Which Was the Greatest US Men's Olympic Team Ever?

The swimming community has been abuzz over the last week with the debate over who, behind Michael Phelps, is the second-greatest all-around swimmer of all time. When you look down the list of candidates, something jumps out at you: Many of these swimmers swam on the same Olympic teams. This got me thinking about what was the single greatest Olympic team ever amassed at one games?

The conversation starts in 1968, which was the first year that had 100m and 200m versions of every stroke, as well as both IM events, and for me is the beginning of the modern-Olympic-swimming era.

There have been 10 US Olympic teams since then (remember, the US skipped the 1980 Games), and the US men have swept the relay events an astonishing 7 times in that period. This automatically eliminates ’92, ’00, and ’04 from the conversation, as they are the only 3 games where the Americans didn’t demonstrate superior depth through relay dominance.

Next, I narrowed the list down from 7 to grab 4 finalists.

First to go was the 1984 team from the Los Angeles games. Despite missing half of the  world, the United States  didn’t quite dominate this meet in the way that they have in other years. Led by Rowdy Gaines and Steven Lundquist, the United States only won half of the individual gold medals, even with the absence of the powerful Soviet, East German, and Hungarian teams, which stood as three out of the five most powerful swimming nations in the world at that time.

Next was the 1988 Seoul squad. This team had the depth, especially in the freestyle events, to sweep the relays. Beyond that, they lacked the strength at the top to win more than 2 individual golds, both by Matt Biondi. None of the American relays set world records, and the Americans were really shown up by their Communist counterparts.

The third squad I knocked out was the team from the 1996 Atlanta Games. The names were certainly well known. Gary Hall, Jr. was the runner-up in the 50 and 100 freestyles. Tom Dolan won the 400 IM in 4:14. Brad Schumacher, Josh Davis, and Joe Hudepohl filled out relays that won easily. The Americans still only managed 3 individual golds, and no world records in a meet that many hoped would be a huge win for the Americans on home turf. On paper, this was a very good team, but they just didn’t deliver the huge results that many other squads did.

That leaves the 1968, 1972, 1976, and 2008 squads still in the running. Let’s look at a comparison between these four teams.

1968 (Mexico City) 1972 (Munich) 1976 (Montreal) 2008 (Beijing)
Number of Ind. Golds 7 (out of 12) 6 (out of 12) 10 (out of 11) 7 (out of 13)
Number of Total Ind. Medals 23* 23* 25* 14
Number of Ind. Medal Winners 18 15 19 7
Number of WR’s 3 9 11 9
Number of Olympic Records** 7 10 11 10
Average Relay Margin 2.17 seconds 4.45 seconds 4.23 seconds 1.97 seconds
Star Power Mike Burton, Mark Spitz, Gary Hall, Sr. Mark Spitz, Gary Hall, Sr, Tim McKee John Naber, Jim Montgomery, Gary Hall, Sr. Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Aaron Peirsol

*At the 1968, 1972, and 1976, each country was allowed three swimmers in each Olympic final. In 2008, only two
**This includes marks that were also World Records. Only records that stood through the end of the meet were considered.

Those are some pretty impressive numbers. The 1976 games in Montreal, which didn’t have a 200 IM or a 400 free relay, saw the most gold medals won. In total, that group won 12 out of 13 available golds, which is an absolutely dominating effort. They also won all but one of the silver medals. Even more impressively, the 1976 Games saw every World Record except for Mark Spitz’s mark in the 100 fly broken. Relative to their peers, this had to be the most dominating team ever.

But it’s not that simple. The 1976 lacked the true, overall, superstar that some of the other teams had. John Naber is one of, if not the, best backstrokers ever. His times from the 1976 Games, even without flipturns, stood up as world-class 20 years later. But Nabers didn’t have the versatility of a Spitz or a Phelps. Most of today’s young swimmers don’t know who Naber is, although they probably should. Beyond Nabers, most of the names are forgetful. Gary Hall Sr. took only a single medal: a bronze in the 100 fly.

The international competition was also weak at the 1976 Games. Aside from Britain’s David Wilkie, the lone non-American champion, and Australia’s Stephen Holland, a former WR holder in the 1500, there were no serious challengers to the American dominance, as was demonstrated by the 4+ second relay average margin of victory.

If we were taking things purely from a team perspective, the 1968 team gets a big nod. 18 different swimmers won individual medals, which was likely a function of the hugely expanded Olympic schedule that year. At the 1964 Olympics, there were 7 different individual events swum for men. In 1968, that number exploded to 12. Only one swimmer, Charles Hickcox with 3 golds and a silver, won more than three medals, INCLUDING RELAYS. With another 4 years to adapt their training to the expanded schedule, this group’s medal count could have been through the roof.

Mark Spitz and the 1972 squad were the ultimate demonstrators of this adaptation in training. In Munich, Spitz won 7 gold medals, a record that would be untouched for over 3 decades. In reality, this squad should be credited with a 7th individual gold medal. Tim Mckee tied for the gold in the 400 IM with Gunnar Larsson of Sweden, but on further review, officials allowed Larsson the lone gold by .002 seconds, using a thousandths measure that is no longer allowed.

The 1972 team had the largest relay margin of victory of the 4 squads in question, at over four-and-a-half seconds. Starpower, however, was a huge part of why this group deserves serious consideration. Mark Spitz almost made swimming mainstream for the first time since Johnny Weissmuller played Tarzan, and was the first swimming superstar in the era of wide-spread television in America. In 1960, the first Olympics were televised. In 1972, 25% of the American population tuned in to the Olympics in prime time, which is to this day the highest percentage ever. 45% of Americans who were watching tv had their televisions tuned in to the Olympics, the second most behind only the 1976 games.

In other words, Spitz was the best swimmer ever, to that point, and was poised on the biggest Olympic stage ever. After his 7 golds, there was conversation about swimming receiving significant TV coverage even between Olympics. This didn’t ever come to fruition, but for it to even be discussed is a huge accomplishment.

And then there’s 2008. Just by a breakdown of the numbers, the 2008 team doesn’t seem to belong in the conversation. They had the fewest number of medals, by far, of the group, even though they had the most events. Of course, they had one fewer qualifier in each event, but when looking at the results, it’s unlikely that they would have won many more even with a third qualifier. They also had the smallest average relay margin of the group.

They may not have had the numbers, but that team have more intangible numbers in their favor. They faced much stiffer international competition than any other squad in history. This is evidenced by the fact that the 2008 group was the first since ’96 to sweep the relays. The French 400 free relay that the Americans just barely nipped–Jason Lezak’s swim has become probably the most famous relay leg in the history of swimming–might have been the best free relay ever assembled besides the Americans that beat them.

In 2008, swimming had athletes from 163 nations participate. That’s more than any other Olympics, and is over three times as many as any of the other finalists. There were medalists from 21 different nations compared to 11, 10, and 8 from ’68, ’72, and ’76. The level of competition in today’s swimming is unlike any that has ever been seen. A swimmer from Tunisia set a world record at the 2008 Games. I don’t know it for a fact, but I doubt that Tunisia even had a National swim program in 1976. Although it’s always impossible to compare across eras, winning 10 golds and 17 total medals in 2008 is worth more than the same totals in the 1960’s and 70’s.

The 2008 team also had the singular swimming superstar above all other swimming superstars that have ever lived: Michael Phelps. Phelps, as we all know, won 8 gold medals, one better than Spitz’s performance. Phelps’ star power was so strong in 2008 that after the swimming competition ended, the tv viewership for the Games was cut by over half. Since 2008, most major National and International level meets are televised, albeit usually on taped delay.

Phelps was paired up with Ryan Lochte, who has suddenly thrust himself into the spotlight as a candidate for one of the 3 best swimmers ever. Those two combined for 8 out of the American’s 14 individual medals, and are the best 1-2 combination in the history of swimming.

So which one of these groups is the best?

1968 was the ultimate team, and was probably better than their stats show. 1972 thrived on the glow of Spitz and a huge tv audience, and dominated relay competition. 1976 put up ungodly numbers that never have, nor ever will, be emulated, albeit against seemingly weak international competition. 2008 had enormous star-power, shattered countless records, and excelled against the best swimming talent the world has ever seen, but did not have the same huge medal counts as their predecessors.

All four teams were incredible, but to me, the most recent 2008 squad takes the cake. International swimming today is a different animal than it was in the past. They have Michael Phelps, the Michael Phelps, whose performance did more for the mainstream cause of swimming in this country than any performance ever.

Some might argue that I am overweighting the value of a superstar, but in the realm of sports, superstars are what makes good teams great. In 1994, after Michael Jordan’s short-lived retirement, the Chicago Bulls went from a dynasty that was among the greatest NBA teams ever to a very good team that still won 55 games. They were probably one all-star type of player away from winning an NBA Championship, but even if they had won the title, without Jordan they would not have been considered one of the greatest teams ever. Starpower is of huge importance in the sports world, and Phelps gave the 2008 squad just that.

Of course, the real answer is purely subjective, and depends on what you consider most important. Here is my final ranking of the best Olympic squads since 1968.

  1. 2008 – Phelps is king
  2. 1976 – Most dominating team performance in history of swimming
  3. 1972 – Spitz’s 7 golds gives swimming viability
  4. 1968 – Team effort wins big in a new era
  5. 1996 – Lacked individual starpower, but still dominated all 3 relays
  6. 2004 – One or two freestyle sprinters away from contention for best squad ever
  7. 1988 – Best American sprint group in the modern era but falters in other strokes
  8. 1984 – Underperformed given most of the world’s top swimmers boycotted the meet
  9. 1992 – Swept butterfly and breaststroke events, but were outshone by Russian rivals
  10. 2000 – Only Games in the modern era where the US didn’t win at least 2 relays

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Andrew Strenk

Hmmmm….nice analysis. Remember, 1968 was at high altitude, which had an impact on the production of world records…compare for example, the results at the World Student Games in 1967 in Tokyo, where many of the same swimmers swam. The conditions in terms of transportation, food, living accommodations, etc., were brutal in 1968, and did not contribute to a lot of records, just surviving to be able to swim was something of a major accomplishment. The swim suits allowed in 2008 also pumped up the record totals somewhat….they are no longer allowed. The 1964 team was very good, so was the 1948 team and some of the 1920s teams (1920, 1924). Conditions have changed so much, its difficult to compare, it… Read more »

About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder of SwimSwam.com. He first got his feet wet by building The Swimmers' Circle beginning in January 2010, and now comes to SwimSwam to use that experience and help build a new leader in the sport of swimming. Aside from his life on the InterWet, …

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