Even if the underlying aspect of the Games is about participation and fighting to the best of one’s capabilities, the Olympics are synonymous with the medals that are handed out to the best athletes. Gold, silver and bronze medals are awarded to the top finishers in every event at the Olympic Games and that is a tradition that began at the St. Louis Games in 1904. The first two editions of the Modern Olympic Games did not, at that time, recognise winners as we do now. But those events have been retrospectively added to the tally as well.

And over the years, some Olympians — every one of them already among the best in the world for even getting to the Games — have won more than the others.

Here we take a look at the most successful Olympians we have seen in the history of the Summer Olympic Games.



  • From 1896 in Athens to 1928 in Amsterdam, the medals ceremony traditionally took place during the Closing Ceremony of the Games. From 1932 in Los Angeles, the medals were awarded after each competition. 
  • The medals must have a minimum diameter of 70mm and be 3mm thick. The medal for the first place must be gilded with at least 6g of pure gold. The names of the medal winners shall be featured prominently and be on permanent display in the main stadium.

Most medals of all time

It would be a while to see this record broken at the Olympic Games. The list, as you can see below, is dominated by swimming and gymnastics because of the number of medals on offer in these events and how someone usually extraordinary in one discipline is also very good in another or two.

The name at the top as most of us are aware is Michael Phelps, the legendary American swimmer who has won a whopping 23 medals in all and holds pretty much every record there is to own in terms of podium finishes at the Games. A hyperactive Phelps was encouraged into swimming aged seven to give his boundless energy an outlet. By the time he had swum his last race in Rio five years ago, the American had become the most decorated Olympian of all time with 23 gold medals, three silver and two bronze – 13 of the golds in individual events, another record.

Before him the record belonged to Larisa Latynina, who had won 18 Olympic medals, a record which stood for nearly half-a-century until broken at London 2012 by Phelps.

Ukrainian-born Latynina competed in the 1958 world gymnastics championships while four months pregnant – and took home five gold medals. It showed the sort of determination that was to bring her a record haul that stood for decades. Latynina finished her Olympic career with nine gold, five silver and four bronze medals.

Edoardo Mangiarotti (fencing) is the most successful non-swimmer/gymnast on this list.

Special mention is needed for Finnish legend Paavo Nurmi who is the only track and field in such rarefied company. Only two (men/women) in the history of Olympic Games have 10 or more medals in athletics and that is Nurmi and American legend Carl Lewis (10, 9-1-0).

Usain Bolt’s perfect record of 9 gold medals from the Games came down to 8 after a relay gold was taken away from him but even he couldn’t hit the two-digit mark. American legend Allyson Felix, the most decorated women in track and field, (6-3-0) has the chance at Tokyo 2020 to enter this elite group as she heads for another Olympic Games.

Most overall medals at the Summer Games

Athlete Overall medals Nation Sport Years Gender Gold Silver Bronze
Michael Phelps 28  United States Swimming 2004–2016 M 23 3 2
Larisa Latynina 18  Soviet Union Gymnastics 1956–1964 F 9 5 4
Nikolai Andrianov 15  Soviet Union Gymnastics 1972–1980 M 7 5 3
Boris Shakhlin 13  Soviet Union Gymnastics 1956–1964 M 7 4 2
Edoardo Mangiarotti 13  Italy Fencing 1936–1960 M 6 5 2
Takashi Ono 13  Japan Gymnastics 1952–1964 M 5 4 4
Paavo Nurmi 12  Finland Athletics 1920–1928 M 9 3 0
Birgit Fischer-Schmidt 12 East Germany / Germany Canoeing 1980–2004 F 8 4 0
Sawao Katō 12 Japan Gymnastics 1968–1976 M 8 3 1
Jenny Thompson 12 USA Swimming 1992–2004 F 8 3 1
Ryan Lochte 12 USA Swimming 2004–2016 M 6 3 3
Dara Torres 12 USA Swimming 1984–2008 F 4 4 4
Alexei Nemov 12  Russia Gymnastics 1996–2000 M 4 2 6
Natalie Coughlin 12 USA Swimming 2004–2012 F 3 4 5
Minimum 12 medals overall

Among all the records owned by Phelps, perhaps the most thrilling is his incredible effort in 2008. He struck gold six times in Athens, but finished third in two other events, leaving Mark Spitz’s 1972 Olympic record of seven swimming golds intact.

Motivated by Ian Thorpe’s comment that beating Spitz’s record was “impossible”, which he kept pinned on his locker, Phelps stormed to an incredible eight golds at Beijing 2008.

Among women, Kristin Otto (East Germany) has the record for most gold medals at one edition, achieved in swimming at Seoul 1988.

The records owned by Michael Phelps:

  • Most medals won all time (28)
  • Most gold medals won all time (23)
  • Most gold medals won at a single edition (8, Beijing 2008)
  • Most medals all time in individual events (16)
  • Most gold medals all time in individual events  (13)

Most gold medals at the Summer Games

Athlete Gold Nation Sport Years Gender
Michael Phelps 23 USA Swimming 2004–2016 M
Larisa Latynina 9 Soviet Union Gymnastics 1956–1964 F
Paavo Nurmi 9 Finland Athletics 1920–1928 M
Mark Spitz 9 USA Swimming 1968–1972 M
Carl Lewis 9 USA Athletics 1984–1996 M
Birgit Fischer-Schmidt 8 East Germany / Germany Canoeing 1980–2004 F
Sawao Kato 8 Japan Gymnastics 1968–1976 M
Jenny Thompson 8 USA Swimming 1992–2004 F
Matthew Biondi 8 USA Swimming 1984–1992 M
Ray Ewry 8 USA Athletics 1900–1908 M
Usain Bolt 8 Jamaica Athletics 2008–2016 M
Minimum 8 gold medals

The most gold medals is another list that is largely filled with swimmers and gymnasts but athletics makes a stronger presence felt here. Enter Carl Lewis and Usain Bolt to go along with Paavo Nurmi, the Flying Finn.

One of the Olympics’ first superstars, Nurmi dominated the Games in the 1920s, winning nine gold medals and three silvers.

Pause, rewind, play: Carl Lewis, the man who redefined excellence at Olympics

The fastest man the world has ever seen, “Lightning Bolt” shot to worldwide fame in Beijing in 2008 as the first man to win both the 100m and 200m since American Carl Lewis in 1984.

He went on to become the only man to complete the sprint double twice when he repeated the feat in London – and then swept all before him for the third time in Rio.

The charismatic Jamaican smashed both 100m and 200m world records in Beijing before lowering them to 9.58sec and 19.19sec respectively, times which are still to be beaten.

Most silver medals won:

6 - Aleksandr Dityatin (Soviet Union), Gymnastics, 1976-80 

6 - Mikhail Voronin (Soviet Union), Gymnastics, 1968-1972 

6 - Shirley Farber Babashoff (USA), Aquatics, 1972-1976

Most bronze medals won:

6 - Heikki Savolainen (Finland), Gymnastics, 1928-52

6 - Alexei Nemov (Russia), Gymnastics, 1996-2000


Only one person has appeared in a total of 10 Olympic Games in history. Canada’s Ian Millar in Equestrian, who competed in his 10th Games at London 2012. Incidentally, at Tokyo 2020, gymnast Oksana Chusovitina is set to extend her own record of the most Games for a gymnast with an incredible 8th appearance, in a sport where longevity is notoriously short-lived. 

Indians in the record books

1928-1956 – A brief history of Indian hockey’s golden era at the Olympics

As the Indian teams dominated field hockey for the early history of Olympic Games, the most medals won by a hockey player across countries is a list that features two Indians. The record belongs jointly to Leslie Claudius and Udham Singh Kullar. These two players are at the top of the pile by a difference of one because, of the seven Indian players to win three Olympic gold medals for hockey, only Singh and Claudius also won a silver medal. Singh won gold in 1952, 1956 and 1964 and a silver in 1960. and he was a centre-forward who was the leading scorer at the 1956 Olympics with 14 goals.

Leslie Claudius, who was the first player ever to earn 100 caps in the sport, won gold medals in 1948, 1952 and 1956, and then added silver in 1960 when he captained the team.

Most overall medals in hockey

4 - Leslie Walter Claudius (IND), 3-1-0, 1948-1956

4 - Udham Singh Kullar (IND), 3-1-0, 1952-1964

4 - Teun de Nooijer (NED), 2-2-0,1996-2012

(With text inputs from AFP and stat inputs from IOC)