‘Ottawa’ Steve Simmons: Michael Phelps May Dominate Pool, But Usain Bolt in a Class of His Own
RIO DE JANEIRO — The discussion began again, just after Usain Bolt crossed the finish line Sunday night — a carryover of debate from four years ago.
Michael Phelps or Bolt? The swimmer or the sprinter? The man with 23 gold medals or his counterpart with seven gold medals and two more races to run here?
It is the kind of conversation you can’t resist, an easy hour for a talk radio show producer, and as much as it might be apples and oranges, different sports, different events, very different athletes, it is not unlike comparing Jordan to Gretzky or Orr to Montana.
You start the talk — and it can go on all night. And yes, thank you, we’ll have another beer.
By sheer volume, the answer should be easy. The numbers tell you it’s Phelps. He has 28 Olympic medals. Three of them are silver. Two are bronze. All the rest, gold. Those are crazy, wacky, impossible numbers. They always will be crazy, wacky, impossible numbers assuming Phelps keeps his word this time and stays retired.
How can he not be the greatest?
But here’s another way of viewing those totals: Phelps has raced 30 times as an Olympian. He has won 23 of those events. He won medals in five other races, but he didn’t win them. In real athletic terms, someone else won seven of the races Phelps took part in.
That gives Phelps seven Olympic losses.
Bolt has one. Barely.
He has been in eight Olympic events — three 100s, three 200s, two relays. He is the first sprinter in history to win three 100-metre races in three straight Olympics. The record book shows only one other Olympic sprinter with as many as two straight in the 100 and that person is Carl Lewis, who won his second 100 under dubious circumstances.
Bolt is racing for his third straight 200 win here. No sprinter in history has repeated as 200 champion. He can make it three in a row here. No one has more than one. He could have three.
Bolt’s only Olympic defeat is barely recorded in history. He was 17 years old. Running in the first round of the 200 metres. On a bad leg. He didn’t advance to the second round in Athens.
Four years later, he won everything. He has never lost an Olympic final race — he’s seven for seven, including relays in Beijing and London, and after the 200 there is still the 4×100 relay with Bolt running anchor for the Jamaican team.
Swimming has more events — probably too many — more opportunities, the same differences, different strokes. This is one of the amazing strengths of Phelps’ career. He won the 200 individual medley four Olympics in a row.
Does anyone ever mention that? That individual medley race. Any individual medley race, much as I love individual medleys.
The Olympics of Rio have never been more alive than when Bolt walked onto the track at the Olympic Stadium Sunday night. The crowd noise was deafening. The excitement apparent. Those who weren’t at the stadium, who were on the streets where bars and restaurants are open, stopped. The whole city froze before the gun went off and Bolt beat former gold medal winner Justin Gatlin to the finish line.
He beat Gatlin here, Gatlin and Yohan Blake in London. There is always a rival: His sprinting wins in Beijing and London were so convincing and so breathtaking that you couldn’t look away, you had to stare, you had to giggle, you were watching something your eyes and mind told you wasn’t possible. And you were thrilled and maybe a touch overwhelmed by seeing it.
That’s Bolt, without the histrionics, without the dancing and the playfulness and all that he has become over time, without his persona as the world’s largest kid. It’s one thing to be the greatest sprinter of all-time. It’s another to be the greatest entertainer and the most beloved figure in your sport. The charm of Muhammad Ali, without political substance.
Phelps has changed swimming and the Olympics forever, I kept reading this week. I’m just not sure how. He would win swimming butterfly, then win swimming freestyle, but mostly butterfly. The greatest butterfly and medley swimmer of all time.
When he swims, America stops but the rest of the world doesn’t. As I wrote the other day, Bolt doesn’t run for Jamaica, he runs for the world.
Another way to look at this: If Phelps was coming to swim in your town, would he draw a crowd, would there be lineups to watch him? Could he sell out the Pan Am pool in Toronto, or the equivalent in other Canadian cities? I don’t know.
But if Bolt was coming to run, wouldn’t you want to be there? Wouldn’t you want to take your kids? For less than 10 seconds. The greatest 10 seconds in sport.
The chance to tell them: Look, there’s the greatest Olympian we’ve ever known. No matter what your American cousins may tell you.