The the 2012 Summer Olympics are now just a few short days away, and you know what that means: for the next 20 days or so, we’re all going to become experts on sports we previously knew nothing about, going on and on about how this diver arched her back too much as she entered the water, or how that gymnast really is a balance beam specialist. And I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t change this for the world. Becoming a temporary expert on obscure sports like badminton is one of the best things about the Olympics—right up there with the pageantry of the opening ceremonies and inspirational McDonalds commercials.
Anyway, I thought today it would be nice to get into the spirit of the Olympics by forming strong opinions about things we didn’t care about 6 weeks ago. So to that end, I present you with this list of the 13 greatest female (summer) Olympians of all time. As with all lists of “the greatest” anything—teams, movies, albums—this one is debatable. But not that debatable. Trust me, I did the research.
You won’t find any bias toward countries, here, but you will find a very just bias toward sports. That’s because it is easier to win multiple medals in some sports (like swimming and gymnastics) than others (like fencing or track and field). Moreover, there are individual events and then there are group or team events—relays in swimming and track, the all-around team competition in gymnastics. So we can’t just go by medal count alone. Ten medals in gymnastics might be like 8 in swimming or 5 in track and field—or something like that.
But you get the idea. So let’s get to it, then.
Normally the fact that swimmer Amy van Dyken won most of her medals in relay events would have put an asterisk next to her name in my book. In fact, American Jenny Thompson failed to make this list for this very reason. However, with Van Dyken there are extenuating circumstances—like the fact that all 6 of her Olympic medals are gold, and that 4 of them came at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta (50m Freestyle, 100m Butterfly, 4x100m Freestyle, and 4x100m Medley Relay). Then she added two more golds in 2000 in Athens (4x100m Freestyle and 4x100m Medley Relay). So that's a pretty good Olympic resume.
13. Amy Van Dyken (USA)
Swimmer Dawn Fraser's 8 total medals (4 gold, 4 silver) may not seem like that much compared to Amy Van Dyken. But Fraser won them over the course of 3 games (1956, 1960, 1964) and, more importantly, she won gold in one event—the 100m Freestyle—three times in a row. Thus, she is considered the greatest female sprint swimmer ever. Only one other woman has ever won gold in the same event three times, and yes, she's also on this list. Interestingly, Fraser might have won a 4th consecutive gold in the 100m Freestyle had the Australian Olympic Committee not banned her for 10 years after she pulled a bunch of pranks at the 1964 Games in Tokyo. (She would have been just 31 in 1968).
12. Dawn Fraser (Australia)
Sprinter Wilma Rudolph only won 4 medals in 2 Olympics—1 bronze in 1956 (at the age of 16) and 3 gold in 1960. But the medal tally really doesn't tell the story. In 1960, Rudolph gave what might be considered the first truly dominant performance in women's track, becoming the first American to win the "spring double"—gold in the 100 and the 200 meter sprint. Then she anchored the USA 4x100m relay to gold as well. Her dominant performance in 1960 made her the biggest star of the Games. Oh, and she was black, which sorta made her a civil rights hero.
11. Wilma Rudolph (USA)
Gymnast Vera Cáslavská's 11 total medals (7 gold, 4 silver) over the course of 3 Olympics (1960, 1964, 1968) ties her for the 6th most all-time among women. However, as already mentioned, it's easier for the best gymnasts to win a bunch of medals because the skills required to excel on the different apparatuses are fairly similar. It's not like track, where you specialize in short, medium, or long distances; or swimming, where strokes like freestyle, breaststroke, and butterfly are radically different. Still, Cáslavská stands out even against other gymnasts. Only 12 women have even won 3 golds, only 6 have won 5, and only 2 have won 7. So Cáslavská is still an all-time great.
10. Vera Cáslavská (Czechoslovakia)
Unlike gymnastics, fencing only provides you with a couple of opportunities to get a medal in a single Games. There are three types of fencing: foil, épée, and sabre, and within the first two there's an individual competition and a team competition, for a total of just 5 events for men and 5 events for women. So unless athletes participate in more than one type of fencing (and they don't), the most you can win is 2 medals. And that makes Italy's Valentina Vezzali's 7 medals in foil fencing (5 gold, 1 silver, 1 bronze) over the course of 4 Olympics (1996, 2000, 2004, 2008) very, very impressive.
9. Valentina Vezzali (Italy)
Rowers generally have longer careers than most Olympians. So the fact that Romania's Elisabeta Lipa-Oleniuc competed in 6 separate Olympic Games is impressive, but not crazy. What is crazy is how long she dominated her sport. She won 8 medals altogether, with gold in 1984 (at age 19), 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004 (at age 39).
8. Elisabeta Lipa-Oleniuc (Romania)
It's not easy to rack up the medals in track and field. The events are so different and the athletes, out of necessity, are too specialized. Even the athletes who win events that combine different skills (like the decathlon or heptathlon) are not good enough in any one skill to win a medal in just that. For this reason, the most total medals any female track and field athlete has won is just 9—and that woman won most of her medals in relays, and none of them were gold. The next highest total for a woman in track in field is 7. And those seven medals belong to Irena Szewińska-Kirszenstein. She won medals in 4 separate games (1964, 1968, 1972, 1976), including 3 golds in the 1964 4x100m relay, the 1968 200m, and the 1976 400m. That's a lot of gold over a long period time in some very different events. And unless you're over 40, or Polish, you've probably never even heard of her.
7. Irena Szewińska-Kirszenstein (Poland)
Jackie Joyner-Kersee isn't just considered one of the greatest female Olympians of the 20th century. She's considered one of the greatest female athletes period. Her 6 total medals won in 4 separate Olympics places her third all-time among female track and field Olympians. Other women (like Fanny Blankers-Koen—consider this an honorable mention) won more golds in a single Games (Blankers-Koen won 4), but it's Kersee's all-around versatility and longevity that made her so remarkable. I mean, the woman won back-to-back golds in the heptathlon in '88 and '92 and still had enough gas in the tank to win bronze in the long jump in '96.
6. Jackie Joyner-Kersee (USA)
Longevity is common in sports like rowing, but not in sports like swimming. And that, really, is was makes Dara Torres so incredible. She competed in a whopping 5 Olympic Games (1984, 1988, 1992, 2000, 2008), but she didn't even make two in that span (1996, 2004). Her first appearance came at the age of 17; her last at the age of 41.
But Torres didn't just compete. She won. A lot. Torres collect 12 total medals, with 4 golds in '88, '92, and '00; 4 silvers in '88 and '08; and 4 bronzes in '88 and '00.
Gold medals 12 year apart? Silver medals 20 years apart? That's nuts.
5. Dara Torres (USA)
As impressive as Torres's long career was, Krisztina Egerszegi's tops that. She "only" won 7 medals over the course of "only" 3 Olympics, but 5 of those were golds, and they were clustered together to make up one very dominant stretch. In 1988, Egerszegi won silver in the 100m backstroke and gold in the 200m backstroke. Then, in 1992, she won gold in the 100m backstroke, 200m backstroke, and 400m individual medley. Then, in 1996, Egerszegi made it three golds in a row in the 200m backstroke, while adding a bronze in the 400m individual medley.
Egerszegi is the only person other than Dawn Fraser (#12) to win a swimming event three times in a row. That's some serious dominance.
4. Krisztina Egerszegi (Hungary)
No woman has won more Olympic medals than gymnast Larisa Latynina. In fact, no man has won more Olympic medals than gymnast Larisa Latynina—though Michael Phelps could own this record after the 2012 Games.
Anyway, among Latynina's 18 medals are 9 golds—also a record for women. (Phelps already has her beat there). She got 3 golds in Team All-Around (1956, 1960, 1964), 3 golds in Floor Exercise (1956, 1960, 1964), 2 golds in Individual All-Around (1956, 1960), and 1 gold in Horse Vault. So in other words, she was by far the most dominant gymnast in the world on the most dominant team in the world for about a decade. The only reason she's not #1 on this list is that, once again, gymnastics provides more opportunities for medals each time around, and that skews her numbers just a little bit.
3. Larisa Latynina (Soviet Union)
Canoer Birgit Fischer-Schmidt is 3rd on the list of most medals by a woman with 12. A whopping 8 of those are gold, and the first and last came and insane 24 years apart. The only time she competed in an Olympic race and didn't win a medal was 1996 in Atlanta. Other than that, she was indomitable. She'd rank #1 if she didn't win her last singles medal at the age of 30 back in 1992. But still, winning 6 medals in doubles and fours canoeing after the age of 30 is pretty amazing.
2. Birgit Fischer-Schmidt (Germany)
Nadia Comăneci "only" competed in 2 Olympics, "only" won 9 medals, and "only" 5 of those were gold. So why is she higher than Larisa Latynina?
The answer is simple: in 1976 she gave arguably the single most dominant individual performances in the history of the Olympics. (Perhaps only Phelps could compete with her for that title.) That year she became the first woman to ever receive a perfect score of 10.0 for a gymnastics routine. Then she did it 6 more times in the same competition. Six!
What more can I say?