Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt: Who's the Olympic G.O.A.T.?

Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt: Who's the Olympic G.O.A.T.?

Published Nov. 15, 2016 2:13 p.m. ET

Usain Bolt won his third gold medal of the Rio Olympics on Friday night with another scintillating sprint in Jamaica's 4x100 relay. That gives Bolt nine gold medals in his last nine Olympic races and ties him for second on the all-time tally of golds, well behind another Rio star, Michael Phelps. If we take both at their word that this is their final Olympics, then it's finally the right time to ask the question - Bolt or Phelps: Who's the greatest Olympian of all? Let's break it down.

The case for Michael Phelps

He's the undisputed medal king

Every individual medal count from now until the infathomable future will be topped by Michael Phelps. He has 23 gold medals, more than 2.5 the times of any other athlete in Olympic history (Bolt, Carl Lewis, Mark Spitz, Larisa Latynina and Paavo Nurmi). His 28 total medals have him clear of Latynina (second on the list) by 10. Nobody else is within a dozen.


The longevity

Phelps made the Olympics at 15 years old - becoming the youngest U.S. swimmer in 68 years - and finished 5th in the 200 fly. Less celebrated was Bolt's Olympic debut, made when he was 18 at the Athens Olympics. Unheralded and, unlike Phelps, without an expectation of future greatness, Bolt ran the the 200m and finished 5th in his heat and ended up in a tie for 40th.

Phelps also became the first swimmer and just the third athlete in history to win an event at four straight Olympics (the 200 IM in 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016). Carl Lewis an Al Oerter had done so before in the long jump and discus, respectively. He swam at five Summer Games overall, compared to four cycles for Bolt (16 years to 12).

The records

The Marylander retires with three individual world records and three relay gold records, including a 200 fly record that seems untouchable in the near future. He broke dozens of other records in his career and in events like the 200 fly and 400 IM, he's responsible for a majority of the fastest races ever swum.

Comparing to Bolt

As mentioned before, Bolt has nine golds in track, a feat that's been accomplished twice before, by Lewis and Nurmi. His three track medals per Olympics is a great feat but one that's been accomplished more than a dozen times by other athletes (not the three golds part). All those triple winners are tied for third though, as Lewis and Jesse Owens once won four gold medals in a single Olympic track competition (they added long jump to Bolt's program). Meanwhile, Phelps has the most medals won in the pool in a single Olympics, in two Olympics and a career.

The case for Usain Bolt

The world's fastest man

No man had ever won the 100m at two straight non-boycotted Olympics until Usain Bolt. Then he went and won three. No man had ever won the 200m at two straight Olympics of any kind. Then he went and won three. No one has ever dominated sprinting like Bolt.

Records that will stand for decades

Nobody in Rio came within three-tenths of Bolt's 9.58 in the 100. His 200 record - 19.19 - was 0.83 better than any other competitor not named Usain. In a world in which track records can last for decades - the 200m went Tommie Smith (1968) to Pietro Mennea (1979) to Michael Johnson (1996) to Usian Bolt (2008). Starting in 2018 it'll have been 50 years with four men as the world-record holder. Bolt's marks are so unfathomably fast that they could last his lifetime, if not longer.

The undefeated (since 2008)

Most have forgotten Bolt's 2004 disappointment in Athens. Despite what you may hear he's not actually perfect. But since he became Usain Bolt, he was indeed a pristine nine-for-nine. Nine races. Nine golds. Perfection. Throw in that 2004 performance and Bolt is 9 for 10 with medals and golds. Phelps has swum 30 Olympic races. He's won 23 golds, 3 silver and 2 bronze - with that fifth place as a 15-year-old and a fourth-place in the 400 IM in London representing his only non-podiums. (Percentage wise, that's advantage Bolt for gold percentage and Phelps for medal percentage.)

So, who's the most dominant Olympian?

As a student of history (or someone who earned a degree in the subject while either laying in a puddle of my own drool or playing Madden 2001 instead of going to class), I loathe that sports analysis has strictly become a "what have you done for me lately" exercise. If it hasn't happened in the past 20 years then it might as well have never occurred at all.

Let's get this out of the way then: Babe Ruth is the greatest baseball player who ever lived. Nobody will ever be better. Wilt Chamberlain dominated basketball like no one before or after though that doesn't necessarily make him a better player than Michael Jordan. I mention this not to start another debate but to say I've considered all 28 Olympics dating back to 1896, not just the ones hosted by Bob Costas.

What does that show? First, athletes of today have it easier, in a way. They train more with a better understanding of methods, the human body, diet, recovery, etc. Shoes and bathing suits are unrecognizable from what was used in the past, not to mention the for-speed design of tracks and pools. Athletes of the past few decades have also competed for longer.

Swimmers back in the era of Mark Spitz (who won seven gold medals in a single Games and then became a trivia answer when Phelps passed him in 2008) didn't swim until they were 30 - they had a living to make. Jesse Owens had to go pro after the 1936 Olympics and would have been ineligible to compete in the 1940 Games, if there had been an Olympics in 1940 and 1944.

On the other hand, sport has been globalized. Mark Spitz had to deal with Soviet and Eastern Bloc athletes, sure, but Phelps and Bolt have to face the world. When Joseph Schooling of Singapore beat him in the 100 fly, not only was it Singapore's first swimming medal in history but it was Singapore's first gold medal of any kind. Swimmers, runners and any other athlete can come from anywhere now. Facilities around the world have improved and America's desire to bring talented athletes to the States in order to train and compete in college have helped make the sports world a much smaller place.

None of this answers the question of Phelps vs. Bolt, of course. Perhaps I'm stalling.

What's easy to say is that one is the greatest who's ever run on the track and the other is the greatest who's ever swum in the pool. I'd like to leave it at that but you didn't read 1,000 words for a cop out.

Michael Phelps is the greatest Olympian ever. That's no knock on Bolt but we can base this honorific based on one comparative stat mentioned above. Since pitting the two is impossible, you have to look within their respective sports. Both have made history within them. Both should, and will, be known as the best ever. But, in track, Bolt is one of three athletes with nine golds. He has his records, streaks and everything else, but his overall haul is merely awesome, not unthinkable. Phelps has 23 golds (14 more than the nearest swimmer) and 28 medals (twice as much as any other swimmer). Really, there's no comparison.

We should feel supremely lucky. Over the past three Olympics (and for one before) we've had the honor of watching two of the greatest athletes in history compete back-to-back in the same two-week stretch at the world's greatest sporting event. You can argue my answer, but you can't disagree with this: It's been a pleasure.