So Usain Bolt has just claimed a third-straight 100m Sprint Gold Medal. He now has 7 Gold Medals, and counting.
But for many, Michael Phelps is the greater Olympian, by virtue of his 23 Gold Medals.
But despite everything you’ve ever been told about mathematics, I’m about to argue that 7 is Greater than 23.
Yes, Bolt is Greater than Phelps.
Michael Phelps is the most complete swimmer of all time. That is beyond dispute.
Phelps’ has an unprecedented ability to master a number of different swimming strokes. His pet event is Butterfly, but he is elite in freestyle as well, and no slouch in backstroke or breaststroke obviously.
Of Phelps’ 23 Gold Medals:
- 7 are Relay Freestyle Golds
- 6 are Individual Butterfly Golds
- 5 are Individual Medley Golds
- 4 are Butterfly-as-part-of-Medley-Relay Golds
- 1 is an Individual Freestyle Gold.
Wow. What a tally.
Meanwhile in Athletics, Usain Bolt is quite simply the fastest human ever to have lived.
His 9.58s World Record over 100m and 19.19s World Record over 200m are testament to this fact.
Bolt is a sprinter. Sure, he has the option to include the gut-busting 400m “sprint” in his repertoire. He could even have had a go at the long jump where his pace and length would stand him in good stead.
He has chosen not to do those events, though. He focuses entirely on:
- 100m Sprint
- 200m Sprint
- 4x100m Relay.
So at each Olympics Bolt has been a serious threat at, he has competed in 3 events, and won 3 Gold Medals.
He’s done that twice, something no-one has ever done.
He’s aiming for a 3rd treble at Rio, and has started in the best possible fashion – claiming an unprecedented third-straight Olympic 100m Sprint Gold Medal.
If Bolt claims the 200m also 4x100m Relay Golds at Rio, he will have 9 Gold Medals to his name.
So are Bolt’s 7-with-a-shot-at-9 more impressive than Phelps’ 21-and-counting?!
It boils down to what you consider a better measure of ‘Greatness’:
The most complete swimmer in human history, or the fastest runner in human history?
Well, for me in this context, Fast beats Complete.
Another sprinter might be more complete than Bolt, better technically and possibly better when weighing their average 100m, 200, 400m, Relay, and even 1500m abilities… but that doesn’t matter, does it? What matters is that Bolt would beat them over 100m.
Just as we don’t hand out Olympic Golds for being a technically sound sprinter… we measure athletes on their ability to get from A-to-B fastest.
Absolutely nothing else matters.
But aren’t 21 Gold Medals a testament to Phelps being the fastest swimmer, not just the most complete?
The answer is no.
You see, Phelps wins medals precisely because swimming has so many medals to give in slower events.
I broke down his medals before, but let me re-frame them:
- 10 of Phelps’ Gold Medals are for being the Greatest Butterfly swimmer ever (Individual Butterfly plus Butterfly-as-part-of-a-Medley-Relay)
- 7 are for being one of the best handful of Freestyle swimmers from the USA’s Relay teams.
- 5 are for being a truly great all-round swimmer (Medleys)
- And one, only one, of his Gold Medals is from being the fastest person between two points in the water (Individual Freestyle)
That breakdown shows you how many opportunities there are for elite swimmers to obtain medals.
Now this is not something you find in any other Olympic event.
For some arbitrary reason, swimming has included 4 different strokes… even though 3 of these strokes are decidedly slower swimming techniques… and they’ve included a combination of those strokes… and relays… and the combination relays… in their list of Olympic events.
There is no sound logical reason, beyond the history and legacy of these events, to include so many strokes, medleys, and relays in the Olympic Games.
There are more Gold Medals available to swimmers than in any other event at the Olympic Games.
Ultimately this means there is no way for Bolt to mirror Phelps’ Olympic workload.
Even if, in a huge hypothetical, Bolt had mastered the Long Jump and 400m and Jamaica was unstoppable at the 4x400m as well, Bolt would be on 18 medals after Rio, still shy of Phelps’ 21…
But no sane person could possibly argue for Phelps being Greater than Bolt if Bolt had claimed the 100m, 200m, 400m, 1x400m, 4x400m, and Long Jump Gold Medals at 3 consecutive Olympic Games. It would be ridiculous to do so.
We would just shut down the Olympics forever and declare Bolt the Undisputed King of All The Olympics Ever had he done that.
And unfortunately for Bolt, there are no sprint events where the objective is deliberately impeded by forcing people to run slower in a certain manner. Only hurdles, an event most sprinters avoid because of the greater potential for injury.
Athletics means getting from A-to-B as fast as you can, either individually or as part of a team.
Bolt does that better than anyone. Ever.
Swimming, it seems, means getting from A-to-B as fast as you can, either individually or as part of a team…
…or possibly not as fast as you can but in a different awkward way, you know, to make it more challenging and stuff… or possibly in a combination of ways including both fastest and not-as-fast ways… or possibly as a team again but this time each individual doing it differently…
So Phelps has plundered the pool Medal allocation. I have tremendous respect for that. I certainly don’t blame him for making the most of the events presented to him, and he’s never known it to be different so he’s dedicated his life to these events. Fair play to him.
But it cannot be denied that swimmers have more opportunity to win medals than their counterparts on dry land.
Nor can it be denied that Freestyle is the most logical form of swimming to use in a competitive setting, and that the inclusion of other strokes is strangely arbitrary even if they are included in the Olympics.
Why breastroke, backstroke, and butterfly? Why not doggypaddle, survival backstroke, or sidestroke?
If Athletics had events such as the ‘Fastest Backwards Runner’ and the ‘Fastest Runner without using your arms’ and ‘Fastest Skipper’ included in the Olympics, who knows how many more Gold’s Usain Bolt would have to his name?
I’m being facetious, obviously, but I’m doing so to point out that Butterfly, Backstroke, and Breaststroke events are not necessarily logical inclusions in the Olympics Games.
After all, the Olympic motto is Citius, Altius, Fortius – Faster, Higher, Stronger.
Freestyle, getting from A-to-B as quickly as possible through the water, is rightfully the most highly-regarded swimming event. The 100m Freestyle is the Blue Riband event of Olympic swimming, for good reason.
And Phelps holds no Freestyle World Records.
Which means Phelps is not the fastest swimmer alive over any distance whatsoever. Not unless you add an asterisk of *doing a stroke involving a deliberate and arbitrary impediment.
Bolt is the fastest sprinter alive, ever, no matter how you look at it.
That is why, for me, Bolt is greater.
And to be honest, for me, if Bolt claims 3 more sprint Golds at Rio, it won’t even be particularly close.