I was at work today with the dubious task of posting RFI's on construction drawings. For those who don't know, it has about the same enjoyment level of hand-washing septic tanks. After about 6 hours or so of looking through hospital drawings for miniscule details about elevator shaft openings, I began forcing myself to remain sane by focusing on the greatest debate taking place in the world today - whether Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps has been the more impressive athlete during the 2008 Olympics. The clear fact that Bolt has in fact been the greatest athlete in Beijing became more obvious as time passed, until I had in my mind 5 reasons why Bolt should be the lasting image of these Olympics. And for the record, I'm not here to rain on Phelps' parade, he was incredible, its just that in many ways he was upstaged and surpassed by a truly superhuman performance from Bolt.
Reason #1 - Less Races, but even more dominant.
The biggest accomplishment for Phelps is that he was able to win 8 events, not one singular performance in any of them. The problem in retrospect for this accomplishment, is that there were so many swimming races of similar distances and disciplines that it was easy for Phelps to win the majority of his races. On multiple occasions, Phelps ran the exact same distance and stroke and therefore won multiple gold medals. Other times, Phelps was racing against the same competitors he had already beaten, basically making the events deja vu as opposed to a unique accomplishment. Third, Phelps' main competitor wasn't even participating in these games. Ian Thorpe had impressively beaten Phelps four years ago in Athens, and could very well have challenged him again in Beijing. Without him, Phelps faced a weakened field that was much more vulnerable to domination. On the other hand, Usain Bolt has only had 2 chances to prove his greatness. It isn't Bolt's fault that there aren't multiple ways to run, and it isn't Bolt's fault that running different distances is much different than swimming different distances. The 100 and 200 meters rely on such different technical running styles that only three men have ever won both in the same Olympics. (The greatest track athlete of my lifetime previous to Bolt, Michael Johnson, didn't even bother running both events at the same time). In swimming, competitors often master one specific stroke and dominate at multiple race lengths (Peirsol, Janet Evans, etc.) Bolt didn't have that luxury, and yet completely dominated both of the toughest and most competitive events in track.
Reason #2 - Bolt was so dominant, that he could afford to celebrate during the race.
Another of the biggest criticism I'm hearing of Bolt that he was a boorish victor more interested in high-stepping that giving his best effort. I'll turn this around quickly in 2 ways. First of all, the way he celebrates has zero effect on the athletic accomplishments he made. He could strip naked, climb up to the olympic torch, and set himself on fire, but would that have anything to do with the race he just ran? Of course not. Secondly, Bolt was so incredibly dominant that he could afford to celebrate during the race and still break world records. While Phelps broke many world records as well, in many races he had very tight competition so that he could never do what Bolt did, basically affirming his greatness during the race instead of after the clock stopped running. Its funny that most track experts biggest qualm with Bolt is how he could have gone even faster if he hadn't celebrated, possibly further obliterating the most storied track record in history even more than he already did. Phelps went all out and set world-records, Bolt high-stepped it home like Deion Sanders and did the same damn thing, edge Bolt.
Reason #3 - It's rarer for track records to be broken than swimming records.
Real talk, breaking 7 world records in swimming is incredibly impressive. More real talk, every damn swim race in Beijing had a broken world record it seemed. The Water Cube was specifically designed so that world records would be broken. The depth of the pool was greater so that there would be less friction between the surface displacement and the bottom, and there were extra lanes built on the sides to absorb the water energy created by the swimmers. Even the swimsuits issued by Speedo were the most aerodynamic ever created. The result was that world records fell in swimming events at an unprecented rate. Even in Phelps' most dominant events, he wasn't the only swimmer setting records. Many times there were 3 or even 4 other swimmers at record pace while Phelps was winning. This fact doesn't cheapen his victory, but it does cheapen the magnitude that should be given to his world records. Meanwhile, Bolt was running on the same type of track his events have always been run on. There were no modifications that previous sprinters didn't have the luxury of having, and there were no equipment advantages that had never been there before. Bolt set his records in spandex and Nike's, Phelps won his in a space age swimsuit. There's a reason why the men's 100 meter record time has dropped about 0.2 seconds in my lifetime, its nearly impossible for a human to possibly move that fast. Swimming records drop by the seconds regularly thanks to technology. Track events are just a man's legs and a hard surface to run on, which makes the pure athletic ability the reason for unprecedented events, not a supercharged pool or what clothes he's wearing.
Reason #4 - Phelps got lucky on multiple occasions, Bolt didn't need luck to win
The Olympics were barely 2 days old, and Michael Phelps was already on the brink of a swimming loss. In the men's 4x100 medley relay, the US was trailing badly after he had left the pool. The announcers were already saying his dream of 8 golds was almost gone, when out of nowhere his teammate Jason Lezak saved his ass by improbably coming back to pass a French swimmer at the last possible second. Simply put, the gold Phelps earned in that race had nothing to do with what he did, but all on the efforts of his much more unheralded teammate. Next Friday night, Phelps found himself in another close race with his streak on the line. This time all his competitor had to do was outstrech his hands to win the gold, but yet inexplicably hesitated which let Phelps win in the closest swimming finish ever. Even after the event was over, the NBC commentary focused not on what Phelps did to win, but what his competitor did to lose. This race was not a victory earned by Phelps, but a victory given to him by the sheer luck of fate. Now lets compare Phelps' style of victory to Usain Bolt's. The Jamaican sprinter left so little doubt in the eyes of the viewer of his complete dominance, that there was no possible controversy or twist of fate that gifted him a victory. Bolt's own competitors, including previous 100 meter record holder Tyson Gay, were left in absolute awe of his sprints. Bolt not only set unprecedented records, but he did them in the most lopsided victory margins ever, even against the fastest fields ever assembled in the 100 and 200 meters.
5. Bolt broke his records in unfavorable conditions.
While Michael Phelps was racing to glory in controlled conditions at the Water Cube, Bolt was being thrown to the mercy of the elements outdoors. Sprinters can't choose what conditions they have to perform in, and in reality Bolt was performing in what had to be considered bad weather to try and set world records in. In Bolt's 200 meter triumph he was actually running into a headwind, which tried to slow him down during the race. What is so incredible is that Bolt still broke the record despite this, and that its guaranteed he would have broken the record by an even greater margin had the conditions even been neutral, let alone if they were actually favoring him. Swimmers of the advantage of having the natural elements taken out of play in their races, Bolt wasn't this fortunate and yet was even more impressive considering the negative circumstances affecting his races.
A lot of people have already made up their minds that Phelps is the better athlete. They don't like Bolt's celebratory style, they discount that he only won 2 races as opposed to Phelps' 8. They even put Phelps ahead because he's American and Bolt isn't. These same people will probably feel that i'm full of shit by even trying to argue for Bolt athletic superiority. I'm not even going to blast these people, for I am not of the ability to shape or change the beliefs of people who have already made up their minds on something. I am also not going to demean anything Michael Phelps did in Beijing, because he is an incredible athlete with incredible accomplishments. I just hope that people who read this and disagree with me at least read the points I tried to make and at least agree that Usain Bolt is worthy of just as much awe and praise for his athletic achievements as Phelps has earned, and that he is simply put the most incredible track athlete in the history of competitive sport.