The Olympics in Rio de Janeiro are now over and the time for reflection is here. But amid the sensational performances of the last two weeks one man once more stands out—Usain Bolt.
The Jamaican sprinter completed his ‘triple-triple’ of sprint golds, winning the 100m, 200m and 4x100m for the third consecutive Olympics following identical triumphs at Beijing 2008 and London 2012.
Today’s #360debate asks: Is Usain Bolt the greatest Olympic athlete of all time?
The Olympics is as big as it gets. It’s a platform where we witness the feats of the best athletes in the world.
Winning a medal is a great achievement. To win multiple gold medals and utterly dominate three Olympic Games is superhuman.
Yes, there are athletes with more Olympic gold medals in their bag than Usain Bolt. But what the Jamaican has done over eight years goes beyond the realm of sport.
Sprint is one of the most intense disciplines in sport, an uninhibited celebration of one of the three mottos of Olympics. Bolt has reached its pinnacle and has been the undisputed champion in three major events across three Olympics.
Michael Phelps is a legend in his own right but he has come second or third best at the Games on various occasions. Bolt has taken the event and the Games by the scruff of the neck and made it all about him.
When Bolt runs, everything else stops. Many sportsmen and women can be called world-famous but Bolt is truly loved and revered across the globe, even in countries that do not have an inclination towards track and field.
Let’s not forget, Bolt was coming back after a hamstring injury and surgery. Last year was all about recovery and slowly getting back on track. To return and decimate the field is extraordinary.
What many don’t know is that Bolt was never expected to be a top quality sprinter, with his physique and body mechanics seen as a major hindrance. But the Jamaican has turned that notion on its head, shattering the view that tall athletes can’t be great sprinters. He has taken the world of athletics in a new direction.
If that is not enough, Bolt does it all with a smile on his face. He knows he is an entertainer and puts on a show every time he competes. There is pressure on him to not only win, but win in style. He has taken that as his responsibility.
So when we talk about the greatest Olympic athlete, sure there are many multiple gold medal winners over the years. But there can only be one Usain Bolt.
Comparing athletes across different sports is typically an exercise in futility, but in this case, it’s fair to raise the question.
As far as the most influential Olympic athletes of all-time, Usain Bolt is certainly at the top of the list, if not number one. The Jamaican has saved his sport from a drug-tainted reputation and singlehandedly drummed up interest in the Games. He’s charismatic, entertaining and does the one thing I wish more athletes would do (or display): has fun.
Bolt is simply cool, but the way we think of him is heavily affected by his discipline. He holds the coveted title of ‘fastest man alive’, which is bettered by only a few designations. It’s basically akin to ‘greatest rapper alive’ and who doesn’t want the credibility that comes with that?
‘Greatest swimmer alive’ just doesn’t have the same ring to it, but if we strip away all the superlatives and focus on the body of work, it’s hard to argue Michael Phelps hasn’t accomplished everything under the sun as an Olympian. The numbers speak for themselves, with Phelps holding the record for most Olympic gold medals (23) and gold medals in individual events (13).
We’ve never seen anyone else have a 23-gold medal haul, but we have seen several athletes – five to be exact, including Bolt – capture nine. This is where Bolt’s supporters would vouch for quality over quantity.
Yes, Bolt hasn’t lost at the Games since 2004 and not since he became the Bolt we know him to be, but versatility matters.
Bolt competes in three events – 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay – whereas Phelps has claimed gold in eight different events – 100m fly, 200m fly, 200m IM, 200m free, 400m IM, 4x200m free, 4×100 medley and 4×100 free.
Bolt hasn’t even matched two stars in his own sport, as Carl Lewis and Jesse Owens – who has a case over Bolt in terms of influence – once won gold in four events, adding in the long jump.
Longevity also favours Phelps, who has been dominant since 2004 and arguably had his most impressive Games in Rio, considering his age, 31, and the time he spent out of the sport between 2012 and 2014.
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