It's a simple question with a not-so-simple answer: Which American athletes have been the best Summer Olympians dating all the way back to the first modern Games in 1896? Sure, the top athlete is easy, but what about the rest? We decided to rank the top 27 - that's how many Olympics have been contested in the past 120 years - and it was no easy task. We had to consider athletes that spent 20 years in the Olympic movement versus those who were one-and-done at the Summer Games. Medal counts are great but only tell a fraction of the story. (And though dozens of athletes had brilliant professional careers after their Olympic glory, we only considered performances at the Games, which is why Michael Jordan and Cassius Clay don't appear.) So which Americans have gone fastest, highest and strongest?
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Michael Phelps (2000-2016); swimming; 18 G, 2 S, 2
In terms of swimming and the Olympics, Michael Phelps is like a combination of Babe Ruth, Jack Nicklaus, Michael Jordan, Roger Federer and LeBron James. (Or, as Kanye put it: "Tyson, Jordan, Jackson/Michael Phelps.") He can be dominant. He can win the close races. He can hit the swimming equivalent of a buzzer beater. He has the most technically sound strokes the sport has ever seen. And his power, especially off the walls, is legendary. Phelps has 22 medals, a haul that will almost certainly go to 26 or above in Rio. We'll look at all the stats next week but, for now, chew on this one: Phelps has 18 gold medals. No one else in the history of the Olympics has won more than nine.
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Carl Lewis (1984-1996); track and field; 9 G, 1 S
Just about 50 years after Jesse Owens swept the speed track and field events (100m, 200m, 4x100m, long jump) Carl Lewis did the same at the boycotted 1984 Games in Los Angeles. (The boycott wouldn't have changed the results of any of the races - the long jump might have been close.) Then Lewis won the 100m and long jump in Seoul, becoming the first man to ever win either at back-to-back Olympics. To clarify: Before Lewis, no one had won two gold medals in the 100m or the long jump. (No one has joined him as a multiple long-jump gold medalist. Usain Bolt will try to break Lewis' record by winning his third-straight 100m in Rio.) Lewis would go on to win the long jump four times in a row, including in 1996 when he was all but written off. The big stunner of Lewis's career was failing to qualify for the 100m in Barcelona, especially considering he was the current world-record holder and had the set mark just months before at the world championships.
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Al Oerter (1956-1968); discus; 4 G
Though not exactly a household name these days, Oerter was an Olympic legend in his time. When Lewis won his fourth-straight long jump he joined Oerter's one-man club - they remain the only track athletes to win the same event four times at a Summer Games. In each of his wins, Oerter broke the Olympic record and, how's this for weird, defeated the current world-record holder. How strange is that? A four-time gold medalist never entered the event as the favorite. It was an oddity. Though he set four world records in the event and held the mark for about two years combined, the timing didn't line up with the quirky Olympic calendar. Though Oerter was the greatest track star of his day, he wasn't even the best athlete at his own college: He went to Kansas at the same time as Wilt Chamberlain.
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Jesse Owens (1936); track and field; 4 G
Even with a single Olympics to his name, Owens belongs in rarified air. Up until Phelps, Owens had the greatest performance at a single Olympics, when he humiliated Hitler en route to four gold medals in the 100m, 200m, 4x100m and long jump. Owens turned professional soon after but the decision would end up having no effect on his Olympic career. Because of World War II, there wouldn't be another Olympics until 12 years after Berlin.
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Mark Spitz (1968-1972); swimming; 9 G, 1 S, 1 B
For years, Spitz was the Olympic standard - winning seven golds in seven races at the Munich Olympics in 1972. Obviously, Michael Phelps has relegated Spitz to runner-up status and it'll be interesting to see whether Spitz's name will be known by a new generation. I suppose the only way for that to happen is for Snapchat to make a filter of Spitz's mustache and seven gold medals hanging around your neck.
Janet Evans (1988-1996); swimming; 4 G, 1 B
There are more decorated U.S. swimmers: Jenny Thompson has 10 golds, Natalie Coughlin and Dara Torres have 12 medals each. But all 10 of Thompson's golds were in relays and she only had two individual medals. It's mostly the same with Coughlin and Torres, though they each had four individual medals (with Coughlin's two individual golds serving as the high-water mark for the 10+ medal club). As a long-distance swimmer, Janet Evans didn't have the benefit of relay padding. In 1988 and 1992, she swam five individual races and finished with four golds and a silver. With her unorthodox stroke, she broke numerous records in those races, including setting a world record in the 400 free in Seoul. The mark would stand for 18 years (a lifetime in the world of swimming) and remained the American record until Katie Ledecky bested it in 2014, more than a quarter-century later. (Ledecky, incidentally, is basically guaranteed to be in this spot, or even higher, in about nine days.)
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Ray Ewry (1900-1908), jumping, 8 G
If there'd been YouTube at the turn of the century (the last century), it'd have been filled with YouTube clips of Ray Ewry jumping onto boxes or out of pools or leaping over defenders like he was Reggie Bush in high school. As it is, Ewry has to settle for the eight golds he won in various jumping events, all of the standing variety. (None of the events exist any more.) Ewry is often credited with 10 golds but not by the IOC, which doesn't recognize the off-year 1906 Games held in St. Louis in which Ewry took home two more titles.
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Shannon Miller (1992-1996); gymnastics; 2 G, 2 S, 3 B
The most decorated gymnast in U.S. Olympic history, Miller won five medals at the 1992 Olympics, which is impressive enough but especially so when you consider there were only six competitive events. Miller didn't win any golds in Barcelona, however. She'd save that for 1996. Though Kerri Strug gets the highlight package, that American team (the Magnificent Seven), which won the first ever team all-around gold for the U.S., was anchored by Miller. Still just 19 at the time, she was the only American gymnast to also win individual gold in Atlanta, taking home the title in the balance beam.
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Jim Thorpe (1912); track and field; 2 G
"You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world."
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Wilma Rudolph (1956-1960); track and field; 3 G, 1 B
The Tennessee native overcame polio that kept her bedridden, then in leg braces, for much of her youth. After a bronze at the 1956 Olympics, Rudolph made history in 1960, becoming the first woman to ever win three golds on the track.
Florence Griffith Joyner (1984-1988); track and field; 3 G, 2 S
Choosing between FloJo and the next woman on our list was basically a coin flip. Our convoluted rationale is below.
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Jackie Joyner-Kersee (1984-1996); track and field; 3 G, 1 S, 2 B
Though the track contemporaries didn't directly compete - Jackie was a long jumper and heptathlete, Flo-Jo was a sprinter - they're inextricably linked for a number of reasons, including the fact that Flo-Jo married Jackie's brother (Olympic triple jumper Al Joyner) and Jackie married FloJo's coach, Bob Kersee. If you value longevity (and we almost did), Joyner-Kersee would be the winner, as she won medals at four Olympics (compared to FloJo's two). Even so, FloJo's star burned brighter. She duplicated the feat of her idol, Wilma Rudolph, by winning three golds in a single Games (1988). And while Joyner-Kersee had a bigger medal haul, those medals came in less-renowned events. The heptathlon is great, but it ain't the hundred.
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Michael Johnson (1992-200); track and field; 4 G
Before some guy named Bolt came onto the scene to render all other prior sprints meaningless, Michael Johnson ran the most scintillating race the Olympics has ever seen, with his gold cleats shining under the lights in Atlanta while he ran, held as still as can be, to an unfathomable 19.32, a time most figured would hold for decades. It did - but just for one - until Usain bolted it out of the record books. The Jamaican ran a staggering 19.19, improving Johnson's mark by 0.13 seconds. But put that in perspective: Bolt's 9.58 in the 100 improved on the previous world-record holder's time by 0.16 seconds. Meaning? He gained more time in a race that was half as long.
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Edwin Moses (1976-1988); hurdles; 2 G, 1 B
Starting in September of 1977, Ed Moses ran 122 races in the 400m hurdles and won every single one. (If track were as big in this country as track should be in this country, that stat would be as easy to recall as DiMaggio's hitting streak, Ted Williams' batting average or Babe Ruth's home run total.) Moses "only" has two Olympic golds though but that's Jimmy Carter's fault more than anything, as Moses's streak went from 1977 through 1986 - those 1980 Olympics were another guaranteed trip to the top of the podium for Moses.
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Greg Louganis (1976-1988), diving, 4 G, 1 S
Before he became a spokesman for AIDS research and LGBT rights, Louganis was mostly known as the guy who hit his head on the board in the Olympics. That he still won gold in that event is remembered, but most don't recall just how great Louganis was before and after all that. He swept the diving events in Los Angeles and Seoul and won platform silver at his first Games in Montreal If not for the 1980 boycott, Louganis might have gone down as the most decorated diver in history.
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Bob Mathias (1948-1952); decathlon, 2 G
Won back-to-back decathlons, including once by a gap of 900 points, the biggest in Olympic history.
Pat McCormick (1952-1956); diving, 4 G
In Helsinki and Melbourne (those 1952 Helsinki Games are the most forgotten of any Summer Olympics, by the way), the young Californian swept both diving events for a total of four individual gold medals.
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Mary Lou Retton (1984); gymnastics; 1 G, 2 S, 2 B
No one in Los Angeles benefitted from the Eastern Bloc boycott more than Mary Lou Retton. Since the women's all-around competition began in 1952, an athlete from an Eastern Bloc country won gold in every Games until 2004 - that is, except for 1984, when America's pixie sweetheart, Retton, tumbled her way into fame. To be fair, the teenager still had to beat athletes from gymnastics power Romania, which was the only Warsaw Pact country to make the trip to Los Angeles. But on her home soil, nobody would best Mary Lou Retton, not even the home country of her idol, Nadia Comaneci.
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Matt Biondi (1984-1992); swimming; 8 G, 2 S, 1 B
Swimmers obviously dominate the American medal list given that there are more events to win than in any other discipline. A boxer has the opportunity to win one gold medal. A swimmer can realistically win four or five - we're not counting Phelps and Spitz as realistic. A track star and gymnast can win two or three. We account for this on our list, which is why Biondi, who has a gold-medal total surpassed by only five athletes in history, is so low. He cleaned up in the relays, winning six of his eight golds in the team races but also adding five individual medals, including a gold in the splash-and-dash 50 free in 1988. Impressive? You bet, but this list is trying to identify the greatest Olympians, not the men and women with the most medals.
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Kim Rhode (1996-2016); shooting; 3 G, 1 S, 1 B
Rhode is about to compete in her sixth Olympics and, if tradition holds, she'll win one medal. She won gold (double trap) in 1996, bronze (double trap) in 2000, gold (double trap) in 2004, silver (skeet) in 2008 and gold in 2012 (skeet), when all she did was hit 99 out of 100 to tie a world record.
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Karch Kiraly (1984-1988; 1996); volleyball; 3 G
The future beach-volleyball star was the youngest member of the the gold-medal winning 1984 U.S. team, the first American volleyball team to win gold. Four years later, with Kiraly as captain in his second Player of the Year season, the U.S. repeated. Then, in 1996, with beach volleyball making its Olympic debut, Kiraly went and won that too, alongside partner Kent Steffes.
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Serena/Venus Williams (2000-2016); tennis; 4 G
Both sisters have the same Olympic resume - they've won three doubles competitions together (and are favored to win a fourth in Rio) and one singles gold (Venus in 2000, Serena in 2012).
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Mariel Zagunis (2004-2016); fencing; 2 G, 1 B
History counts for something, so when you win the first fencing gold for the United States in 100 years, then back it up with another win in Beijing, you make the list. It doesn't hurt that she was voted flagbearer for the 2012 Games by her U.S. teammates - the greatest sign of Olympic respect.
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Dan Gable (1972); wrestling; 1 G
The greatest wrestler in American history was tough to rank. He only competed in one Olympics but what an Olympics it was: The Iowa State superstar didn't lose a single point en route to the gold in Munich.
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Lisa Leslie (1996-2008); basketball; 4 G
You could have replaced Lisa Leslie with Leslie Lisa (who sounds like she would have had a pop hit in the early '80s, possibly backed by Prince) and the U.S. still would have won four basketball golds. It doesn't matter though. Those four teams all had one thing in common: Leslie.
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Allyson Felix (2004-2016); track; 4 G, 2 S
For these, her fourth Olympics, Felix was trying to pull the historic feat of winning gold in the 200m and 400m races (she's never run the latter in the Olympics). Sadly, she came up 0.01 seconds short of making the team in the 200m, depriving us the chance to see a run at history. Felix will be the favorite in the 400m though and will run at least one relay in Rio, which should help her become the most decorated female track athlete in American history.
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Misty May-Trainor/Kerri Walsh (2004-2012); beach volleyball; 3 G
Like vanilla and chocolate. Peanut butter and jelly. Taylor Swift and a stubbled rube. Misty May-Trainor and Kerri Walsh Jennings just go together. They went three-for-three in their Olympic beach volleyball tournaments and got more face time on NBC's broadcast than almost anyone else. May-Trainor is now retired, so Walsh will try to make it four-for-four in Rio, except with the oddity of playing with partner (April Ross) that she beat in London's gold-medal match. It's going to be like watching Joe Montana play without Jerry Rice.