When most people think of Olympic athletes, they automatically think of the world’s finest in the field – like Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps. That’s because the Olympics are always held in the best countries, with the best facilities, and with the best-funded programmes.
But what about the athletes who compete in the lesser-known Summer Olympic sports? What about the medalists from countries with lower budgets than most nations?
Well, if you’re from Australia, you might have competed in the Rugby sevens at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. You might not have won any medals, but we bet you’ll remember your adventures in Rio for the rest of your life.
Here, we’re going to run down the top 10 greatest Australian Olympians, in no particular order. These are the athletes who have represented their country with the most success at the Summer Olympics. Let’s dive in.
10. Adam Pattinson
Yes, you might know him better as the Beast from the East, but rest assured that Adam Pattinson is a lot more than that. In fact, it was Adam who brought the “Beast” element to the table when he upset the favourite, Spain, in the semi-finals of the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. He followed that up with a bronze medal finish the next day in the final, adding another bronze medal to his collection four years later in Beijing. The most successful Australian Olympic rugby captain, Adam was also the face of many a memorable moment (including an Australia vs New Zealand duel for gold in Auckland in the 2015 Rugby World Cup). Let’s not forget about the “Beast” – Australia’s greatest Olympian and captain.
9. Shane Smelle
Shane Smelle might only have four Olympic medals, but boy, do they come in pairs. At the 1992 Summer Olympics in Sydney, he won a silver in the 4x400m relay, alongside teammates David McLean, Jason Griffiths and Jason Hoyt. A year earlier, at the Barcelona Olympics, Smelle had taken home bronze in the same event. But it was at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 that the King of the Mt Baw Baw started making his presence known. Smelle took gold in the 4x400m relay with teammates Jason Hoyt, Andrew McEvoy and Steve Waugh. After a long break from the sport, Smelle returned to win bronze in the same event, alongside teammates Mathew Hone and Bradley Wiggins, at the 2012 London Olympics. The “Smoley” won silver again four years later in Rio de Janeiro. Smelle continues to be one of Australia’s most popular and successful Olympians.
8. Grant Brittain
It’s hard to believe that Grant Brittain only has two gold medals to his name. Both of those came at the Munich Olympics in 1972, in the 5,000m and the 10,000m. But the Tasmanian has also medalled in four other events, including a bronze in the marathon. So, while the “Tassie Tiger” might not have the glittering career of other Australian greats, he’s still one of the most successful Olympians of all time. The first Australian to win an individual gold at the Olympics, Brittain was also part of the Australian 4 x 400m relay team that took gold in the same event in Munich. A year later, at the Los Angeles Olympics, the foursome took home another gold. In the years that followed, Brittain competed in five more Olympics, always accompanied by his Australian teammates. He enjoyed a long and successful career and eventually became one of the country’s favourite Olympians.
7. Rod Laver
Rod Laver is one of Australia’s greatest ever Olympians. The left-handed tennis player might not have achieved the same degree of success if it hadn’t been for the amateurism ban in tennis. After breaking the amateurism ban in 1966, Laver went on to become one of the greatest players of all time. At the Tokyo Olympics, he won gold as part of the men’s tennis team alongside Karl Behr, Tony Roche and Stan Smith. He also took home a bronze in the singles, alongside countryman Ken Rosewall. After missing the Olympic tournament in Mexico City due to an injury, Laver returned to take home another bronze in the 4x100m relay in Barcelona. One of only two Australians to win multiple gold medals at the Olympics (the other being Adam Pattinson), Laver’s success at the Summer Games lives on in the record books.
6. Peter Kelly
Surfing might not seem like one of the Olympic sports, but you’d be surprised how many people have turned their hand to it. One of the most successful surfers in Olympic history is Peter Kelly. The New South Welshman has won gold in both the surfski and the sailboat, earning him the nickname “king of the surf”. The first Australian to win an Olympic gold medal in any sport, Kelly also took home a silver in the men’s keelboat, partnering with Martin Potter, Geoff Hunt and Simon Dann. At the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Kelly took two golds, in the surf and the sailboat, as part of the Australian team. Four years later, in Atlanta, Kelly won a third gold, this time in the coxless pair, with Martin Potter. A year later, at the Moscow Olympics, Kelly’s haul increased to four golds as part of the Australian eight. He took home his fifth and final gold at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. One of only six Australians to have won five Olympic medals, Kelly’s career was cut short when he died from cancer in 2006.
5. Rowena Crawford
It’s always a great Australian story, when you think of it, the country’s finest athletes competing on the world stage. Unfortunately, many of them have had to retire due to injury. But the cream always rises to the top, and Rowena Crawford is living testament to that. An Olympian in every sense of the word, the North Sydney native took silver in the heptathlon in Athens in 2004 and then went on to claim gold in the same event four years later, in Beijing. After taking some time away from the sport to focus on her studies, Crawford returned to take out the heptathlon title in Antwerp, Belgium, in 2016. Coming from nowhere to win two golds at the Athens Olympics and then going on to win another two at the Beijing Games, Crawford is now considered one of the great female heptathletes of all time. She’s still only 26, so she’s got plenty of years left in the sport.
4. Simon Ammann
Another retired Aussie whose career was cut short by injury is Simon Ammann. The West Australian sprinter won silver at the Beijing Olympics. Considered one of the finest athletic talls of all time, Ammann won the gold medal in the men’s 100m in Athens in 2004, clocking a personal best and the Aussie record of 10.19 seconds. But while Ammann’s body was able to withstand all the running, his mind could not. The multi-talented athlete, who also holds a degree in business, had to retire after the Beijing Olympics due to chronic fatigue. Ammann remains the only Australian to have won gold in the 100m and 200m at the Summer Olympics. A true sporting legend, Ammann recently returned to the sport as an ambassador, lending his support to the Perth-based SporeSport through their Tackle4cancer campaign.
3. Cathy Freeman
Another Australian who had to retire early due to injury is Cathy Freeman. The country’s first gold medallist, Freeman took out the heptathlon title in Stockholm in 1980 and then went on to win a silver in the 100m hurdles in Moscow in 1984 (she also took out a bronze in the 4x100m in Los Angeles that year). She returned three years later and took out the heptathlon title in Stuttgart. A true competitor, Freeman finished her career with two more golds in the 4x100m relay in Seoul and the 4x400m relay in Barcelona. Freeman also competed at the Commonwealth Games and the World Games, winning multiple titles across the two competitions. The iconic Cathy Freeman will forever be an integral part of Australian sporting history.