The 5 Best Olympians of All Time

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Being an Olympian encompasses more than athletic achievement. The drive and character required to become the best in a chosen sport, then perform under pressure while representing your country puts Olympic athletes into a unique class of individuals. As ambassadors of sport and proponents of competition, our Top 5 have made their mark in Olympic history.

5 Frank Kugler

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Versatility marked Frank Kugler’s Olympic career. Kugler, a German national who competed as an American in the 1904 St. Louis Games, remains the only athlete to medal in three different sports during the same Olympic Games. Although not a gold medalist, the weightlifting wrestler earned silver as a heavyweight, bronze in two weightlifting events—all-around dumbbell and two-hand lift—plus a bronze in team tug-of-war. Tug-of-war saw its last Games in 1920; however, Kugler’s feat has yet to be matched.

4 Fanny Blankers-Koen

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Another track and field star, Fanny Blankers-Koen, let the world know that winning four gold medals was not a male domain. The Dutch runner became the first female to match Jesse Owens’ take when she won four events: 80-meter hurdles, 100 meters, 200 meters and 400-meter relay. Considering that Blankers-Koen was 30 years old and pregnant with her third child at the time, her achievement at the 1948 London Olympic Games takes on more significance. The International Association of Athletics Federations recognized her that same year as female “Athlete of the Century.”

3 Jesse Owens

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It’s hard to imagine the mental obstacles Jesse Owen had to overcome to win four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games held in Berlin. Segregation still reigned in his native U.S. As an African-American, Owens competed against athletes from around the world plus the Nazi philosophy that his was an inferior race and, in the words of one of Hitler’s officials, he was “non-human.” The sprinter came in first in long jump, 400-meter relay, 200 meters and 100 meters. His victories in the 200 and the 400-meter relay races had world-record times.

2 Larisa Latynina

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At a time when gymnasts had to try out in four events to qualify for Olympic competition, Larisa Latynina represented the former Soviet Union in the 1956, 1960 and 1964 Summer Olympic Games. She earned four bronze medals, five silvers and nine gold medals—a record of 18 that stood for 48 years until Michael Phelps surpassed it in 2012. She has the distinction of being the only athlete to win six medals in three consecutive Olympic Games. As of 2013, no other female athlete has matched her gold-medal tally of nine. Latynina won six of those golds at the 1960 Games in Rome while four months pregnant.

1 Michael Phelps

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Swimmer Michael Phelps cemented his place in sports history during the London Summer Games in 2012. The four golds and two silvers he won raised his total career medal count to 22—more than any Olympian had ever won. Phelps first splashed Olympic pool water at the 2000 Sydney Games, but came home winless. Four years later, the Maryland native left Athens with eight medals, six of which were gold. His 2008 performance in Beijing earned him the title of most gold medals won in a single Olympic Games: eight. Phelps also holds the “most gold medals” title: 18.

Trudy Brunot began writing in 1992. Her work has appeared in "Quarterly," "Pennsylvania Health & You," "Constructor" and the "Tribune-Review" newspaper. Her domestic and international experience includes human resources, advertising, marketing, product and retail management positions. She holds a master's degree in international business administration from the University of South Carolina.

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