Bolt easily breaking the world record at Beijing with a world record 9.69.
If there is anything sports fans love to argue about it’s who is the better of two athletes. Could Mohammad Ali beat Mike Tyson? Was Wilt Chamberlain a better basketball player than Michael Jordan? Was Bo Jackson a better two-sport athlete than Deion Sanders? Was Jim Thorpe a better all-around athlete than Babe Didrikson Zaharias? Whose accomplishments in his chosen sport are more significant: Tiger Woods’ or Lance Armstrong’s? And, most recently, who was the better athlete at the Beijing and London Olympics: Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt?
Ever since the London Games came to a close, I’ve heard the opinions of many sports experts on this question. Right up front I will give you my answer: Usain Bolt.
Bolt’s performance in the 100 meters at the Beijing Olympics was freakish. First, consider that Bolt is 6-foot-5, a height that is not considered ideal for the 100, as it is often difficult for such tall individuals to accelerate out of the starting blocks. Considered primarily a 200-meter runner, Bolt had started focusing on the 100 only 13 months prior to the 2008 Olympics. Despite these obstacles and the fact that he was running into a headwind, Bolt ran a world record 9.69 in Beijing, breaking the record he’d set three months earlier by .03 seconds.
Bolt’s performance in the 200 meters in Beijing was equally amazing, perhaps even more so than in the 100. Prior to this Olympics no one other than Michael Johnson, who broke the world record in the Atlanta Olympics with 19.32, had run faster than 19.62 seconds in this event. Bolt’s pre-Olympic personal best was 19.67. For these reasons, many track experts thought that Michael Johnson’s world record was untouchable. They were wrong.
This time, pushing himself throughout the entire race, Bolt crossed the finish line in 19.30 seconds, becoming the first man to win the sprint double since Carl Lewis did so in 1988 and the only one to ever break world records in both events at the same Olympics. Further, the last person to hold world records for the 100 and 200 simultaneously was Donald Quarrie, another Jamaican, upon whom Bolt said he modeled his running style. Even then, Bolt wasn’t finished making Olympic history in Beijing – there was still the 4x100 relay.
Running the third leg in the relay, Bolt added another gold medal to his trophy case when his team finished in 37.10 seconds, breaking the 16-year-old world record by .3 seconds. Only two other individuals, Bobby Morrow in 1956 and Jesse Owens in 1936, won gold in the 100, 200 and 400 – but neither of them set world records in the 100 or 200.
Finally, factor in this fact: All Bolt’s races in Beijing were blowouts. He won the 100 by .2 seconds, the 200 by .66 seconds, and the 4x100 by .96 seconds. The latter result was the largest margin of victory in the Olympics in the relay event since the 1936 Games. Three gold medals, three world records, and Bolt made it look easy!
In 2009 at the World Championships in Berlin, Bolt shattered his world records in the 100 with 9.58 and in the 200 with 19.19. Also that year he ran the 150 meters in 14.35, breaking the record of 14.99 set by Donovan Bailey when he raced against Michael Johnson in 1977. And in 2010 Bolt ran the 300 meters in 30.97 on a wet track, an especially impressive time, as the world record is 30.85 held by Michael Johnson.
At the 2012 Olympics, Bolt became the only man to defend his titles for both the 100 and 200 meters. He also led the Jamaican 4x100 team to a gold medal and a world record of 36.84. Six finals, six gold, four world records.
The Phelps Factor
All right, before I get loads of hate mail from Michael Phelps fans who believe he is the greatest Olympian of all time, I need to explain my position. Phelps’s performance is certainly remarkable and unprecedented, but I contend that Phelps cannot qualify as a better athlete than Bolt.
Let’s start by considering how competition figures into this discussion. According to the NCAA, there is a 3.1 percent chance of a high school athlete moving on to play at the college level, or about 1 in 35. Of those, only about 1.2 percent will get drafted to the pro ranks. In other words, only about 3 out of every 10,000 high school basketball players make it to the pros. And of those, only the best of the best will make it to the Olympic team. That’s why pro athletes – the cream of the elite – can easily defeat amateur teams from other countries that have been playing together for years. Talent prevails.
To understand why competition is so important in this debate of great sprinter vs. great swimmer, consider that competition in track and field is much fiercer than in swimming. Virtually anyone can run, but only a fraction of the population can swim beyond a few strokes – for example, experts estimate that only 30 percent of Americans can swim 100 yards. As such, there is a much larger genetic pool of athletes who are trying to reach an elite level in sprinting compared to swimming.
Next, swimming is still underdeveloped as a sport, especially when compared to track and field, which has world records from the 1980s that are still on the books. If track and field athletes trained under the same methodology as swimming, you could time people in the 100 meters with a calendar! Think about it. How was swimmer Dara Torres able to earn an Olympic silver medal at age 41, an age more than twice that of some of her competitors, and four years later just miss making her sixth Olympic team in 2012? Because Torres is training smarter than her younger colleagues! Could a 41-year-old athlete do as well in track? No way.
Torres has basically applied what is called a “George Costanza approach” to swimming in that she does the opposite of what is currently done by her competitors (Costanza was a fictional character in the Seinfeld television show). Just look at Torres’ physique, which she obviously built with heavy weight training, and compare it to those of her younger competitors. She has the strength of a man and the hydrodynamics of a woman – an ideal combination for a champion swimmer. She is an innovative athlete; and as soon as her younger competitors follow her lead, she and other athletes her age will no longer be competitive.
Phelps has tremendous spirit, and in London he added to his medal count with four gold and two silver – a total of 22 in three Olympics. Further, Phelps’s coach was trained by the best, Paul Bergen. I worked with Bergen in training Allison Higson to break the world record in breaststroke. Michael Phelps is great, but Usain Bolt is better.