The big debate: Bolt or Phelps?

Almost since the hundredth of a second after Usain Bolt crossed the line of the 200-meters and entered Olympic history, the argument started. In fact, I started fielding the questions and e-mails about it as soon as word trickled out from Beijing about Bolt’s explosion in the 200-meters.

The question:

Which is more significant in Olympic history – Usain Bolt winning the 100 and 200-meters and obliterating the world record in both events, or Michael Phelps winning eight gold medals in eight events in the swimming competition?

It was an easy question and one that I didn’t put too much thought into.

“Bolt,” was my knee-jerk answer and I just left it at that.

Mostly, my answer was based on my own biases. Track and running is far and away my most favorite sport and easily the most exciting. Actually, I just received a message from a writer covering the Olympics in Beijing in which I was officially proclaimed, “The Duke of Running Dorkdom.”

It’s a proud honor.

Nevertheless, I thought about the comparison between Bolt and Phelps on the drive back to The Lanc last night and came to the conclusion that the argument is odious. There is no way to quantify the two sports simple because they are so different. Sure, athletes in running and swimming go anaerobic for significant amounts of time. Fitness and training is the cornerstone of being good at both sports. However, one is non-impact and in the other the athlete takes a beating.

I don’t know about swimming mostly because it always seemed like a bit of a country club sport to me (maybe I’m wrong), but it doesn’t seem as if there are many injuries outside of sloppy training issues. For instance, overtraining and fatigue are probably the biggest culprits that could derail a swimmer’s career.

But in running everyone will get injured at one point or another. Guaranteed. If you train to run you will get injured at some point in your career.

This is not to compare which one is tougher. That’s odious, too. Besides, whenever I get in the pool I sink right to the bottom. I’m about as buoyant as a brick and that makes swimming difficult. But in terms of significance and the event that will have the most impact on its sport, I’m sticking right there with Usain.

Firstly, Bolt’s double was a Neil Armstrong moment. The fastest any human had ever run the 100 meters was 9.69 by Obadale Thompson in 1996, but that record was thrown out because a significant tailwind had pushed the sprinters to the finish line. When Bolt ran his 9.69 in Beijing last Saturday, he was the second slowest runner out of the blocks and then shut it down over the last five strides of the race so he could celebrate.

Bolt had built such a devastating lead over the rest of the Olympic field that he had time to look back to see if anyone was gaining on him. In a race decided by tenths of a second, such a notion is absurd – especially in a race where the best runners in the world are present.

Ato Boldon, a track commentator for NBC and four-time Olympic medalist in the 100 and 200 meters said Bolt could have broken 9.6 if he had run to completion.

It was otherworldly.

“You have people who are exceptions,” said Stephen Francis, the coach of Bolt’s main Jamaican rival, Asafa Powell, the former 100 world-record holder. “You have Einstein. You have Isaac Newton. You have Beethoven. You have Usain Bolt. It’s not explainable how and what they do.”

Bolt ran to completion in the 200 and the result was the same. However, this time Bolt smashed a record that most track aficionados thought would never be broken – or at least not broken in just 12 years. When Michael Johnson ran 19.32 in Atlanta for the 1996 Olympics, it was viewed as a man-on-the-moon moment. No one had come closer than 19.62 before or since Johnson stunned the world.

In calling the action on TV, Boldon screamed about how he could not believe that he just saw the one record he believed was untouchable, torn apart. Watching the race as a commentator for the BBC, Johnson celebrated along with 90,000 in the Olympic Stadium. Not only had Johnson seen his record beaten, but also Bolt had run into a headwind to do it.

At its essence, Bolt’s feat was a transcendent sports moment. It was the “Shot heard ‘round the world.”

“It’s ridiculous,” said Kim Collins of St. Kitts and Nevis, who finished sixth in the race. “How fast can you go before the world record can’t be broke? How fast can the human being go before there’s no more going fast?”

People thought the same thing when Johnson ran 19.32 in Atlanta.

“I didn’t think I’d see under 19.30 in my lifetime,” said Renaldo Nehemiah, a former gold medalist in the 100 hurdles for the United States. “[Bolt is] doing something we’ve never seen before.”

Phelps, with the jingoist coverage of NBC promoting his every move (not his fault), took advantage of the technological advances in his sport to one-up Mark Spitz’s record of seven gold medals in 1972. Some have called the new swimming suits and the scientifically-engineered pool in Beijing, “technological doping.” In fact, even Spitz points out that if there were the same amount of events in 1972 that exist now, he would have won more than seven gold medals.

Though he appears to be the best swimmer, Phelps did not look invincible during the Olympics. Perhaps in another time without the cameras and technology draped over every angle and inch of the Olympic pool, Phelps might have been awarded the silver in the 100-meter butterfly that he won by .01. Or if his relay anchor had swum just .01 slower Phelps would have bagged an early silver while watching from poolside.

Not to diminish the feat – especially since he swam in 17 preliminaries and finals to get his eight medals – but Phelps had some luck on his side.

Bolt left no doubt.

Secondly, and maybe more importantly, the cultural significance of Bolt’s show in Beijing can’t be understated. Though NBC downplayed Bolt’s races, showing them some 13 hours after they occurred and then offering just one replay, the rest of the world was tuned in live and celebrating right along with the Jamaicans. Part of that is because track and field is wildly popular in the rest of the world and part of it is because NBC doesn’t get it.

Regardless, thanks to Bolt and the rest of the Jamaican sprinters that piled up the medals on the track in Beijing, the tiny island country is galvanized. Jamaica is a poor island country of just 2.8 million people with a high crime and poverty rate. As a result, the most popular sports are the ones that don’t require a lot of expensive equipment.

Running, the most egalitarian of sports, is clearly where the Jamaicans are best. In fact, three of the top five best times in the 100- meters have been run by Jamaican-born athletes. Meanwhile, three out of the last five Olympic champions in the 100 have been born in Jamaica.

This time around, Jamaica has won eight medals on the track.

In the U.S., Phelps is undoubtedly one of the most popular athletes. However, will his popularity last when the NFL season hits its stride? Is Phelps’ popularity to a level that teems of kids are asking their parents for memberships to the aquatic club in order to train to be the next Michael Phelps?

Probably not. Take what Olympic scholar, Kyle Whelliston wrote on his site, Swifter Higher:

No matter what Jacques Rogge says on Sunday night, these are not the Greatest Games Ever, Dream Games, or even Spectacular Games. The International Olympic Committee awards a nation and city the right to carve out a place for a temporary Olympia every four years, and no government has accomplished this as destructively and as cruelly as China. Thousands have been displaced to create these stadiums, and countless numbers of citizens have been detained and killed in the name of Olympic security.

But this is just another chapter — the twenty-ninth — in the history of the modern Games, and it’s certainly not the first time the Olympics have fallen short of its goal to better the world through sport. But the local and national governments have tackled the problem of hosting this festival in an unprecedentedly negative and destructive way, nearly always at odds with the high human ideals of the original founders. Beijing 2008 will always be remembered as a show of brutal strength.

To me, Usain Bolt is the true center and defining face of these Olympics. Not Michael Phelps, who had promised to show us something we’ve never seen before. The thing is that we have seen this before — the white American hero who conquers the world and takes home all the prizes.

This time, though, it comes during an era when the U.S. has a tragic misunderstanding of the East, a damaged global reputation due to its own government’s bloody conquests, as well as an economy dangerously dependent on foreign credit. Phelps’ eight gold medals are little else than a distraction, pleasant nostalgia of easier times for those who don’t want to accept 21st Century reality. Underneath all the forced politeness, the Olympic host country is America’s mortal enemy — and a formidable loan shark in the making.

Amidst all this, a happy young man from an island nation who rewrote the books of records and rules, here in the miniature and insignificant world of athletic achievement. Sure, this is a lot to be made of people running around a rubber track, but maybe Usain Bolt can represent a symbolic ray of hope.

Maybe on a larger scale, there are still some new solutions to be found for old problems.

In Jamaica, a country seen by outsiders only from the resorts, the celebration for the 22-year-old Bolt is just getting warmed up.

So which man feat is the most remarkable? Who knows. But don’t doubt that Bolt’s runs were more significant.

2 thoughts on “The big debate: Bolt or Phelps?

  1. John,

    Excellent post, John. Just a great read.

    With two kids in swimming, I don’t agree that it’s a “country club sport,” (if it were, I couldn’t afford it ;)), but otherwise, I think you nailed it completely.

    In many ways, I think Phelps handled these Olympics in much the same way that Lance Armstrong approached the tour: a very talented individual taking greater advantages of technological advances than their lesser talented competition.

    Nothing wrong with that, understand, and I cheered for Phelps the same way I always cheered for Armstrong. But I found myself in awe of Bolt.

    One other thing: the IOC complaining about Bolt’s celebrations. I’d take that any day over the whining and complaining from the losers and the guys who act disgusted when they “only” come in 2nd or 3rd.

  2. Yeah, I guess “country club” is the wrong word, however, I suspect people aren’t building Olympic-sized pools in their yards for training.

    And, yes, “awe” is the correct word for Usain Bolt. Not to diminish what Phelps did, but he certainly got a lucky in a few of his races. Besides, Phelps could have won 30 medals and it wouldn’t have been as significant as Bolt’s double.

    It’s just too bad that NBC was out to lunch on everything. Maybe sports fans will get lucky when their contract runs out and ESPN buys the rights.

    Jacques Rogge is an idiot. Maybe he’s inhaling too much of that dirty air… I mean fog… in Beijing.

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