Gold Standard: Bolt vs. Phelps
By Martin Rogers
It is like comparing Elvis and The Beatles, Pele and Maradona, or Marlon Brando and Laurence Olivier. Sometimes in life, two historically worthy contemporaries are hypothetically matched against each other to try to find the greatest of the great, dividing opinion all the way.
In modern Olympic history, the juiciest argument centers around Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt. And given that today, July 31st, is the eight-year anniversary of Phelps becoming the most decorated Olympian of all time, this feels like a perfect time to dive back in.
It is a strange exercise at times, primarily because when it comes to squaring off the truest talents in whatever field, both are so proficient that they each deserve to be considered the top dog. To suggest that either is behind even one other person in the eternal list feels like an insult.
An overwhelmingly strong case can be made for both men, the metronomic American swimmer and the charismatic Jamaican sprinter.
“I am the greatest,” Bolt said when he ended his Olympic career in 2016. He has such an easy way about him that these things don't come across as arrogance — although if any runner in history had a right to be cocky, it is him.
Bolt won three golds in three separate Olympics, subsequently being stripped of one when Nesta Carter, a teammate on the Jamaican 4x100 relay team in 2008, had his blood and urine sample come up positive when it was retested with advanced methods nine years later.
With his feats on the track, Bolt made running cool again, as a one-man cultural movement. He operated with style and panache and no shortage of humor. In fact, he even ate Chicken McNuggets before one of his golden triumphs.
“Bolt,” replied Yahoo Sports national columnist Dan Wetzel, when I asked him for his choice. “Almost everyone on earth runs (or could run). Very few swim, let alone race."
There is also a point to be made for Bolt in that track is truly international, with far more countries taking the sport seriously at an elite level.
Yet the raw facts for Phelps are staggering. He collected 23 gold medals, plus three silvers and two bronzes. It is this weight of hardware that gets patriotic Americans onside, stating that greatness should be a numbers game.
Phelps was dominant and imposing, a swimming superstar beloved by corporate America. During those brief windows when the Olympics feels like the center of the universe, he was one of the most recognizable people on the planet.
In recent years, Phelps has spoken intelligently and importantly in retirement about mental health and how athletes who suffered from it need help.
And, yes, back to all those medals.
"To win 28 medals in four Games (he didn’t win any at age 15 in 2000) is crazy, but not as crazy as winning eight in one, which is completely ridiculous,” said Matthew Futterman of the New York Times. “I might even put Carl Lewis above Bolt, because of the long jump.”
Josh Peter of USA TODAY Sports agreed, saying, “Bolt is transcendent, but there is only one man who holds the all-time record for Olympic golds. So the greatest is Phelps, with his record haul.”
The peculiar thing about this argument is that no one can possibly be wrong. How could they be, when each man has such a compelling case?
As I said earlier, both Bolt and Phelps are worthy of the all-time tag, and if the other man had never existed, they would be in unanimous possession of it. (Once Simone Biles completes her Olympic career, she’ll stand alongside them, but she’s not done yet, so let’s wait on that one.)
It is no fun sitting on the fence in situations such as these, so here is my thesis on the matter. For me, it is Bolt.
I believe that the brilliance of the athletic achievements are largely similar. There are significant differences in how the two sports are structured, which leads to the discrepancy in the amount of medals. Swimming has more events, a ton of them. Many of them require similar physiology.
If they had a 4x200 meter relay on the track, do we really doubt that Bolt would have added golds there too, especially with Yohan Blake as his foil? Swimming has its different strokes. Running does not.
If there was a 100m track event that required a different type of stride, or an altered starting stance, would Bolt have not been the favorite? If there was an additional 200 meter race in a straight line, as well as around the curve like normal, who would your money have been on?
Furthermore, Bolt was never beaten in an Olympic final. It was never really close, either. He torched the field in Beijing, shattering world records in the 100 and 200. The closest anyone came was when Justin Gatlin got within 0.08 seconds in Rio.
With Phelps, on the other hand, there are four men who know what it is like to beat him in a Games final — a pair of greats in Pieter van den Hoogenband and Ian Thorpe, confident South African Chad Le Clos and precocious youngster Joseph Schooling from Singapore. Even when Phelps racked up his magnificent eight medals in Beijing, one of them was by just 0.01 and remains controversial to this day.
That is not meant to come across as a slight to Phelps in any way. He was occasionally beaten, and sometimes threatened, but it was rarer than desert snowfall.
The tipping point is that I just loved the way Bolt carried himself and the magic he brought to his sport. Phelps is all class, but Bolt's personality is one of a kind.
I’m also unavoidably shaped by the bias of personal experience. One of my most cherished sporting memories is taking my son Max, then eight, to a balcony overlooking the warmup track at Rio in 2016, and seeing the awe in his eyes as he watched Bolt practice his turns with effortless, blistering speed. And the gaze of wonder when, by utter chance and the thankful persistence of his grandmother, Max got a photo with the great man a few days later.
This is the kind of discussion that can send you in circles, as spurious as asking what is your favorite type of lottery win, or as fractured as considering which was your favorite childhood pet.
Both Bolt and Phelps were amazing, both are missed, both will be part of Olympic folklore forever more. If and when the Tokyo Games do take place, we can only hope for similar feats of excellence.
Is it fair that we compare the pair? Probably not. But they were both ultimate competitors, who never shied away from a battle. This isn't a fight, more like a race. For me, it is Bolt, by the narrowest of margins.
I’m prepared to defend my opinion, because that’s part of it, and would be delighted to hear yours. If you love the Olympics, and have been paying attention for the past generation, I know you have one.