The 20 greatest American Olympians: How many are competing in London?

The U.S. will have a handful of all-time Olympians competing in London, but how do they stack up? (Getty Images)

For as long as this country’s had television, we’ve had a reason to root and to believe each Olympic Games will bring us new stars and hordes more gold medals. Go back to any decade in the past 60 years, and you’d be right to assume that, in that era, it was believed to be a golden age for American Olympic athletes. After all, the United States has won more golds and more medals overall than any other country.

But what about 2012, with this crop of 529 American Olympians? How many going to London would make a list of the best ever? It does seem this nation's athletes are becoming better than ever because of training methods and an overall fast-forward of athletics' evolution. But faster and strongest doesn't always equal more accomplished. Still, when you hear seven Americans are competing in a record fifth Olympics, how can you not think this is the best it’s ever been?

Let’s look at our greatest and see who's giving us the pleasure of displaying their talent in the here and now. Before we begin, I've got to note that, since no medals have yet been won at the XXX Olympiad, I can only judge and list based on past accomplishments. I think I'd have to put Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor on the list if they won a third straight gold in beach volleyball, but barring that, I think they just miss out. As I wrote last month, "The duo is considered the greatest pairing of volleyball players ever, and that legacy will be cemented in the sand if they can stand on the tallest podium block in August."

There are others I’ve left off this list, though I suspect I won't get any hate mail for overlooking Shirley Babashoff’s standout performances from the 1970s. Omitting Amy Van Dyken was a tough call, though, but so many swimmers on this list already. I decided not to include two-time gold medal winner Jim Thorpe because the man was a freak of nature and played so many sports. I didn't consider him a natural Olympian in the same vein I don't consider Michael Jordan one.

On to the top 20:

20. Dick Button (two medals; two golds). The guy made figure skating what it is. He took gold in '48 and '52 and basically revolutionized how people skate and jump and twist and turn on the ice. Can't not have him on the list. Also: this photo.

The sweater says it all: Dick Button was a boss. (AP)

19. Mary Lou Retton (five medals; one gold). A barrier-breaker. She became the first person to win all-around in female gymnastics that wasn't from Europe. Also became a huge symbol of American pride after the '84 Games in Los Angeles. Few athletes had ever been as widely marketed as Retton. She was and still is America's sweetheart when it comes to gymnastics.

18. Eric Heiden (five medals; five golds). Total respect for Heiden, who took five medals home from the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid. At the time, it was unprecedented. He won in the 500-, 1000-, 1,500-, 5,000- and 10,000-meter races. Just ridiculous. In every possible aspect, he's considered the greatest speed skater ever. To this day, no one else has taken five medals in one sport at a Winter Olympics, let alone five golds.

17. Greg Louganis (five medals; four golds). If not for the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Games, Louganis' legacy could be even bigger -- and put him higher on this list -- as he could be a nine-time Olympic medal winner. Instead, '84 and '88 saw him take top honors in the three-meter and platform performances. He's the most famous diver in American history.

16. Al Oerter (four medals; four golds). He and Carl Lewis are the only Olympians ever to win four gold medals in one event. How awesome is that? Oerter was a discus thrower, the greatest in history, taking home top honors from ’56-’68.

15. Ryan Lochte, 2012 Olympian (six medals; three golds). Obviously Lochte immediately jumps into the top five all-time if he has a monster showing in London. By monster showing I mean: wins a gold in every event he races and makes Michael Phelps his undeniable inferior at these Games. Still, going eight-for-eight in the pool the way Phelps did in Beijing isn’t happening again. Lochte's been so dominant the past three years around the world in championships and Pan-Am competitions. It's only a matter of time before he gets to sport his mouth metal once more.

14. Jackie Joyner-Kersee (six medals; three golds). Joyner-Kersee was a true track-and-field athlete, as she specialized in the seven-event heptathlon. She is still the world record-holder in the heptathlon and is a former world record-holder in the women's long jump. Some consider Joyner-Kersee the greatest female athlete of the 20th century, but I think she falls just shy of that because of one person ...  

13. Florence-Griffith Joyner (five medals; three golds). Flo-Jo, who died of epilepsy in her sleep in 1998, was a mesmerizing athlete. She still holds the world record for the women's 100- and 200-meter dashes (10.49 and 21.34). Questions of doping dogged her because of her blazing times in the Seoul Olympics, but she was never reported to have failed a drug test.

12. Dara Torres (12 medals; four golds). Simply put: a bad-ass. Torres just missed out on qualifying for this year's Games. If she'd made it, she would've been the oldest female swimmer in Olympic history -- at 45. It only would've reinforced the record she set in Beijing, when she was 41 and still winning medals. She is a former record-holder in the 50-meter freestyle, but the best stat? She beat her own personal best -- which she set when she was 15 -- when she was 40 years old. Ridiculous. From 1984 to 2008, Torres competed in all but two Olympics. What a legacy.

11. Apolo Ohno (eight medals; two golds). The only guy in the history of the Olympics to make Americans care about short track speed skating. Ohno got his golds at Salt Lake in '02 and Turin '06, but he never won more medals at a single Games than Vancouver in 2010. No American has won more Olympic medals in the winter than Ohno. This list only pertains to Olympians' performance at the Games; if we included world championships, Ohno's got one of the most impressive resumes of any athlete on here. Eight golds, seven silvers, six bronzes.

10. Natalie Coughlin, 2012 Olympian (11 medals; three golds). If Coughlin touches in time in London just once more (the 4 x 100 freestyle), she'll tie Torres and Jenny Thompson for the most medals in American women's history for the Olympics. While Michael Phelps was ripping eight golds in '08, Coughlin made waves for the women, as she took six medals, becoming the first American female Olympian to win so many in one Games. Coughlin is also the first woman to swim the backstroke in under a minute. She's a former record-holder in the 100 and 200 backstroke, the 100 fly and the 100 individual medley.

9. Bonnie Blair (six medals; five golds). The highest-ranked winter Olympian on the list is Blair, who competed in the 500- and 1,000-meter speed skating competitions. Blair was the first first American woman to win five gold medals, and until Ohno surpassed her benchmark, Blair was the only American to take home six winter Olympic coins.

8. Ray Ewry (eight medals; eight golds). Because he competed a century ago, Ewry’s name is lost to the ages, mostly. Before I researched this post, I didn’t know who he was. But he’s one of only four Americans to win at least three gold medals in one event. Even better: He’s the only one with three gold medals apiece in two events. From 1900-1908, Ewry took gold in the standing high jump and the standing long jump. The standing high jump. Let's bring that one back, huh?

7. Jenny Thompson (12 medals; eight golds). The most accomplished, greatest American swimmer in Olympics history. Thompson swam in '92, '96, 2000 and '04, and she was a huge factor in the relays in each go-round. What's more impressive: Thompson's a doctor, and the lead-up to her final Games saw her splitting time between setting new personal records and learning anesthesiology. Former record-holder in the 100 fly and the 100 individual medley.

6. Matt Biondi (11 medals; eight golds). Beast of a swimmer, one many considered second-best to Spitz in American history before Phelps and Lochte revolutionized the sport. Biondi won five gold medals in Seoul in ’88 and seven overall. He set records in four of his Seoul swims. 

Michael Johnson earlier this month with the Olympic Torch in England. (AP)

5. Michael Johnson (four medals; four golds). Something tells me I may have him a little high in regard to other best-American-Olympians-ever lists. I’m going partly off memory and experience here, though. I wasn’t around to see Jesse Owens run. But I remember how awesome it was to watch Michael Johnson run, and run up to expectations. He still holds the record for the 400 meters and the 4 x 400 relay. He's the only Olympian to win the 200 and the 400 at the same Games, and he also holds the record in the seldom-run 300 meters. Quirky stat. Love it. Bring back the 300! The gold shoes were also one of the best accessories ever.

4. Jesse Owens (four medals; four golds). We've long been at the point where Owens' legacy is more important than the medals he won in 1936 Berlin. He finished first in the 100, 200, 4 x 100 relay and the long jump. It was Owens who helped shine some of the most negative light on Adolf Hitler, and Owens who became the first black American athlete to earn an endorsement when he agreed to wear Adidas sneakers at the '36 Games. The most surprising this about Owens you may not know: he was a chimney. The man smoked a pack of cigarettes a day; it was the lung cancer that killed him in 1980.

3. Mark Spitz (11 medals; nine golds). Spitz and that mustache, man. These days, no swimmer has the guts to rock a lip caterpillar for fear it will cost them .002 seconds in their relay time. What makes Spitz's legacy remain so strong 40 years later is not just the seven-for-seven sweep at the '72 Munich Games, but the fact each time he got into the pool, he set a world record at those Olympics. Not even Michael Phelps has done that.

2. Carl Lewis (10 medals; nine golds). The biggest American Olympic superstar of the 1980s, and the type of athlete that some considered to be the greatest ever. (This was debunked once and for all back when we learned Lewis had no idea how to throw a baseball.) He's the only athlete to win at least two 100-meter dashes and long jump competitions. Quite simply, he's considered the best American track athlete of all-time both because of his dominance but also his longevity. 

Lewis won his final gold in 1996, meaning his career spanned four Games, and I always thought that gold in the long jump in Atlanta was akin to Nicklaus winning The Masters in '86. Pretty terrific to see him launch farther than anyone else despite the fact he was 35, making him one of the oldest medal-winners in any aggressive track or field event.

1. Michael Phelps, 2012 Olympian (16 medals; 14 golds). Topping the list is no surprise, but here’s my favorite Phelps stat. Everyone who follows the Games knows his eight gold medals in '08 was an Olympic record. No. 2 on that list is Spitz. No. 3? Phelps. He took six home in Athens. I think a lot of people connect Phelps with Beijing, but the guy turned into a huge deal back in 2004. And what speaks so big of his career: what he does in London will only enhance his legacy, most likely. There's virtually no way he can do anything to downgrade his ranking on this list. Knock his recent work ethic, but at least he was honest, and when it comes to Americans and their sports, it's all about scoreboard. No one in our nation's history touches Phelps' medal inventory. 

CBS Sports Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning senior writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. He's in his eighth season covering college basketball for CBS, and also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics,... Full Bio

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