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LIST: Meet the most bemedaled athletes in Olympic history

By Johanna Añes-de la Cruz Published Jul 30, 2021 9:48 pm

We’re still very much in the middle of the Olympic fanfare with the games going on its second and last week. So let’s look back on the Summer Games’ rich 125-year-history—a history replete with stories of triumph and defeat, sportsmanship and glory.

Securing a spot at the Games is already a monumental achievement, winning a medal is nothing short of life-changing, and bringing home more than one can be downright historic.

There have already been thousands of medals won by thousands of athletes, with each win a story of talent, dedication, and determination. Yet only an elite club can lay claim to winning the most medals in Olympic history. Let’s get to know the all-time most decorated Summer Games Olympians who have become some of our modern-day sports legends.

Michael Phelps (28 medals, USA)

Photo from Sports Illustrated

Michael Phelps is inarguably the greatest Olympian of all time. The swimming legend amassed an astonishing 28 medals between 2004 and 2016, 10 more than the previous record of 18. Phelps debuted in the Sydney 2000 Games at age 15, finishing fifth in the 200m butterfly, his only event.

Four years later in Athens, he entered eight events and brought home medals in every single one. He then outdid himself at the 2008 Beijing Olympics by finishing first in all eight events. Phelps has now retired from competition and devotes his time to his foundation which focuses on mental health awareness.

Larisa Latynina (18 medals, Soviet Union)

Photo from Passportmagazine.com

Larisa Latynina’s record 18 Olympic medals had stood since the 1964 Tokyo Games until Phelps broke her record in the London 2012 Games. A gymnast from the Soviet Union, she collected 18 medals in the span of three Olympics, with her maiden appearance in the 1956 Melbourne Games.

Aside from being the holder of the most number of medals won for almost half a century, she is one of only four athletes to have won nine gold medals and one of only three women to have won the same event at the Summer Games three times. Between 1956 and 1964, she won 14 individual Olympic medals and four team medals. To this day, she still holds the record for the most Olympic gold medals by a gymnast, male or female, with nine.

Nikolai Andrianov (15 medals, Soviet Union)

Photo from Sportskeeda.com

15 podium finishes over three Olympic Games, seven of them as a gold medalist, cemented Nikolai Andrianov’s niche as the male gymnast who has won more Olympic medals than any other in the history of the event.

Andrianov’s seven Olympic gold medals include two on floor (1972 and 1976), two on vault (1976 and 1980), one individual all-around (1976), one on still rings (1976) and one in the team all-around (1980).

In addition to his gold medals, he also won five silvers and three bronzes. Aside from his Olympic medal haul, he won 12 medals in the World Championships (four of them gold), and claimed the European title no fewer than 10 times.

Boris Shakhlin (13 medals, Soviet Union)

Photo from Britannica.com

With 13 Olympic medals, Boris Shakhlin is tied for third with two other medal holders on our most decorated Olympians list. Shakhlin earned individual gold medals in three straight Olympic Games (1956 Melbourne, 1960 Rome, 1964 Tokyo).

His strongest individual event was the pommel horse in which he won gold in 1960 and 1964. Shakhlin also has five gold medals at the 1958 World Championships. Since his retirement in 1966, he has served as an international judge, and was a member of the International Gymnastics Federation's Men's Technical Committee from 1968 until 1992. During his career as a gymnast and an official, he participated in a staggering total of 12 Olympic Games and 22 World Championships.

Ono Takashi (13 medals, Japan)

Photo from Wikimedia.org

Ono Takashi is known not just for being one of only three athletes who have won 13 Olympic medals, but also for his longevity at the elite level, making him an icon for generations of Japanese gymnasts. In 1952 at the Olympic Games in Helsinki, Ono participated in his first Olympic competition at a time when gymnastics was dominated by the Soviet Union.

He won his first medal there, a bronze. In 1964, in front of his home crowd in Tokyo for the 18th Olympiad, Ono, then already aged 33, was the oldest member of the Japanese team and was given the honor of delivering the oath of athletes during the opening ceremony. With his younger teammates, he again won the team title, his 13th Olympic medal and his fifth gold.

Edoardo Mangiarotti (13 medals, Italy)

Photo from Britannica.com

No fencer in history has won more medals in the Summer Olympics than Eduardo Mangiarotti. Over the course of five Olympic Games between 1936 and 1960, he won 13 medals, six of them gold securing his title as Italy’s most successful Olympian. He also won 26 world championship medals (including 14 gold).

Mangiarotti is part of a famous fencing family. His father Giuseppe was a fencing master who represented Italy at the 1908 Olympic Games in London. Like Eduardo, his two brothers, Mario and Dario followed in their father’s footsteps, and the latter also went on to carve a successful fencing career, winning a total of three Olympic and nine world championship medals.

Athletes with 12 Olympic Medals

Jenny Thompson. Photo from Olympics.com

At the time of writing, there are seven athletes who have won 12 Olympic medals. These are Japanese gymnast Kato Sawao; Russian gymnast Alexei Nemov; Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi; German kayaker Birgit Fischer; and four American swimmers: Jenny Thompson, Dara Torres, Natalie Coughlin, and Ryan Lochte.

Kato was the leader of the dominant Japanese gymnastics team in the 1960s and 1970s, winning eight gold medals—the most won by a male gymnast in history. Nemov won 12 Olympic medals in gymnastics, the most by any gymnast since the dissolution of the Soviet Union’s gymnastic teams of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Nurmi was part of the legendary group of Finnish athletes who were nicknamed the “Flying Finns” and made his Olympic debut at the 1920 Antwerp Games where he won the first two of his 12-medal haul. Fischer is the only female Olympian to have won eight gold medals in kayaking over a 24-year period.

Birgit Fischer. Photo from Olympics.com

Moving on to the four American swimmers on this list: First we have Thompson, now a respected pediatric anesthesiologist, whose eight Olympic gold medals in her stash of 12 is the most for any female Olympic swimmer in history.

Torres is the first American to swim in five Olympics Games and is the oldest U.S. swimming gold medalist in history. Coughlin, who has also won a total of 12 medals, three of which gold, is the first woman in Olympic history to win back-to-back gold medals. Lastly, along with Thompson, Torres, and Coughlin, Lochte is the second-most decorated swimmer in Olympic history measured by total number of medals, behind only Phelps, and boasts a total of six golds in his 12-medal collection.