Defending an Olympic title is a major accomplishment, because it signifies international dominance over a 4-year period. Individually, however, it is not that uncommon, and we have examples of 5 Olympians winning individual gold medals at 4 consecutive Olympics – track & field athletes Ray Ewry (1900-08), Al Oerter (1956-68), and Carl Lewis (1984-96); and sailors Paul Elvstrøm (1948-60) and Ben Ainslie (2000-12).
But what about teams that defend an Olympic gold medal? And we are not talking here simply about nations repeating, such as India winning every hockey gold medal from 1928-56, or the USA winning basketball gold from 1936-68, or Canada and the Soviets dominating ice hockey for decades.
What we’re interested in is knowing which teams defended their Olympic titles, with the exact same team members. By team we mean anytime 2 or more athletes compete together in the same event for a single Olympic championship, so this includes tennis doubles, two-man bobsledding, and numerous other 2-person events.
And we find that repeating as a team has been done 43 times, with 2 teams actually winning gold medals at 3 consecutive Olympics. That would be the Slovakian brother tandem of Pavol and Petr Hochschorner, who won in the Canadian doubles slalom canoeing from 2000-08, earning a bronze medal in the event in 2012; and the US beach volleyball team of Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor, who won the women’s event in 2004-12.
There are two candidates with a chance to equal this mark. Americans Serena and Venus Williams won the tennis women’s doubles gold medal in 2008 and 2012 and could win a third in 2016. Canadians Kallie Humphries and Heather Moyse won the women’s bobsledding two-person event in 2010 and 2014, and could add a third in 2018. Theoretically, Walsh and May-Treanor could go for 4 straight in 2016, but May retired from competition after the London Olympics, so that will not happen.
But there was one other team that virtually did this at 3 consecutive Olympics, and they did it with 3 team members. In equestrian team dressage, the Swedish team of Henri Saint Cyr, Gustaf Boltenstern, Jr., and Gehnäll Persson won the gold medal in 1952 and 1956. They also had the highest score in the event in 1948, dominating it, but the team was disqualified that year when it was discovered that Persson was not a military officer, which was then required for Olympic equestrian events, a rule that was changed after 1948.
The entire list is below. At the end of the top line of each entry you will see something like #2, which details how many team members there were. Now obviously, its easier to do this sort of repeat with fewer team members. It is simply never going to happen that a football (soccer) or ice hockey team is going to repeat with the same 23 or so team members.
In fact, it is much rarer to do this with more than 2 team members. It has happened as follows: 6 team members – 1; 5 team members – 1; 4 team members – 3; and 3 team members – 7. The 6-member team repeat was remarkably done by the Hungarian men’s sabre team in 1948-52, while the 5-member team was performed by the Soviet women’s foil team in 1968-72. Doing this with 4-member teams is also quite a feat, having been done by the East German coxless fours rowing team in 1968-72, a team termed by Olympic filmmaker Bud Greenspan as “The Dresden Four;” the Hungarian men’s kayak fours canoe team in 2000-04; and Sweden’s women’s curling team in 2006-10.
Of the 43 times this has been accomplished, 10 have occurred at the Winter Olympics, which is about right, as there are about 3 times as many Summer Olympic events as Winter Olympic events. This has been done 19 times in men’s events, 15 times in women’s events, and 9 times in mixed events.
The first time this was ever accomplished was by the American rowing doubles sculls tandem of Jack Kelly and Paul Costello in 1920-24. It first occurred at the Winter Games in 1928-32 when the French figure skating pair of Andrée Brunet-Joly and her husband, Pierre Brunet, won gold medals at both St. Moritz and Lake Placid.
By far the two most common sports for this to occur have been rowing (10) and canoeing (8), usually in events with only 2 team members. Figure skating is next with 4 occurrences, followed by bobsledding and sailing, with 3 each.
Among nations, China leads with 5 team repeats, but Germany has 7 in a sense – with 1 by the Federal Republic of Germany (West), 4 by the German Democratic Republic (East), and 2 by unified Germany. As independent nations, the United States and the GDR trail China with 4 team repeats, followed by Hungary, Romania, and the Soviet Union, with 3 each.
3 Slovakia (Canoeing Men’s Canadian Doubles, Slalom; 2000-2008; #2) (Pavol Hochschorner, Petr Hochschorner)
3 United States (Beach Volleyball Women’s Team; 2004-2012; #2) (Kerri Walsh, Misty May-Treanor)
2 Hungary (Fencing Men’s Sabre, Team; 1948-1952; #6) (Aladár Gerevich, Rudolf Kárpáti, Pál Kovács, Tibor Berczelly, László Rajcsányi, Bertalan Papp)
2 Soviet Union (Fencing Women’s Foil, Team; 1968-1972; #5) (Yelena Novikova, Galina Gorokhova, Aleksandra Zabelina, Tatyana Samusenko, Svetlana Tširkova)
2 German Demo. Rep. (Rowing Men’s Coxless Fours; 1968-1972; #4) (Frank Forberger, Dieter Grahn, Frank Rühle, Dieter Schubert)
2 Hungary (Canoeing Men’s Kayak Fours, 1,000 metres; 2000-2004; #4) (Gábor Horváth, Zoltán Kammerer, Botond Storcz, Ákos Vereczkei)
2 Sweden (Curling Women’s Curling; 2006-2010; #4) (Anette Norberg, Eva Lund, Cathrine Lindahl, Anna Svärd-Le Moine)
2 The Netherlands (Equestrian Events Men’s Three-Day Event, Team; 1924-1928; #3) (Adolf van der Voort van Zijp, Charles Pahud de Mortanges, Gerard de Kruijff)
2 Norway (Sailing Mixed Three-Person Keelboat (Dragon); 1948-1952; #3) (Thor Thorvaldsen, Sigve Lie, Håkon Barfod)
2 Sweden (Equestrian Events Mixed Dressage, Team; 1952-1956; #3) (Henri Saint Cyr, Gustaf Boltenstern, Jr., Gehnäll Persson)
2 German Demo. Rep. (Rowing Men’s Coxed Pairs; 1976-1980; #3) (Harald Jährling, Friedrich-Wilhelm Ulrich, Georg Spohr)
2 Denmark (Sailing Mixed Three-Person Keelboat (Soling); 1976-1980; #3) (Poul Jensen, Valdemar Bandolowski, Erik Hansen)
2 Italy (Rowing Men’s Coxed Pairs; 1984-1988; #3) (Carmine Abbagnale, Giuseppe Abbagnale, Giuseppe Di Capua)
2 Austria (Sailing Mixed Multihull (Tornado); 2000-2004; #3) (Roman Hagara, Hans-Peter Steinacher)
2 United States (Rowing Men’s Double Sculls; 1920-1924; #2) (Jack Kelly, Paul Costello)
2 France (Figure Skating Mixed Pairs; 1928-1932; #2) (Andrée Brunet-Joly, Pierre Brunet)
2 Fed. Rep. Germany (Canoeing Women’s Kayak Doubles, 500 metres; 1964-1968; #2) (Roswitha Esser, Annemarie Zimmermann)
2 Soviet Union (Figure Skating Mixed Pairs; 1964-1968; #2) (Lyudmila Belousova, Oleg Protopopov)
2 Soviet Union (Figure Skating Mixed Pairs; 1976-1980; #2) (Irina Rodnina, Aleksandr Zaytsev)
2 German Demo. Rep. (Luge Men’s Doubles; 1976-1980; #2) (Hans Rinn, Norbert Hahn)
2 German Demo. Rep. (Rowing Men’s Coxless Pairs; 1976-1980; #2) (Jörg Landvoigt, Bernd Landvoigt)
2 Romania (Canoeing Men’s Canadian Doubles, 1,000 metres; 1980-1984; #2) (Ivan Patzaichin, Toma Simionov)
2 New Zealand (Canoeing Men’s Kayak Doubles, 500 metres; 1984-1988; #2) (Ian Ferguson, Paul MacDonald)
2 Switzerland (Bobsledding Men’s Two; 1992-1994; #2) (Gustav Weder, Donat Acklin)
2 Germany (Canoeing Men’s Kayak Doubles, 500 metres; 1992-1996; #2) (Kay Bluhm, Torsten Gutsche)
2 Great Britain (Rowing Men’s Coxless Pairs; 1992-1996; #2) (Steven Redgrave, Matthew Pinsent)
2 China (Table Tennis Women’s Doubles; 1992-1996; #2) (Deng Yaping, Qiao Hong)
2 United States (Tennis Women’s Doubles; 1992-1996; #2) (Mary Joe Fernandez, Gigi Fernandez)
2 Russia (Figure Skating Mixed Ice Dancing; 1994-1998; #2) (Oksana “Pasha” Grishchuk, Yevgeny Platov)
2 China (Badminton Women’s Doubles; 1996-2000; #2) (Ge Fei, Gu Jun)
2 China (Badminton Mixed Doubles; 2000-2004; #2) (Zhang Jun, Gao Ling)
2 Poland (Rowing Men’s Lightweight Double Sculls; 2000-2004; #2) (Tomasz Kucharski, Robert Sycz)
2 Romania (Rowing Women’s Lightweight Double Sculls; 2000-2004; #2) (Constanta Burcică, Angela Alupei)
2 China (Canoeing Men’s Canadian Doubles, 500 metres; 2004-2008; #2) (Meng Guanliang, Yang Wenjun)
2 Hungary (Canoeing Women’s Kayak Doubles, 500 metres; 2004-2008; #2) (Katalin Kovács, Natasa Janics)
2 China (Diving Women’s Synchronized Springboard; 2004-2008; #2) (Wu Minxia, Guo Jingjing)
2 New Zealand (Rowing Women’s Double Sculls; 2004-2008; #2) (Georgina Evers-Swindell, Caroline Evers-Swindell)
2 Romania (Rowing Women’s Coxless Pairs; 2004-2008; #2) (Georgeta Andrunache, Viorica Susanu)
2 Russia (Synchronized Swimming Women’s Duet; 2004-2008; #2) (Anastasiya Davydova, Anastasiya Yermakova)
2 Germany (Bobsledding Men’s Two; 2006-2010; #2) (André Lange, Kevin Kuske)
2 Austria (Luge Men’s Doubles; 2006-2010; #2) (Andreas Linger, Wolfgang Linger)
2 United States (Tennis Women’s Doubles; 2008-2012; #2) (Serena Williams, Venus Williams)
2 Canada (Bobsledding Women’s Two; 2010-2014; #2) (Kallie Humphries, Heather Moyse)