Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

Photo of Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

Michael Phelps and Carl Lewis: Meet Rafer Johnson

Michael Phelps won his 20th medal on Thursday night and will likely get two more on Friday and Saturday.  After his 19th medal a couple of nights ago, I got an e-mail from my friend and colleague Denis Cortese about how his total compares to what a great decathlete might get if there were a medal given for each of the 10 events in the competition.

This is a good question because Olympic sports differ in how many “gettable medals” there are for a given athlete.  If you look at the list of multiple medal winners there are a lot of swimmers, gymnasts and cross country skiers.  For a variety of reasons there are more opportunities to rack up big medal totals in these sports.

There are 13 individual events in swimming per Olympics and Phelps has been in four (2000, 2004, 2008, 2012).  At the end of the day he will have at least 12 and likely 13 individual medals and at least 10 and perhaps 11 golds in 52 chances.  So Phelps has won about 20% of the individual golds available in men’s swimming since 2000.  The stats look better if you exclude 2000 when he was 15 and did not medal.  He is also the first swimmer to win gold in the same event three times in a row.

Based on some back of the envelope calculations it is uncommon for an athlete to compete or medal in the decathlon in more than two Olympics.  Since 1904, 72 medals have been awarded and only 10 people have won medals in two Olympics.   No one has medaled in three.  Because the decathlon is about cumulative point totals, it is possible for an over all winner to emerge without ever winning a single event.

In the legendary 1960 competition between Rafer Johnson and CK Yang, Yang won 4 individual events and Johnson only 1 against the rest of the field.  If you score it as match play, it was Yang over Johnson 7-3, but Johnson got the gold on points.  The video clip is summary of their competition and the only thing to add is that both Johnson and Yang went to UCLA and not the University of California as stated in the clip.


 If you are unable to see the video, click this link.


It is exceptional for anyone to win four or more individual events in an Olympic decathlon like Yang did and even two or three is unusual.  So like Phelps a top decathlete would win 20% or maybe a bit more of their individual events.  However, participation in four games would be almost inconceivable.

Another interesting example is Carl Lewis.   He won eight individual medals over four Olympics.  As of now (who knows what Usain Bolt will do in a few days) he is the only man to repeat in the 100m (1984, 1988).   He also won the long jump four times in a row; only a few people have won the same event in any sport four times in a row.   Lewis also missed a chance to pick up more medals due to the 1980 boycott.

A comparison of Phelps and Lewis shows one of the main differences between swimming and track.  Phelps has medaled in events ranging from less than one minute to events lasting longer than four minutes, and there are a whole lot of swimming events that last about two minutes where he has excelled.   In 2008, if the schedule had permitted he probably could have medaled in the 400m freestyle and even the 1500m freestyle.  He was that good!

In track the range is much narrower.  The physiology and biomechanics of this are complicated, but you don’t see the same person winning events with a big time range, for example 400m to 1500m, at the same track meet like you do in swimming.  If you account for range and assume that Lewis really only had a chance to get individual medals in the 100m, 200m, and long jump; he is 8/12 with 7 golds.  So, let’s not forget Carl Lewis.  In my book he was nearly as dominant but for even longer than Phelps.

More importantly, let’s not forget Rafer Johnson.

  • UCLA Student Body President
  • Silver medal 1956 decathlon
  • Gold medal 1960 decathlon
  • Flag bearer 1960
  • Torch lighter 1984
  • Long time leader in the Special Olympics movement
  • One of the men who disarmed Robert Kennedy’s assassin in 1968

Phelps and Lewis are great champions.  Rafer Johnson is a hero for the ages.

Leave a Reply