Everyone knows the Winter Olympic Games are where we watch the best athletes in the world go head-to-head on an international stage. What you may not know is that the first Winter Games were an afterthought. They were initially called International Winter Sports Week, and were so successful that afterwards they were renamed the Winter Olympics and scheduled to be held every four years.

Though the Games have evolved and grown, the key element to the Olympics has always been the athletes; the most universal sports event would be nothing without its competitors. Every Olympics, the athletes are recognized at the opening ceremony and a select few are elevated to the podium. Here are the 50 greatest Winter Olympians of all time.

To compile the top 50, we enlisted the help of five Olympic experts who are among the best in their field. They each ranked the athletes they thought were the best in Olympic history and we scored their picks using a range of criteria. The formula weighed the following factors: number of times an athlete was nominated, medal count and type, and subjective factors (for example, the 1980 USA men's hockey team ranked high on our list despite earning only one medal because of the remarkable story). We also gave additional credit to athletes who placed number one on our panelists’ original lists of nominees.

Greatest Winter Olympians Of All Time Slideshow


25. Dick Button, USA

In addition to winning two back-to-back Olympic titles, Dick Button has the distinction of being the first skater to land a double axel and a triple jump in competition. He also invented the flying camel spin. Button's list of skating titles goes on and on and includes seven national, three North American, a European and five world titles. As if his accomplishments on the ice weren't enough, Button also pursued a law degree at Harvard, was a show skater and has been a hugely successful figure skating commentator on television since 1960. -- Pj Kwong


24. Uschi Disl, Germany

With a career spanning five Winter Olympics, from 1992 to 2006, German biathlete Ursula "Uschi" Disl was one of the dominant athletes in her sport for a decade and a half, winning nine Olympic medals for her country (two of which were gold) and even being named “German Sportswoman of the Year” in 2005 -- a rare moment of public recognition for a biathlete. —Mark Lebetkin


23. Gunda Niemann-Stirnemann, Germany

With a total of eight Winter Olympic medals (three gold, four silver, and one bronze), Gunda Niemann-Stirnemann is one of the most successful speed skaters in the entire world. Aptly named by the media as the "ice queen," she began to display her dominance at the 1992 Games where she placed first in both the 3,000-meter and 5,000-meter events and second in the 1,500-meter. In 1998, after knee surgery and two months before the Winter Games, she set the 3,000-meter world record and then went on to win the gold in that event while competing at Nagano. In the final race of her career, Niemann-Stirnemann went on not only to break her own 5,000-meter world record, but also to become the first woman skater to finish the race in less than seven minutes. -- Katie Rosenbrock


22. Galina Kulakova, USSR

With a total of eight medals this cross country skier was a force for the Soviet Union at a time when women weren't frontrunners or even widely participating. She proved her athleticism during the 1972 Winter Olympics when she tied Ard Schenk for the most successful athlete. In addition to her many athletic accolades she has won several other prestigious awards. Her list of accomplishments includes receiving the Order of Lenin and earning the Silver Olympic Order in 1984. -- Diana Gerstacker


21. Sven Fischer -- Germany

Nicknamed "Mr. Biathlon" in his home country of Germany, Sven Fischer racked up four golds and eight medals total in four Olympics, from 1994 to 2006 -- a biathlon medal count that’s tied with that of his countryman Ricco Gross, and trails only that of the sport’s reigning legend (and Fischer rival) Ole Einar Bjørndalen. Now a commentator for German television, Fischer’s biggest Olympic year was his last, at the 2006 Turin Games, where he was on the winning relay team and carried the sprint event, as well as adding a bronze in the pursuit event to his tally. -- Mark Lebetkin


20. Lidiya Skoblikova, USSR

Competing for the USSR in 1960 at Squaw Valley and in 1964 at Innsbruck, Lidiya Skoblikova never accepted anything less than a gold medal for every single one of the six speed skating events she competed in. During her 1960 Winter Olympics debut she scored two first place wins in both the women’s 1,500-meter and 3,000-meter events. Four years later she swept every single one of her opponents, snagging a gold medal in each of the four speed skating events, a notable achievement on its own made even more impressive by the fact that each race distance requires a special set of abilities and tactics. Adding to her already extraordinary accomplishments, that year Skoblikova also set the Olympic record in the 1,500-meter race, which she won by 2.9 seconds -- the largest margin of victory in the history of the event. —Katie Rosenbrock


19. Jean-Claude Killy, France

This French ski legend won the "Triple Crown" of alpine skiing sweeping all three races in Grenoble at the age of 24. He’s only the second skier after Toni Sailer to win all three events at one Winter Olympics. As a double world champion in 1966 and as the first winner of the FIS World Cup tour in 1967, the suave Frenchman handled the home nation pressure without a problem in Grenoble, not too far from where he grew up. Continuing his Olympic legacy, Killy was co-President of the 1992 Albertville Games, as the Winter Olympics returned to his native France. Killy is also a longtime International Olympic Committee (IOC) Member. Killy is still giving back to the Olympic movement and has been the head of the IOC Coordination Commission for Sochi 2014 working closely with the Sochi Organizing Committee. So, if Putin's Games are a success, the 70-year-old Frenchman deserves much of the credit! -- Brian Pinelli


18. Eugenio Monti, Italy

Not only was Monti the greatest bobsled pilot ever—concluding his Olympic career winning a pair of gold medals in Grenoble 1968 at the age of 40, as well as two silvers at his home Olympics in Cortina 1956—but he’s also noted for two of the greatest acts of sportsmanship in Olympic and sports history. Nicknamed "The Flying Redhead," Monte helped out English-speaking rivals, not once but twice at the ’64 Innsbruck Games. First, in the two-man, his British challengers busted a bolt on their bobsled and Monte gave them a replacement off of his team’s sled. Tony Nash drove to gold, while Monte settled for bronze. The Italian media was not happy with the Italian star. Then, in the four-man, Canadian rivals damaged their sled’s axle. Again, it was Monte and his mechanics coming to the rescue and repairing the damaged sled. Canadian driver Vic Emery took gold, while Monte and his Italian team settled for bronze. Incredible acts of sportsmanship by an Italian legend! For his selfless act of graciousness, Monti was the first athlete and only Winter Olympian ever to be presented with the Pierre de Coubertin medal, an honor awarded by the IOC to athletes who exemplify the true spirit of sportsmanship. And Monte would have likely won two more medals had bobsledding been held at the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics. -- Brian Pinelli


17. Georg Hackl, Germany

A luger from Germany, Georg Hackl has competed in some of the sport’s most exciting, photo-finish races and across the span of his career has conquered a handful of historic feats. He was the first Winter Olympian to medal in five consecutive Games, he is just one of just six Olympians who has won the same individual event three times, and even though he had been injured for a part of the season, at the age of 40 he proceeded to compete in his 6th Winter Olympic Games in Turin in 2006. In his entire Olympic career he's earned a total of five medals: three gold and two silver. A true Olympic star, in his homeland, he has been fondly nicknamed the "Speeding Weisswurst," or speeding white sausage, a reference to his speedy racing abilities and well-known white bodysuit. -- Katie Rosenbrock


16. 1980 USA Men's Hockey Team

Surely the greatest team in Winter Olympics history and from an American perspective, the greatest moment in Winter Olympics history. However, we are talking about individuals, and not teams, so any of these players technically deserve a top spot: Mike Eruzione, Jim Craig, Mark Johnson, the list goes on. What a team, what a moment, and of course, what a Miracle! During a time when the U.S. was struggling with exorbitant gas prices and long lines at the pump, a delicate hostage situation in Iran and many Americans just felt down and out, these young collegiate hockey studs galvanized an entire nation and changed hockey in America forever! And of course, huge props to Herb Brooks, Craig Patrick and the voice ... Al Michaels! "... 11 seconds, you've got 10 seconds, the countdown going on right now! Morrow, up to Silk. Five seconds left in the game. Do you believe in miracles?! YES!!!” —Brian Pinelli


15. Marit Bjørgen, Norway

After bronchitis put a damper on Marit Bjørgen’s performance at the 2006 Olympics in Turin -- she won a single silver medal -- the Norwegian cross country skier came back with a vengeance four years later. At the 2010 Vancouver Olympics she skied her way to three golds and five medals total, the most by any individual that year. Competing this month in Sochi, Bjørgen will be in her fourth Winter Games and looking to add more gold to her collection of seven Olympic medals -- not a bad bet for the winningest cross country skier in FIS World Cup history. -- Mark Lebetkin


14. Sixten Jernberg, Sweden

Known as one of the first ever cross country skiing stars, over the course of his Olympic career Jernberg dominated the sport from the start of his very first race up until crossing his final finish line at the 1964 Games in Innsbruck. Aside from earning a total of nine Olympic medals (4 gold, 3 silver and 2 bronze) across three consecutive games, he also achieved four world championship titles and was recognized by the International Olympic Committee in 1965 with the Mohammed Taher Trophy (an award that has since been discontinued). -- Katie Rosenbrock


13. Bonnie Blair, USA

Perhaps the greatest female speed skating sprinter ever, Bonnie Blair took three consecutive gold medals in the 500-meter between 1988 and 1993; an extremely tough "triple" to pull off. She was the only American Winter Olympian with six medals until Apolo Ohno came along. The longtime Milwaukee resident thrived on the Olympic stage, probably due to the fact that she began competing at just 4 years old! -- Brian Pinelli


12. Karin Kania, East Germany

Beginning her career as a moderately successful figure skater, Karin Enke -- who also competed under the name Karin Kania -- wisely switched to speed skating in time for the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, where she took home gold in the 500-meter sprint event. After a dominant four years on the championship circuit, she returned to the Olympics in 1984, winning two golds and two silvers in Sarajevo -- and setting a world record in the 1,500-meter event to boot. Another appearance in the Winter Games in 1988 netted her three more medals, bringing her career total to eight -- which makes her one of two female Winter Olympians with eight medals in individual events. -- Mark Lebetkin


11. Clas Thunberg, Finland

Clas Thunberg left a lasting mark on the history of Olympic speed skating, and his accomplishments are made all the more impressive by the fact that he didn’t even begin competing at the International level until the age of 28. He crushed his competition at the first ever Winter Games in 1924, claiming five medals (three gold, one silver, and one bronze) and the title of most successful athlete of the entire Winter Olympics that year. He returned to the rink in 1928 to snag two more gold medals, setting the record for the most gold medals ever achieved by a male speed skater -- an achievement only matched by Eric Heiden in 1980. What's more, Thunberg had the opportunity to set the bar even higher. However, he withdrew from the 1932 Games in Lake Placid, N.Y. as a protest against the new "mass-style" race starts that had been introduced that year. -- Katie Rosenbrock


10. Apolo Anton Ohno, USA

The most decorated American Winter Olympic Athlete of all time only competed in three Olympic Games. Over the course of those Games he took a total of eight medals and coped with intense attention from the crowd. In his first Olympic appearance in 2002, he was surrounded by controversy. First, he was accused of throwing an Olympic trial race and then he won gold in the 1,500-meter, but only after the South Korean athlete who finished first was disqualified for apparently blocking Ohno. Despite the initial negative attention, Ohno has earned his spot in speed skating history and become an American icon. Our panelist Brian Pinelli calls him “a master technician with explosiveness on the ice like no short tracker in history." --Diana Gerstacker


9. Kjetil André Aamodt, Norway

Over five Winter Olympics, from 1992 through 2006, Norwegian alpine skier Kjetil-Andre Aamodt won four golds, two silvers and two bronze medals, making him the sport’s most decorated Olympian. Calling Aamodt "humble" and “much less flashy than fellow Olympic greats like Tomba, Klammer and Killy,” panelist Eric Pinelli gives the breakdown: “Aamodt went about his business quietly while breaking record after record. He won three Olympic super-G gold medals, the first two coming in 1992 and the last in 2006, 14 years apart. Not too shabby for such a physically demanding event. And with the super-G gold, he became the first male alpine skier to win four Olympic gold medals. Aamodt’s 20 combined Olympic and World Championship medals are unmatched. [He’s] arguably the greatest all-around skier ever. Like Bode Miller, [Aamodt] has won World Cup races in all five disciplines.” —Mark Lebetkin


8. Ricco Gross, Germany

Our panelist Brian Pinelli calls four-time Olympic gold medalist Ricco Gross a “biathlon legend,” which is a pretty remarkable statement considering Gross’ last Olympic appearance (where he earned his fourth gold medal) was just eight years ago at the Winter Games in Turin. Still, with a total of eight Olympic medals and as the only biathlete to ever win four Olympic relay titles, there’s no doubt his name will forever be etched in history as one of the best biathletes of all time. His recipe for success: “Never try to imitate anyone else. Follow your own path, find something new, something that is yours, and stick with it." -- Katie Rosenbrock


7. Eric Heiden, USA

Humble and low-key, Heiden provided the single most outstanding Olympic performance at one Games in history! 5 speed skating events, 5 gold medals, 4 Olympic records and one world record over a nine-day span in 1980, winning everything at a home Olympics at just 21 years old! And he even slipped in the 1,500 before winning in an Olympic record time. In our current era of specialization in everything that we do, Heiden took gold in events as vastly different as the 500-meters and 10,000-meters. And he did so at an outdoor oval in the elements…bitter cold and wind, unlike today’s indoor speed skating venues, where every element is controlled. Seems utterly impossible and surely a feat that will never be matched! -- Brian Pinelli


6. Claudia Pechstein, Germany

At age 41, German speed skater Claudia Pechstein will soon be competing in her sixth Winter Olympics. Since making her Olympic debut at the 1992 Games in Albertville, Pechstein has won nine medals, five of which are gold—more medals than any other speed skater and the second-most gold medals among female Winter Olympians. That total might have been higher were it not for a scandal: blood doping allegations led to a two-year ban, sidelining her during the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. (Pechstein has repeatedly denied the charge and even fought it in court.) Regardless, her previous medals remain undisputed and in Sochi she’ll be looking to further cement her status as an all-time great. -- Mark Lebetkin


5. Raisa Smetanina, USSR

Over her impressive 16-year cross-country skiing career, Raisa Smetanina earned 10 Winter Olympic medals—the most achieved by any female athlete in history. Three of those medals (two gold and one silver) were earned at the 1976 Winter Olympics alone, which tied her with Germany’s Rosi Mittermaier for the title of most successful athlete of the entire Games that year. Beyond the wild success of her Olympic debut, Smetanina went on to win two more gold medals in 1980 and 1992, was the first athlete to ever appear on the podium at five different Winter Olympic Games, and is one of just three Olympians who have collected a total of five silver medals. And as if all those firsts and bests just weren’t enough, when her relay team claimed gold in the 4x5-kilometer relay at the 1992 Games -- about two weeks before she turned 40 -- she became the oldest female medalist in all of Olympic history. -- Katie Rosenbrock


4. Stefania Belmondo, Italy

Stefania Belmondo is the perfect storm embodied in an Olympic cross-country athlete. She had the trifecta: a 10-year-long Olympic career (disrupted by a major injury), the utmost admiration from her country and an underdog story. Belmondo was considered by many to be too small for the sport of cross-country skiing; she set out to prove the naysayers wrong. Over the course of five Olympic Games, she took two gold medals, three silver and five bronze, making her the most successful Italian Winter Olympian to date. After a major injury and a disappointing 1994 Games, Belmondo took a break from cross-country, but the resolute Belmondo came back to take two gold medals at the 1999 World Championships. She closed out her Olympic career in 2002 at the Salt Lake City Olympic Games when she took her final Olympic gold medal. Her record and popularity brought her to the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, where she lit the Olympic flame at the opening ceremony. —Diana Gerstacker


3. Ole Einar Bjørndalen, Norway

The Norwegian biathlete Ole Einar Bjørndalen competed at five Winter Olympics, from 1994 through 2010, and won 6 golds, 4 silvers and one bronze. Calling Bjørndalen a “dominant international force in the sport for nearly two decades” and “among the greatest athletes of all-time,” Pinelli gives the details: “Sure, in the U.S., we don’t put too much emphasis on biathlon and infrequently is it discussed on sports talk radio, but Bjørndalen is the greatest biathlete of all-time and among the greatest Winter Olympians. His 11 total medals is second only to his cross-country skiing countryman Bjorn Dæhlie's twelve. In Salt Lake City 2002 he went four-for-four in the events he entered, taking four gold medals home to Norway." Pinelli adds: “Aside from the Olympics, his 93 World Cup biathlon wins between 1996 and 2012 may never be matched -- in any winter sport!" -- Mark Lebetkin


2. Sonja Henie, Norway

Few Olympic athletes are capable of garnering A-list-level celebrity, but three-time gold medal figure skater Sonja Henie was known for drawing hordes of fans so large and rowdy that police were often called in for crowd control. And it wasn’t just because she was a sweet, smiling blonde either. A fierce competitor, Henie won her first Olympic gold medal at the age of 16. From there she went on to defend that title in the next two Winter Olympic Games, and just one week after winning her third Olympic gold she placed first at the World Figure Skating Championships for the tenth straight year in a row, setting a record that has yet to be broken. A true trailblazer for the sport, Henie was known for her untraditional short-skirted costumes, white skates (black was the norm at the time), and innovative choreography. “To this day [she is] the undisputed ‘Queen’ of figure skating,” says Pinelli. -- Katie Rosenbrock


1. Bjørn Dæhlie, Norway

Perhaps not a household name to most American sports fans, but he's the most decorated Winter Olympic champion ever with eight gold and 12 total medals, both unequaled. He amassed three gold and a silver in both Albertville and Nagano. At the home Games in Lillehammer, Daehlie had two silver and two bronze. Despite his amazing achievements, he will always be remembered for getting beat by the narrowest of margins on the final leg of the team 4x10-kilometer, by Silvio Fauner and the Italians. Norway was heartbroken! Despite the one disappointing loss to the Italians on home snow, Daehlie is still a living Norwegian legend! -- Brian Pinelli

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For the complete list of the 50 Greatest Winter Olympians Of All Time, go to TheActiveTimes.com.

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Meet our panelists:
Brian Pinelli is a journalist covering his fifth Olympic Winter Games in Sochi. Based in Prague, Czech Republic, he has contributed to the International Herald Tribune, Around the Rings, New York Times, FISAlpine.com, Ski Racing, Snow Magazine, USAHockey.com, Universal Sports, CBS Sports, CNN World Sport and USA Today. While he immensely enjoys the rewards and challenges of his craft, he prefers to be skiing. Find him on Twitter @Brian_Pinelli.

Pj Kwong is a coach, author and an expert in all things figure skating. She has more than 25 years of coaching experience and has been part of Canada’s CBC Sports' network figure skating broadcast team as a commentator and writer since 2007. She is the author of Taking the Ice: Success Stories from Canadian Figure Skating and is currently in Sochi as an Olympic P.A. announcer for the sixth time. Find Pj at her website: pjkwong.com.

Tom Ecker is the go-to source on early Olympic history. In his youth, he was a track and field star so successful that he went on to coach Swedish Olympic track and field teams. He has been lecturing on Olympic history since 1968 and he was a professor at California State University, teaching courses on the Olympics. His most recent book, Olympic Facts and Fables is backed by 31 years of research and first-hand experience. Find Tom at his website: tomecker.com.

Bill Mallon is a co-founder and past-president of the International Society of Olympic Historians (ISOH). He was an Editor of the Journal of Olympic History, and he has since published more than 20 books on the subject of the Olympic Games. He is an orthopedic surgeon, a former professional golfer and a recipient of the Olympic Order award, which is a high honor granted by the International Olympic Committee. He and two of his colleagues at ISOH each earned Silver in 2001 for their substantial contributions to the Olympic Movement.

Anthony Th. Bijkerk is the Secretary-General of ISOH and has been a member of the executive committee since its founding more than 20 years ago. He was an Editor of the Journal of Olympic History and a co-author of the book The 1920 Olympic Games. He received the Silver Olympic Order award in 2001, from the hands of Judo icon Anton Geesink, for substantial contributions to the Olympic Movement.