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The most decorated Olympic athlete of them all, Phelps announced his retirement from competitive swimming at London 2012, after helping the USA secure victory in the 4x100m medley relay to land the 18th gold of his illustrious career and his 22nd medal in total. Unable to resist the lure of the pool, however, the great Phelps returned to training in April 2014. Showing he had lost none of his class, he posted a string of world-class times and qualified with panache for Rio 2016, where, at the age of 31, he did exactly as he had done at Athens 2004, Beijing 2008 and London 2012, and won more medals than anyone.
The American swimmer claimed individual golds in the 200m butterfly and 200m medley, an event he has now won four times in a row – a run of success matched only by compatriots Carl Lewis in the long jump and Al Oerter in the discus, and Japan’s Kaori Icho, who collected her fourth straight freestyle wrestling gold in Rio. Not content with that, Phelps also landed 4x100m freestyle, 4x200m freestyle and 4x100m medley relay golds in Brazil, as well as silver in the 100m butterfly. Announcing that he was bowing out once and for all, now with a record 23 Olympic golds to his name and 28 medals in all, the incomparable Phelps said: “I’ve been able to do everything I ever put my mind to in the sport. Just being able to finish this way is special because now I’m able to start the next chapter in my life.”
Almost as prolific as Phelps in Rio were compatriots Katie Ledecky and Simone Biles, who both won five medals, four of them gold. Ledecky starred in the pool, landing a 200m, 400m and 800m freestyle treble and posting respective world records of 3:56.46 and 8.04.79 in the second and third of those events. As for the 19-year-old Biles, her performances on the apparatus were among the highlights of the ten-day artistic gymnastics competition at the Rio Olympic Arena, and earned her gold in the individual all-around, team all-around, vault and floor competitions and a bronze in the beam. The only athletes to achieve such a feat prior to Biles were the Soviet Union’s Larissa Latynina and Hungary’s Agnes Keleti at Melbourne 1956, Czechoslovakia’s Vera Caslavska at Mexico City 1968 and Romania’s Ecaterina Szabo at Los Angeles 1984.
Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu picked up three golds of her own, in the 200m medley, 100m backstroke and 400m medley, and collected silver in the 200m backstroke. Almost as prolific in the pool was the USA’s Ryan Murphy, who scored a golden hat-trick himself, winning the 100m backstroke, 200m backstroke and the 4x100m medley relay, where he posted a world-record time of 51.85 in swimming the lead-off backstroke leg.
There can be no dispute that Usain Bolt is the king of Olympic track and field, with the Jamaican legend recording another sprint sweep at Rio 2016 to go with the two he completed at Beijing 2008 and London 2012. Having turned 30 on the day of the Closing Ceremony in Rio, Bolt may no longer possess the kind of late acceleration that thrilled the world in the Chinese capital, but he remains very much the best and is still unbeaten in his three events. The question is, will anyone match his feat of winning the Olympic 100m and 200m titles at three consecutive Games? “There you go, I’m the greatest,” said the man himself after Jamaica’s victory in the 4x100m relay. “I am just relieved. It’s happened. I am just happy, proud of myself. It's come true. The pressure is real. I look at it as an accomplishment.”
Just as it was at London 2012, “God Save the Queen” was the most commonly heard anthem down at the Rio Olympic Velodrome, where Great Britain’s track cyclists stole the limelight once more. Jason Kenny led the way with three golds, in the sprint, team sprint and keirin, taking his tally of Olympic titles to six. His partner Laura Trott is not far behind him. Victorious in the omnium and team pursuit, she is now the owner of four Olympic golds. Meanwhile, five-time Olympian Bradley Wiggins appeared on the podium for a fifth Games in succession, stepping up to collect team pursuit gold. Across track and road events, he has now won eight medals, five of them gold. Over at the Lagoa Stadium, it was Hungarian paddler Danuta Kozak who took the plaudits, sweeping the kayak double 500m, kayak single 500m and kayak four 500m events, a treble that took her collection of Olympic golds to five.
Rio 2016 saw a number of single and double gold medallists nail down their places in Olympic history, chief among them Great Britain’s Alistair Brownlee, who retained his triathlon title in taking the line first from his brother Jonathan. Meanwhile, Japan’s Icho maintained her remarkable unbeaten record at the Games, winning the 58kg freestyle wrestling title to make it four golds in a row after her 63kg wins at London 2012, Beijing 2008 and Athens 2004, when her sport made its debut on the Olympic programme.
In scooping gold in the 4x100m and 4x400m relays in Rio and silver in the 400m, American runner Allyson Felix won her seventh, eighth and ninth Olympic medals to become the most decorated female athlete of all time. Russian synchronised swimmers Svetlana Romashina and Natalia Ishchenko pocketed gold in the duet and team events at Rio 2016, just as they did at London 2012. Victorious in the team competition at Beijing 2008 also, they now boast five golds apiece.
France’s Teddy Riner successfully defended his 100kg judo title, making it two Olympic golds to go with his collection of eight world titles, a record unrivalled in his sport, while British tennis star Andy Murray became the first player in 120 years of Olympic tennis to retain the men’s singles title. Also on a roll in Rio, was American basketball player Carmelo Anthony, who pocketed his third Olympic gold medal, a record his compatriots Tamika Catchings, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi can trump after winning a fourth straight women’s basketball gold since Athens 2004.
German rider Isabell Werth has now won ten medals, six of them gold, since Barcelona 1992, the latest additions to her haul being dressage team gold and individual silver in Rio, which have made her the most decorated of all Olympic riders. Shooter Kimberly Rhode made it six medals in six Games with bronze in the skeet, a record that only Italian luger Armin Zöggeler can match, having won the same number of medals in as many Winter Games appearances.