The question of Usain Bolt versus Michael Phelps dominated headlines in 2008. And now that the two have combined for five gold medals at the London Olympics, the debate about which is the greater Olympian has resurfaced four years later.
But while you will get reasons touting each athlete's superiority — Phelps supporters point to his 18 gold medals, while Bolt backers argue, correctly, that track and field has never seen someone like Bolt — in reality it's impossible to compare the two Olympians.
Phelps competes in a sport that offers more opportunities for medals than any other. On a team with strong relays, like the United States, the right swimmer has the opportunity to medal in eight or more events. Indeed, Phelps has twice taken home eight medals in a single Olympics.
For Bolt to do the same would require him to add five events to his current schedule. Even if he were to add the long jump, an event he's never done, the 400 meters and the 4×400 meter relay — which would be almost impossible considering the amount of heats involved and the fact that sprinters recover slower than swimmers — he'd still be two events short of Phelps. Since Bolt is unlikely to take up the shot put any time soon, the chances of him ever catching up to Phelps in the medal camp are slim.
Yet, despite his record medal haul, Phelps has never exuded the same air of invincibility as Bolt. He was certainly favored in many of the events in which he won gold medals, but he has had his share of close calls, in particular his 0.01-second victory over Serbia's Milorad Cavic in the 100 meter butterfly in Beijing.
Bolt, on the other hand, has never been involved in a close race in a major final since he burst onto the scene at the 2008 Olympics. He won both the 100 and 200 handily in world-record times in Beijing and followed that up with even more dominant victories at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin, again breaking both world records. He won the 200 at worlds last year, and has also been part of the victorious 4×100 meter relay squad at each of the last three global championships, setting two world records along the way.
Bolt faced doubts entering London after losing to countryman Yohan Blake at the Jamaican Olympic trials, but Blake is no joke, as he's the second-fastest man in history at 200 meters, behind only Bolt. Those doubts proved to be unfounded, though, as Bolt handily dispatched all comers in both the 100 and 200 in London.
All of this, combined with his unthinkable world records — unheard of times of 9.58 seconds for the 100 and 19.19 second for the 200 — makes Bolt an almost mythical figure. There has been another Michael Phelps — his name was Mark Spitz — but there has never been another Usain Bolt.
However, this does not necessarily mean that Bolt is the "greater" Olympian. Bolt has won every event available to him in two Olympics, but should Phelps be penalized for adding events to his schedule that he knows he is not guaranteed to win in order to pursue a record medal haul?
Questions like these are why there will never be an answer to the Bolt-Phelps debate. Even if we could agree on what criteria constitutes "the greatest" — and that seems impossible — how can we compare two athletes in two sports with such different structures? Olympic swimming is about swimming as many events as possible, cleaning up in your specialty and hoping everything breaks right in the relays. Track and field athletes only run one, sometimes two individual events, and only the sprinters run in relays.
Someone like Al Oerter never gets mentioned in the conversation with Bolt or Phelps because he only competed in one event, the discus throw. Never mind that Oerter dominated the event for over a decade, winning four straight gold medals in an era before the world championships. Oerter shouldn't be penalized for having one elite skill; greatness is greatness.
So when we're looking at athletes like Bolt and Phelps, let's just agree that both are once-in-a-generation talents that are the best at what they do. It's not that it doesn't matter who's better — we just have no way of determining the answer.
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