The Greatest Olympian: Bolt or Phelps?

How can we compare the greatest sprinter and greatest swimmer in Olympic history?

The Games of the XXXI Olympiad are now over. The athletes have all gone home, and many are enjoying the transition period of their periodization cycles. A significant number of others who retired after the Games are now adjusting to their new post-competitive life.

One thing that probably won’t change among Olympic observers is speculation as to who is the greatest Olympian in history. With all the heroics of the 2016 Games still fresh in everyone’s memory, most of the discussion now centers around two names: swimmer Michael Phelps and sprinter Usain Bolt (no weightlifters, unfortunately). This acknowledges swimming and athletics as the marquee events of every summer Games.

Phelps on the way to another gold medal at Rio. [Photo credit: Fernando FrazãoCC BY 3.0]

The Argument for Phelps

Even before the Rio Games began, the “Phelps vs Bolt” argument was heating up. Neither athlete can be considered a flash in the pan, as both athletes have competed in multiple prior games: Phelps in four, Bolt in three. Both were shut out of the medals in their maiden Olympics, but then went on to medal multiple times in those subsequent. Phelps has scored 23 gold, 3 silver, and 2 bronze while Bolt has now 9 gold and no others.

Who is the better athlete? This often depends on whether the observer is a swimmer or a runner. We tend to give our own sport greater importance. An easy argument in favor of the Phelps is the sheer medal count. This is countered by the larger number of events available to an aquatic competitor but not to sprinters. There are a large number of distances, each done with a different stroke. It’s not unusual for swimmers to compete in more than one stroke and do well in each.

That aspect of the debate can be put to rest if we take one of Phelps’ events, namely the 200m medley, as a point of comparison to Bolt’s 200m sprint. Forget all the rest if you want. In the 200m, Phelps has won the gold in four consecutive Olympics, while Bolt has only three. Similarly, in the 4x100m relay races Phelps has a 4-3 edge. Phelps won three golds in a row in the 100m butterfly, matching Bolt’s 100m triple.

Another argument in favor of Phelps is the number of Olympics over which his victories have been spread. Phelps won gold in four games, Bolt in three. Longevity counts, especially in highly competitive and highly athletic events where youth generally has its way. Both men are now over 30, so both have put the run on Father Time compared to their more youthful competitors.

The Case for Bolt

So far, this looks like Phelps would have the edge even if there were fewer events in swimming. But others are not so sure that this is proof of clear-cut superiority. Bolt supporters are quick to point out that there are a lot more sprinters in the world than there are swimmers. They cite the greater accessibility of running to the people of many more countries over the world. Equipment needed is minimal. Swimming, by contrast, requires expensive pools which are not available in many Third World countries, so they are more likely to have runners than swimmers.

If that is true, that would make a sprint medal more difficult to earn. Intuitively, it would appear to be correct, but it is statistically very difficult to prove. So how else can we determine just how competitive is each sport compared to the other?

To answer that question, I will come back to the concept of athletic longevity that I mentioned earlier. Phelps has been to five Olympics, winning in four. This is extraordinary, but is it that unlikely? A previous swimming phenomenon, Mark Spitz, won 2 and 7 gold medals in the 1968 and 1972 Olympics, respectively. He retired after Munich, but attempted a comeback for the 1992 games. While he did not make the Olympic team that year, his times were close to and sometimes faster than those he did 20 years previously. If he lived anywhere but the USA he might indeed have made that country’s Olympic team.

US swimmer Dara Torres is another example of this longevity. She competed in 1984, 1988, and 1992, retired, then came back eight years later for Sydney, then took another eight year layoff before the 2008 Games. She medalled in all of them. Could a sprinter do that? I don’t think so. Even getting to five Olympics would be nearly impossible, let alone medalling.

That brings forth the question: Is the sport of swimming relatively easier to medal in than those on the track? This brings us back to Bolt and sprinting. There it is rare to win in two Olympics, let alone three. You might hold your form for five years, and if you’re lucky you can get those five years to straddle two Olympics. But to hold on for eight years is a tall order. The field in sprinting is just too competitive for anyone to think of competing for four or five quadrennials. Only the greatest get to compete at three Games, and Bolt is one of them.

Advantage: Bolt

I think the final answer to this debate must revolve around how difficult it is to accomplish the feats in question, with longevity also a factor. While I have unlimited admiration for both, I believe Bolt takes the lead in this mythical contest. While both have performed unprecedented feats over long careers, I believe that prevailing three times in three events in the greater competitive environment in sprinting makes Usain Bolt the greatest Olympian ever. Sprints are simply tougher to win.

But I do not expect this debate to end. The greatness of both will ensure that. More importantly, in interviews both have left the door ever so slightly open to the idea of competing in yet another Olympics. After all, both have “retired” before. Who knows, in 2020 this debate may still be far from over.

More on relative athletic comparison:

Rich Froning Is Not the Fittest Man in History

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