Whose “Most Gold Medals” Are More Impressive: Michael Phelps vs Ole Einar Bjørndalen

Yesterday, Norwegian Ole Einar Bjørndalen became the most decorated winter Olympian in history, winning his eighth gold medal in the mixed relay, a new Olympic event in the biathlon. He now stands alone atop the list of individual success…in the winter. American Michael Phelps still towers over Olympians at large; why, Phelps won eight gold medals in the Beijing games alone. Who has the most impressive individual Olympic performance: Bjørndalen or Phelps?

Ole Einar Bjørndalen

In the north, one learns to never f%&$ with someone who can both out-ski and out-shoot you.

Michael Fred Phelps II

Whereas further south people are like “Skiing…on the water?”

Individual Medal Count

For both athletes, there is their individual medal count, and then their individual-medal count. Bjørndalen won eight golds, four silvers, and one bronze; his golds tie for the most and his total medals are the most of any winter Olympian. Phelps won 18 golds (freak), two silvers, and two bronze; his 18 golds are the most of any Olympian by far (next closest is nine from Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina), and his 22 total medals are the most by four (also ahead of Latynina).

But then, many of those medals came in relays and team events. Group medals should not be forgotten, but they go beyond the control of one person, even if that one person is Michael Phelps. Remember this?

In purely individual events, Phelps has 11 Olympic golds (second-most is 8 from American Ray Ewry in the early 1900s), one silver, and one bronze; his 13 total rank second-most (yes, behind Latynina). Bjørndalen has five individual golds, tied for 11th-most of all Olympians, and tied for 2nd among winter Olympians. With three silvers and one bronze, his nine individual medals rank tied for 5th among all Olympians, tied for 2nd among winter Olympians (with his countryman Bjørn Dæhlie; it pays to be Bjørn).

Competition

Inspired by Tuesday’s “What If?” XKCD, Fermi estimation will guide this segment. Fifty-one nations have won 1,561 medals in Olympic swimming, beginning with the first summer Olympics in 1900. Twenty-one nations have won 190 medals in Olympic biathlon, beginning with the official introduction of the event in 1960. Curiously, in the most recent Olympics, about 40 men contested both the 100 meter swim and the 20K individual biathlon. Forgetting differences between men and women, changes over time, etc, on average assume a biathlon and a swimming event have 40 competitors at the Olympic level.

How about the competition in getting to the Olympics? Both sports certainly require gear, facilities, and exposure inaccessible to most throughout the world. Likely there are more aspiring swimmers than biathletes in the United States, though perhaps not in Norway.1 Worldwide, perhaps twice as many people try to compete in swimming than biathlon, per country, on average. And say one percent of all competitors make it to the Olympics. (Likely it is much less, but no matter.)

Roughly, that is 51 swimming countries times 11 individual events Phelps won times 40 Olympic competitors per event times 100 for non-Olympic competitors times two for swimming =

51 * 11 * 40 * 100 * 2 = 4 million competitors (with double counting due to crossover between different events) whom Phelps bested in his 11 individual gold medals.

For overall medals (51 * 13 * 40 * 100 * 2), Phelps’ competition pool was maybe 5 million competitors.

For Bjørndalen, his “golden” competitors total some 0.4 million and his total competitors total roughly 0.8 million. Even dropping the “swimming is twice as popular” assumption, Phelps’ competition would seemingly still be double Bjørndalen’s.

Timing

Phelps participated in the Sydney 2000 games, before winning medals in Athens 2004, Beijing 2008, and London 2012, after which he retired from Olympic competition. Bjørndalen participated in the Lillehammer 1994 games, before winning medals in Nagano 1998, Salt Lake City 2002, Turin 2006, Vancouver 2010, and Sochi 2014 (whew!). Bjørndalen won Olympic medals, indeed Olympic golds, for a period eight years longer than Phelps did. Biathletes and swimmers age differently, but Bjørndalen still fended off progressively younger challengers through his 40th birthday.

Is that unusual? Of the 20 Olympians who have eight or more medals in individual events, only 4 (including Bjørndalen) did so over more than eight years. Bjørndalen is the only one of those individuals to win medals (and gold medals) 16 years apart. This cuts both ways; he had more Olympics to win medals in, but he also kept performing at an elite level for sixteen years.

And as they come to the finish, it is…

Michael Phelps, by a nose! Or one one-hundredth of a second, whatever.

Ultimately, Phelps’ dominance–11 individual gold medals–over millions of swimmers around the world for eight whole years is too extreme to ignore. Bjørndalen will always be attached to the modifier: winter Olympian. Being Norwegian, he is probably okay with it.


  1. Norway has one silver and one bronze in 100+ years of Olympic swimming. Norway has 12 golds, 18 silvers, and 9 bronze in 54 years of Olympic biathlon. 
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