20 Olympic greats

Ahead of the Games we pick some of the all-time top performers

Last Updated: 18/07/11 12:07pm

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Carl Lewis: Tops our list of Olympic greats

Carl Lewis: Tops our list of Olympic greats

Who are the fastest, highest and strongest of all time? Who deserves the ultimate accolade as the greatest Olympian? For the sake of debate in the build-up to Beijing, here is a shot at the 20 greatest Olympians, based on their medal hauls, toughness of opposition, profile of their event and impact in the history of sport's greatest festival.


Greatest Olympian of all time by whatever yardstick you apply. Brought speed, grace and technique to athletics for a decade and his eight gold medals, earned against the toughest of opposition, speak for themselves. At his first Olympics in Los Angeles in 1984 he won four golds at 100 metres, 200m, long jump and sprint relay. Won the 100m and long jump in 1988 and in 1992, after suffering a viral infection at the US trials, added another long jump and relay gold. Simply the best.


Opened gates of opportunity for the likes of Lewis and generations of black athletes. Owens' achievements at the 1936 Berlin Games cannot be underestimated. To the fury of Adolf Hitler, Owens lifted four golds in the 100m, 200m, sprint relay and long jump, single-handedly rendering the mighty Third Reich ridiculous. Measure of his phenomenon is that in 1935 he set six world records in one day and his long jump world record lasted for more than 25 years.


Many might argue that Redgrave, who won his fifth successive gold in Sydney 2000 in the coxless fours, is the greatest Olympian of all time and it is a phenomenal achievement of enduring class and stamina. But all his medals have come as part of a team and rowing does not produce the same intensity of opposition as some of the more high-profile events. As a sportsman, however, Redgrave is peerless - he even won the British Bobsled championship in 1989.


Dominated distance running in the 1920s, winning a record nine Olympic golds and adding three silvers for a record total of 12 Games medals. No wonder they nicknamed him 'the Flying Finn'. His range was incredible, lifting the title at 1500m, 5000m, 10,000m, steeplechase and cross-country. Denied even more medals when the International Olympic Committee controversially dubbed him a professional. Carried the flame at the opening ceremony in 1952, receiving the biggest cheer of the Games.


Marathon man or masochist? This Czech army captain was the only man ever to win the 5,000m, 10,000m and marathon - the first time he had run the event - in the same Games in Helsinki in 1952. A phenomenal feat of long-distance running, which saw him destroy Britain's world record holder Jim Peters in the marathon. Ten minutes after his 5,000m triumph wife Dana won the javelin gold. In London four years earlier Zatopek had also won the 10,000m in a world record time, lapping all but two of the field.


No swimmer in history, not even Aussie phenomenon Ian Thorpe, was more deserving of the accolade 'champion of the world' than the flying machine from California. Aged 22 he won seven gold medals in four days at the Munich Olympics, all in world record times. He had vowed to make up for winning only two golds, a silver and a bronze, at Mexico in 1968. As he admitted "I was ruthless, cunning, deceitful, aggressive" - in short, the classic characteristics of a winner.


No-one perfected the art of peaking for athletic competition quite like the Finn. An ordinary performer throughout the year, he came alive at the Olympics, winning the double of 5,000m and 10,000m in 1972 and 1976. Devastating last-lap pace was his hallmark but he will also be remembered for his courage and tenacity, never better demonstrated than when he fell in his first 10,000m Olympic final in Munich, yet jumped up to win in a world record 27 minutes 38.35 seconds.


Only man to win successive gold medals in the 1500m. Would have been even higher in the list but for the fact that his first triumph came in the boycott-hit 1980 Games, where Coe missed out on his best distance of 800m to compatriot Steve Ovett but hit back days later with a masterly performance in the 1500m. Los Angeles 1984 saw Coe lead home fellow Britons Steve Cram with Ovett collapsing in the heat. Stylish, graceful, effortlessly commanding.


The afternoon Beamon almost leapt out of the Mexico City long jump pit will be remembered forever as arguably the single most fantastic feat in Olympic history. The American recorded a distance of 29 feet two-and-a-half inches to take gold at a time when no athlete had jumped further than 28ft. Devastated reigning champion Lynn Davies immediately accepted "That's too good for me." Beamon never again jumped over even 27ft but his record lasted 23 years, until finally surpassed by fellow American Mike Powell.


Shocked the world when he won the 1960 Olympic marathon - only his third race at the distance - as a complete outsider in a world record while running barefoot. Four years later in Tokyo became first man to retain marathon title when he set another world record - this time wearing shoes but just six weeks after having his appendix removed. Dropped out of the 1968 race with injury and a year later suffered paralysis in a car accident. Died four years later at the age of 41.


Won consecutive heavyweight boxing gold medals in 1972, 1976 and 1980 with a combination of fast feet, a lightning jab and a powerful right hand. Only two men ever took 6ft 3ins Stevenson the Olympic distance, the rest being dispatched in the manner of a certain Cassius Clay who burst on to the Olympic scene to win light-heavyweight gold in 1960. Promoters queued up to match Stevenson and Muhammad Ali but the Cuban steadfastly refused to turn professional despite offers of two million US dollars.


With his effortless upright style Johnson defied the coaching manuals while winning races at a canter. Peerless over 200m before the 1992 Olympics, he picked up a virus and failed to reach the final. In Atlanta 1996, however, he showed the world his true form, cruising to gold in the 200m and 400m in the golden spikes for which he was famed. World records followed at both distances during an era in which he was unbeatable. Retained 400m gold in Sydney.


Heroine of the 1948 Olympics in London and voted female athlete of the last century. Her bubbling personality was a rare shaft of brightness in a Games struggling to break free from post-war austerity. The Dutch housewife was rewarded with four gold medals, although it was by no means one of the most competitive eras. Her medals at 100m, 200m, 80m hurdles and sprint relay, however, were a tribute to her exceptional versatility - an all-round talent which saw her set 16 world records at eight different events.


Supreme 400m hurdler. Dominated his event for a decade, setting up the greatest-ever winning streak by a track athlete, 122 successive 400m hurdles races between defeats by Harald Schmid in Berlin on August 26, 1977, and Danny Harris in Madrid on June 4 1987. Won Olympic gold in '76 and '84, missing Moscow '80 because of the USA's boycott. In the 1988 Olympic final he was third - his first ever loss in a championship race. Tough and determined, the master in arguably athletics' most gruelling event.


A shadow of suspicion still hangs over the phenomenal performances of 'Flo-Jo' at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. But she never failed a drugs test and, since she died of a heart attack at 39, the world of athletics will never know for certain the truth of the incredible improvement which brought her four Olympic medals, three golds and a silver. But what style, what breathtaking beauty if she was 'clean'. Her 100m world record of 10.49 in the US trials still stands.


Greatest woman swimmer of all time after winning 100m gold medals at three successive Olympics from 1956 to 1964 - a unique achievement in a sport with a rapid turnover of precocious stars. Also landed gold in the 4x100m freestyle. Won eight medals in all before her career was ended by a draconian 10-year suspension - later commuted to four years - for leading a midnight raid to steal a souvenir flag from the Emperor's Palace in Tokyo. She was arrested, released and later presented with a flag by the emperor.


Whistled through the national anthem, and in 1984 the larger-than-life Thompson was also the first athlete since Bob Mathias in 1952 to successfully defend the decathlon title. One of the true greats.


Friendly policeman, people's favourite and pioneer of the great Kenyan running tradition. His long stride ate up the track effortlessly and in 1968 in Mexico he won gold in the 1500m and silver in the 5000m. Four years later he demonstrated his phenomenal versatility by triumphing in the 3000m steeplechase and landing silver in the 1500m. Rewrote record books for distance running in the late 1960s before retiring to run an orphanage in Eldoret with his wife.


Claimed fourth successive gold medal in Athens and such success and longevity cannot be ignored, especially in a sport with such huge physical demands as rowing. He was the brains and the inspiration behind much of Redgrave's achievement. Easy-going, courteous, intelligent and with power to burn - the lad from Eton has become one of Britain's most enduring sporting ambassadors.


First Russian to smile in competition and as such the six-stone gymnastic waif won the hearts of the world in 1972 when she won two individual golds, team gold, silver and bronze. Exuberant and theatrical floor show to beat the favourite Ludmilla Tourischeva typified her carefree talent. Even her tears after stumbling on the asymmetric bars, which dropped her to seventh place in the combined individual event, served to cement her place as the girl who changed the shape of female gymnasts forever.

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