Usain Bolt Is The Greatest Olympic Athlete Of All Time
Well, you can mark it down in the history books: in his third consecutive Summer Olympics, superstar sprinter Usain Bolt made it a perfect three-for-three, netting gold medals in the 100-meter sprint, the 200-meter sprint, and as part of the 4x100-meter Jamaican relay team. That's a feat that's never been seen before in Olympic track and field, and it may never be seen again. In other words, for a whole lot of people, the issue is settled ― Usain Bolt is the greatest Olympian of all time.
To be clear, only the 100-meter and 200-meter events are entirely under Bolt's control ― three of his golds he owes not just to his own excellence, but that of his national team, too. Perhaps that's why Bolt didn't wait around for the outcome of the relay to declare himself the "greatest ever," following his gold medal run in the 200-meter, his final individual event. Here's what he said, according to the CBC ― remember, bragging is fine when it's totally true.
I've proven to the world I'm the greatest. This is what I came here for. That's what I'm doing. This is why I said this is my last Olympics — I can't prove anything else. ... What else can I do to prove to the world I am the greatest? I am trying to be one of the greatest. Be among Ali and Pelé. I hope to be in that bracket after these Games.
Obviously, it's a subjective question who the truly greatest Olympian ever is, and I'm guessing a whole of lot people reading this are thinking the same thing: "woah, what about Michael Phelps!?" And sure enough, Phelps wins any argument that relies solely on the medal count, having claimed 28 total medals in his career, 23 of them gold. By comparison, Bolt will end his Olympic career with just nine, but what a nine ― unlike Phelps, he's never tasted anything but first place.
And, as ESPN's Bomani Jones compellingly argued on his show The Right Time last week, there's a big flaw in flaw in evaluating the two on those grounds alone. Namely, Bolt can't compete with Phelps in total medals, by the very nature of the sports they perform and how they're represented at the Olympics. As a sprinter, Bolt is effectively confined to the 100-meter, 200-meter, and relay events, while there are so many swimming events open to Phelps' discipline that he's been able to run up an insurmountable lead.
Also, as Jones argued in his show and in the SportsCenter segment above, swimming is a sport that's typically dominated by athletes from richer, more privileged countries, where training facilities are more readily available. Incidentally, that's probably a big part of why Americans love the swimming events so much: because the U.S. is on top, and it feels so damn good to win.
Running, on the other hand, is a truly global pastime ― to be the best, you have to beat out a pool of talent bigger than perhaps any other, with an extremely low barrier to entry. Which, taken in full, makes Bolt's undeniable dominance of the sport all the more stunning. There was never an upset, a misstep, a mistake, even in the relay events in which Bolt was relying on his countrymen, too. Every single time he took his spot at the starting line in Olympic play, he ran away with the gold. Remember, Bolt is the man who set a world record in the 2008 Beijing Olympics even while visibly slowing up towards the finish line, to give a little taunting flourish.
In a sport with virtually no margin for error, he made none of them in a whole eight-year window of Olympic competition. During the Beijing games in 2008, he was a fleet-footed young man of 21. And on Sunday, August 21st, he'll turn 30 years old ― well-aged for a sprinter, and yet every bit as fast, unstoppable, and with the same unparalleled sense of flair and showmanship.
That's not a claim Phelps will ever be able to make, even if he came back in 2020 and threw another few golds on the pile, thanks in part to that guy he gave that famous death stare to. It shouldn't be an inflammatory insult to Phelps to say this, so much as a point of debate ― unless you truly do think that the raw medal count means everything, and there's therefore no argument to be had. But for my money, and for countless people around the world, if you're looking for the gold standard, Usain Bolt is it.