Ed Willes: Hard to Compare Legendary Performances From Phelps, Bolt
RIO DE JANEIRO — This much we know. We’ll never see their kind again.
Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt came to Rio with their legends in place: Phelps, the greatest swimmer of all time; Bolt, the greatest sprinter of all time.
They’ve since added another layer to their mythology: Phelps with his five-gold, one-silver performance at the Olympic pool; Bolt with his third-straight gold in the 100 metres. They are undoubtedly the two greatest summer Olympians of all time.
But how do they stack up against each other?
It’s an interesting question, maybe one without an answer because it’s like picking the best Beatles’ song or Olivier’s greatest role. Phelps has his grotesque medal haul. Bolt has his historical dominance in the glamour events of the Olympics. Is one resume more impressive than the other? Does the record book identify the greater athlete?
At the risk of stating the obvious, that’s hard to quantify.
Phelps’ numbers are Gretzkian in their width and breadth and, like the Great One’s career, they demand an outside context to be put in perspective. Comparing Phelps to other swimmers is largely meaningless because, if he were a country, he’d rank fourth on the all-time list of gold-medal winners. His 23 gold medals would also tie him with South Africa for 38th place on the all-time list of both Summer and Winter Games and, of the 205 countries which are in Rio, Phelps has more gold medals than all but 32 of them.
It’s crazy right? Twenty-eight medals. Twenty-three gold. That puts Phelps 14 ahead of the next closest Olympians in history. But, because he’s a swimmer, he’s been uniquely positioned to amass that total and that’s where Phelps has a huge advantage over Bolt.
Ten of his gold medals and 12 of his overall medals have come in relay events. Bolt gets one relay on his schedule. Phelps get three relays each Olympics. Bolt has raced in two relays in his Olympic career. Since Athens, Phelps has swam in 12.
True, if you take those relay medals away Phelps is still the runaway career leader in golds and total medals. But it’s fair to say those races have inflated his totals.
Phelps, in fact, has won more golds in relay events then he has in any individual discipline. His most impressive performance, and the most profound expression of his greatness, has been in the individual medley where he’s won six gold, including the 200 metres in Rio. Think of what that says about his mastery of the sport. Think about what it says about his versatility and overall athleticism. And he’s won those medals over a 12-year stretch.
He also has six gold in the butterfly, including back-to-back doubles of the 100 and 200 in Athens and Beijing.
So he’s far from a one-trick pony. But this concept of the super swimmer has been in play in past Olympics. Mark Spitz, of course, won seven gold in Munich, then retired at 22. Don Schollander won four gold in Tokyo when he was 18.
This doesn’t diminish what Phelps has achieved. But it’s worth noting.
As for Bolt, no one has come close to him on the track or in history and, if you were going to make a case for the sprinter, it would be about the singularity of his records. Bolt has won the 100 over three straight Olympics. Before he came along, the odious Carl Lewis was the only sprinter to defend his gold and let’s just say there’s room to question the authenticity of Lewis’s performance. Lewis’s first gold also came in the boycotted Games in Los Angeles.
The 200, you ask? Bolt is the only sprinter in history to win consecutive golds over that distance. He’s looking to convert for a third time on Thursday.
Bolt will always suffer in a numerical comparison with Phelps. But in the larger, more subjective realm, he’s superior to the American. The Jamaican has reached a place on the world stage that transcends sports. Muhammad Ali occupies the most cherished seat in that pantheon, but Bolt ranks with a Pele or a Jordan.
As colleague Steve Simmons so eloquently pointed out in the aftermath of the 100-metre final, Andre de Grasse runs for Canada. Bolt runs for the world.
So back to our original question and, sorry, we can’t provide a definitive answer. But the mere fact that this conversation exists is all you need to know about these two athletes. They arrived at the same time and they will be forever connected in the popular imagination.
Over that time, they’ve given their audience that rare sight of once-in-a-lifetime greatness, the kind we’ll tell our grandchildren about who’ll tell their grandchildren. They’re leaving the stage now and leaving a great void behind them. But they will always be linked, the American and the Jamaican, because the only relevant standard they can be measured by is each other.