five medals across the 1960 and 1964 Olympics, followed by the USA’s Don Schollander matching that total after the 1964 and 1968 games.

So, let’s pause for a second to put this into perspective. Prior to 1972, no male swimmer had won more than seven medals over the course of an Olympic career, and that record had stood since 1968. Only two more had earned six medals.

Enter one Mark Spitz. The Indiana Hoosier picked up four medals in 1968, but even that only provided a hint of what was to come. In Munich, Spitz swept the 100/200 free, the 100/200 fly, and all three relays, to win seven golds in a single Olympics. Clearly that moved him to #1 all-time on the men’s medal list. Meanwhile, Germany’s Roland Matthes brought his tally up to seven total medals in 1972 as well, then earning an 8th in 1980.

Matt Biondi would catch, and then pass, Matthes, and then eventually tie Spitz with his 11th medal at the 1992 Games. Another American, Gary Hall Jr., would eventually become the third man to earn double digit medals. It’s probably worth noting at this point that historically, the US men’s medal tallies have been helped incredibly by the US’s relay dominance. Six of Biondi’s 11 medals, and five of Hall’s 10, were earned via relays.

During the 90s, Russian sprint specialist Alexander Popov began racking up the medals, collecting a total of nine through the 2000 Olympics. That same year, Australian distance legend Ian Thorpe earned five medals, then he’d garner another four in 2004 to tie Popov’s nine medals. Those two men are tied for the highest medal counts by a male swimmer outside of the USA.

The 2000 Olympics also marked the debut of the GOAT, although he didn’t win any medals that year. Instead, Michael Phelps would have to wait for Athens to Spitz’s single games medal record with eight (all but two gold), but he surpassed Spitz in 2008 with a legendary eight gold medals in Beijing, moving him to #1 all-time.

American Ryan Lochte swam at a total of four Games, passing Spitz and Biondi in 2016 with his 12th medal, while Phelps would ultimately grow his medal count to 28, more than twice than the total of Lochte, who now ranks #2 all-time.

As we head to Tokyo, here’s where the all-time medal count stands:

  1. Michael Phelps – 28
  2. Ryan Lochte – 12
  3. Mark Spitz / Matt Biondi – 11
  4. (tie)
  5. Gary Hall, Jr. – 10
  6. Alexander Popov / Ian Thorpe – 9
  7. (tie)
  8. Roland Matthews / Jason Lezak / Nathan Adrian – 8
  9. (tie)
  10. (tie)

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2 months ago

Great article and data gathering ! It’s fascinating to go through the many eras of swimming with their olympic swimmers.
One with only the individual medals would be great and would do justice to non-american swimmers (as the US is the country benefiting the most from the relay medals), it might also help put things in perspective (you can work and progress on your strokes but you can’t really work on having the “right” nationality or teammates)
Can’t wait for the women’s article !

Last edited 2 months ago by CasualSwimmer
Reply to  CasualSwimmer
2 months ago

I want to say off the dome that Phelps retired with 13 individual golds, 1st all time with Leonidas of Rhodes winning 12 individual golds in the ancient Olympic games. Of note of Leonidas, he won the stadium race(Approx 200m), double stadium race, AND the armored stadium race in four straight games, which tops anything we will see again today. Who other than me would like to see the armored 200m ran at the Olympics?! Matt Frazier or Rich Froning, or maybe Adam Eaton, would’ve had a chance at winning the ancient games events as they were geared toward power athletes, which also included chariot racing and naked wrestling (when in Rome right)

Woke Stasi
2 months ago

DON SCHOLLANDER is worth a mention. He won 6 medals in 1964 and 1968. In 1964, he won the 100 and 400 frees. He was the WR holder in the 200 free that year, but it didn’t become an Olympic event until ‘68 — he would have easily won it in ‘64. Curiously, he was left off the 400 medley relay in ‘64 (poor coaching decision by Doc Councilman), but would’ve won at least a prelim gold under rules instituted in 1984. Under today’s program and rules, Schollander would have earned 8 medals (7 of them gold).

Coach Mike 1952
Reply to  Woke Stasi
2 months ago

Couldn’t agree more. Also, Don partnered with Duke Savage to write a book entitled Deep Water, published 50 years ago this year, which IMHO is a very fascinating read for any swimmer. There are many great stories in it; one that really stands out is how Don – on tour post Olympics – was set up by the French media for a “friendly” race with Alain Gottvales, the then WR holder. How Don won is amazing – through mind games on top of his superb swimming skills. Another is when he was diagnosed with mono & how his coach helped him through it. All in all, a recommended read for any serious swimmer or coach.


That’s the most I really want to see. When did they even start having relays?

Reply to  JimSwim22
2 months ago

Men 1908, women 1912 – according to this page https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swimming_at_the_Summer_Olympics

Corn Pop
2 months ago

Im just glad to see new faces , new countries , new techniques & coaching styles on the scene. The media gets very lazy if they have an old go to like Phelps .

That jerk Mitch
2 months ago

Imagine if USA were a water sports centric nation like Australia..

Reply to  That jerk Mitch
2 months ago

Imagine if Australia had anywhere near the population or pumped anywhere near the amount of money into swimming that the USA does

Reply to  That jerk Mitch
2 months ago

People with such ignorant information should not comment on it.
We have 4 forms of football. Australian Rules football massive in 1/2 the country, Rugby League, massive in the other 1/2 of the country, Rugby, the International Rugby & Football (Soccer to some).
Then we have Cricket, biggest summer sport.
We also have our Tennis (Ash Barty just won Wimbledon), Golf (Cam Davis just won on the PGA last week), Motor racing, Cycling (Aussie just won a stage of Tour De France), Basketball, Australia just beat USA in an Olympic warm up, I know not US bets players, but most Aussies would struggle to name 5 Aussie basketballers.
Not bad for a country of 28 Million.

Reply to  Robbos
2 months ago

I’m so sick of Americans saying “OMG we don’t even care about swimming and we’re still the best, guess we’re just a master race or something LOL”. And then pretend like it’s every Australian’s dream to become a professional swimmer.

The average Aussie absolutely could not name 5 people on our Olympic swimming team. Swimming is not talked about at all except for a month around the Olympics. To my knowledge there are about 10 scholarships a year for swimming at universities that give a full free ride, and our actual team gets paid below minimum wage. While the US literally has around 20,000 college athletes on a full free ride at any given time that requires them to be… Read more »

Reply to  Robbos
2 months ago

Yeah, so?

NFL is the 800 pound gorilla and football dominates the collegiate landscape in the United States of America.

Between the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL there is little room for MLS in the United States of America.

Australia is a country with a population of 26 million, yet a country with a population of 4 million reached the final of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

If you want to play the population card, China is a country with a population of 1.4 billion yet absolutely sucks at men’s association football (soccer) just like Australia.

Reply to  Smith-King-Huske-Manuel
2 months ago

Just proving Sub13’s point – aren’t you amazed that despite the “little room for the MLS” they can still manage to pay a washed up David Beckham $250million.. that’s >20x the salary cap of our biggest sports league…

Reply to  Smith-King-Huske-Manuel
2 months ago

I have no idea what you’re trying to say. Your point is completely incoherent. “One small country did well in one soccer tournament three years ago and therefore population means nothing”. I mean that’s what it seems like you’re saying but I want to give you the benefit of the doubt because I don’t believe an adult could be that stupid.

I never said a bigger population automatically equals success in sport. I said that Americans should stop pretending like they don’t put any resources into swimming when they put the most resources into it of any country in the world AND have the third biggest population.

You’ve basically just proven my point: Americans on here will say ANYTHING… Read more »

Reply to  Robbos
2 months ago

The fact that Kyle Chalmers was considering leaving swimming for AFL two years before he won the Olympics speaks volumes.

2 months ago

Medal inflation is distorting things… Especially for women. There are so many more events these days,.

He said what?
2 months ago

Matthes won his 8th medal in 1976 and not 1980.

M d e
2 months ago

When comparing individual swimmers relay medals shouldn’t count.

Reply to  M d e
2 months ago

Some of those relay medals in the tally are from heat swims as well, so the person is being credited for a race they didn’t even swim in.