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|Usain Bolt --- Greatest Athlete in History?
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August 10, 2012 By the Editors of MangoBoss
Yesterday, on August 9, 2012, Usain Bolt literally "bolted" into the
history books as the only runner to ever win back-to-back goold
medals in the 100 meter dash and the 200 meter dash at two
consecutive Olympics. Promptly afterwards, a jubilant Bolt got carried
away and declared himself to be "the greatest athlete ever to live".
We're not going to begrudge Bolt his glorious moment. It was a
stunning achievement. The winner of the 100 meter dash at the
Olympics is hailed as the "fastest man on earth". And while many
esteemed sprinters have held the title -- few have held it twice at two
Olympics. In fact, only American sprinter Carl Lewis has won the gold
medal at the 100 meter dash for two consecutive Olympics. Lewis won
his back-to-back Olympic gold medals in 1984 in Los Angeles, California
and 1988 in Seoul, Korea.
The first rule of thumb in comparing athletes is to try as much as
possible to compare apples to apples. Usain Bolt and Carl Lewis both
competed in the 100 meters so that's a fair comparison. In winning his
100 meter back-to-back races, Carl Lewis set one world record, in
1988. The 1988 gold medal world record performance was awarded to
Lewis after the apparent winner, Ben Johnson of Canada, was stripped
of his gold medal following a doping scandal. So two gold medals in the
100, 1 world record.
Usain Bolt, in contrast, also set the world record when he won his first
gold medal in Beijing in 2008. He did not set a world record in winning
his second gold medal in 2012.
Thus, in comparing their 100 meter performances, Usain Bolt and Carl
Lewis are equals both in terms of number of gold medals, having
earned the gold medals in consecutive Olympics, and having set world
records in 1 of the 2 consecutive Olympic 100 meter finals.
What about the 200 meters? Here, Usain Bolt has won gold medals in
two consecutive Olympics, 2008 in Beijing and yesterday in 2012 in
London. In doing so, he set the world record at 19.30 seconds.
However, he did not set the world record in winning his second 200
meter gold in London.
Lewis won the 200 meter gold in 1988 in Los Angeles but came up
short in 1988 in Seoul, "only" winning silver. Thus, Bolt edges Lewis in
head-to-head comparisons between their 100 meter and 200 meter
However, those comparisons do not settle the score between these two
great athletes nor do they answer the question of whether there is an
even greater athlete to be considered --one Michael Johnson, who won
gold medals in the 200 and 400 meters in Atlanta in 1996 setting world
records. He followed that up with gold in the 400 meters again in the
2000 Olympic Games in Sidney, Australia.
The reason the 100 meters and 200 meters comparisons can't settle the
question of who is greater between Bolt and Lewis is that Lewis also
competed in the long jump and the relays. Carl Lewis won gold medals
in the long jumps and relays in 1988 in Los Angeles. His gold medal
haul in 1988 was 4.
In contrast, Bolt competes in fewer events --three as opposed to four
for Lewis. Bolt won 3 gold in 2008 in Beijing (100 meters, 200 meters
and 4 x100 relay) and has won 2 gold medals so far in 2012 (he may
yet win another in the relays). So, in terms of total gold haul per
Olympics, it's a clear win for Lewis. In fact, Carl Lewis has won 9
Olympic gold medals in his career. He runs laps around Bolt on this
score. In terms of total gold medals, Carl Lewis stands in the Pantheon
alongside swimmer Mark Spitz (9 gold medals, 7 world records) and
swimmer Michael Phelps.
Which brings us to the undisputed king of gold medals in Olympic
history --Michael Phelps. Michael Phelps has won 18 --- yes 18--- gold
medals in the Olympics. That's over 3 times more gold medals than
In sum, the answer to the question of whether Usain Bolt is the
greatest athlete of all time, we note that he is not even the greatest
Olympic athlete of all time is clearly "no". That crown belongs to
Perhaps Usain can be forgiven his momentary hyperbole. He's a great
sprinter but he's no sports historian. As for who is the greatest athlete
ever to live, Phelps is a contender, though Bolt is not and along with
Phelps, we need to expand to non-Olympic sports and consider Jack
Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Willie
Mays, Pele, Maradonna, and of course, Muhammad Ali and many others.
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