TOKYO, Japan — At the 2016 Rio Games, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt and American cyclist Kristin Armstrong were among the athletes who etched their names into Olympic history by winning the same individual event three times in a row.
Although several repeat champions from Rio have since retired or are unable to defend their titles for various reasons, there are still a number of athletes who could achieve the elusive three-peat this year in Tokyo, with Katie Ledecky (women's 800m free) the lone contender for the United States after Christian Taylor (men's triple jump) was sidelined with a torn Achilles.
One athlete, Cuban wrestler Mijain Lopez, will have the chance to take it a step further. Lopez was another Olympic star who successfully completed the three-peat in Rio, which means that he’s now going for a fourth straight gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling's super heavyweight division. Only four athletes have ever won four consecutive gold medals in the same individual event, with American swimmer Michael Phelps being the most recent Olympian to accomplish the feat.
Below is a rundown of athletes on the verge of a third (or fourth) straight title.
And for more active Olympic streaks, be sure to check out the list of national gold medal streaks on the line.
Katie Ledecky, United States
Swimming: Women’s 800m Freestyle
Ledecky has never lost an individual event at the Olympics, winning the 800m freestyle in 2012 and then going three-for-three in 2016. While her attempts to win back-to-back titles in the 200m and 400m free will face tough competition from Australia’s Ariarne Titmus, Ledecky’s path to a third straight gold medal in her signature event, the 800m free, is much clearer. She owns the top 24 fastest times ever in that event.
Andy Murray, Great Britain
Tennis: Men’s Singles
Rafael Nadal is the only member of the “Big Three” in men’s tennis with an Olympic singles title, but he withdrew from the tournament in June. Roger Federer is also out (due to a knee injury), while Novak Djokovic said after Wimbledon that he’s “50-50” to take part. While Djokovic's participation would immediately make him the favorite, it’s 34-year-old Andy Murray who will arrive in Tokyo as the back-to-back champion in men’s singles. Murray is a three-time Grand Slam winner, but his last major title came at Wimbledon in 2016.
Lisa Carrington, New Zealand
Canoe/Kayak: Women's K-1 200m
Carrington, 32, has become one of the most dominant Olympic sports athletes in the world. She’s undefeated in the kayak single 200m, kayaking’s shortest sprint race, since 2012. In addition to her back-to-back Olympic gold medals, she’s also won seven world titles in that event.
Danuta Kozak, Hungary
Canoe/Kayak: Women's K-1 500m
Just as Carrington has won back-to-back Olympic titles in the 200m kayak sprint, Kozak has won back-to-back titles in the 500m race. But Kozak’s three-peat bid will be challenged by Carrington, who has steadily improved her performance in the 500m in recent years and even beat Kozak at the last world championships.
Jason Kenny, Great Britain
Cycling (Track): Men's Sprint
Laura Kenny, Great Britain
Cycling (Track): Women's Omnium
With 10 gold medals between them, Jason Kenny and Laura Kenny (née Trott) have become Great Britain’s Olympic power couple. Jason (six golds, one silver) is two medals away from becoming the country’s most decorated Olympian and one gold medal away from becoming the country’s all-time leader. Laura (four golds) is two medals away from becoming the country’s most decorated female Olympian. She already has more gold medals than any other woman from Great Britain, and because she’s entered in three events in Tokyo, it’s possible she could surpass her husband and become the country’s all-time gold-medal leader herself. Both track cyclists will arrive at the Olympics with back-to-back titles on the line in individual events – Jason in men’s sprint and Laura in women’s omnium.
Teddy Riner, France
Judo: Men’s Heavyweight
With 10 world titles and two Olympic gold medals, Riner is a judo legend. Although his 10-year winning streak came to an end in 2020, the 32-year-old remains one of the world’s best. A third straight gold medal would tie an Olympic judo record, but Japan’s Harasawa Hisayoshi could prove to be a formidable opponent if they meet in the tournament.
Sandra Perkovic, Croatia
Track & Field: Women's Discus Throw
At the last Olympics, Perkovic committed fouls on five of her six throws during the discus final but still won the competition by over eight feet with her one valid throw. It made her the second woman to ever win back-to-back discus golds, and now the 31-year-old could become the first to win three straight. Perkovic was selected as one of Croatia’s two flagbearers for the Tokyo 2020 Opening Ceremony.
Anita Wlodarczyk, Poland
Track & Field: Women's Hammer Throw
Wlodarczyk is considered the greatest women’s hammer thrower of all time. She dominated the event for much of the last decade, winning five consecutive global titles — two Olympics, three world championships — between 2012 and 2017 before a knee injury set her back. (The first two titles were awarded retroactively after the Russian winner was later stripped of them for doping.) At one point, Wlodarczyk owned the top 15 throws all-time, but then American star DeAnna Price put her name on the charts by tossing the seventh-best throw ever (80.31m) in June. Price, who won the 2019 world title while Wlodarczyk was sidelined, has the world’s best throw since July 2017.
Mariana Pajon, Colombia
Cycling: Women's BMX Racing
Dubbed the “Queen of BMX,” Pajon has accounted for two of the five gold medals ever won by Colombia at the Olympic Games. A win would make her the first athlete (male or female) to win a BMX racing title at three consecutive Olympics.
Jade Jones, Great Britain
Taekwondo: Women's Olympic Featherweight
Jones and China’s Wu Jingyu are bidding to become taekwondo’s first three-time Olympic champions, but only Jones can become the first to win three consecutive gold medals. The 28-year-old is ranked No. 1 in the world in her weight class.
Rosie MacLennan, Canada
Trampoline: Women's Event
Appearing at her fourth Olympic Games, MacLennan has the potential to make history in several different ways. She’s already the only trampolinist to win two gold medals, but a win would make her the first Canadian to win three gold medals in any individual event. Just finishing on the podium would make her the oldest woman to win an Olympic trampoline medal at age 32 and would tie the record for most trampoline medals by a woman.
Aron Szilagyi, Hungary
Fencing: Men's Individual Sabre
Szilagyi, 31, could become the first man to ever win the same individual fencing event three times, but South Korea’s Oh Sang-Uk has emerged as the gold-medal favorite in men’s sabre for the Tokyo Games.
Sebastian Brendel, Germany
Canoe/Kayak: Men's C-1 1000m
Brendel is a 20-time medalist at the world championships but finished fourth in his signature event, the canoe single 1000m, at 2019 Worlds. In Rio, he became the first athlete since 1952 to win this event at back-to-back Olympics.
Michael Jung, Germany
Equestrian: Individual Eventing
Charlotte Dujardin, Great Britain
Equestrian: Individual Dressage
Jung, 38, and Dujardin, 36, are still relatively young as far as equestrians go, so if they win in Tokyo, they might be right back on this list for Paris 2024. Both riders are working with new horses after the retirements of 2012 and 2016 champions Sam (for Jung) and Valegro (for Dujardin).
Mijain Lopez, Cuba
Wrestling: Greco-Roman Super Heavyweight
At age 38, the Tokyo Games will be the fifth and final Olympic appearance for Lopez. As mentioned, he’s the only Olympian coming to Tokyo with an active streak of three Olympic titles in an individual event already. Capping his career off with another win would move Lopez ahead of Russian legend Aleksandr Karelin and Sweden's Carl Westergren and make him the first Greco-Roman wrestler to win four gold medals. Out of all wrestlers, only Japan’s Kaori Icho has ever reached that total. (For those wondering: Because she dropped down to a lower weight classes for the 2016 Games, Icho’s four straight individual gold medals are not considered to have all come in the same event.)
The list of Olympians who have won individual gold in the same event at four straight Olympics is a short one: Paul Elvstrom (Finn sailing, 1948-1960); Al Oerter (discus, 1956-1968); Carl Lewis (long jump, 1984-1996); and Michael Phelps (200m IM, 2004-2016). For Lopez to add his name to that iconic list, he may need to overcome longtime rival Riza Kayaalp of Turkey, the current world No. 1. Lopez ended Kayaalp’s run through the bracket at each of the last two Olympics, but 31-year-old Kayaalp is the reigning world champion and a two-time Olympic medalist.
NBC Olympics Research contributed to this report.