Neither Usain Bolt nor Michael Phelps is the greatest athlete of all time

Sep 2, 2012 by

Neither Usain Bolt nor Michael Phelps is the greatest athlete of all time

During this year’s Olympics a burning question among media pundits and Olympic athletes was, Who is the greatest athlete of all time? Early in the Olympics the focus was on Michael Phelps as he broke the all-time record for total medals won by an Olympian; he would go on to add to his total, finishing the London games with an impressive 22 career medals, including 18 gold, spanning 3 Olympic games. In the second half of the Olympics the talk shifted to Usain Bolt who impressively defended all three of his golds from the Beijing Olympics, winning the 4 x 100m relay and the 100m, 200m sprints.   Everyone at the games seemed to have a view on the matter and even Bolt had an opinion saying “I’m now a legend, I’m also the greatest athlete to live”.   It’s difficult not to consider Bolt a legend in the making and there are many who will agree with him, considering him the greatest athlete ever.  Others will point to Phelps accomplishments and rate him as the greatest athlete of all time.  But I’m here to suggest that despite their accomplishments, neither Bolt nor Phelps should be considered the greatest athlete of all time.  Their accomplishments are impressive and are worthy of some consideration for this distinction; however, before we crown anyone the greatest athlete of all time we need try to remove ourselves from the freshness of the London games and try to have a more balanced approach.

The greatest athlete cannot be measured by dominating a single event.    Being great at a single distance or a variation of a similar distance, or a single event, does not make one the best athlete of all time – It simply makes him the best at his discipline.  Both Phelps and Bolt participate in short-distance competitions and have been the best of this recent generation of athletes and may be the best of all time in their given specialties, but that’s the most that can be said about them.  There are no other measurements of their skill-sets that suggest more: no matter how many medals they win, it doesn’t serve to reinforce the argument any further, except to further entrench their standing as amongst the best of all time in their given sports.  This doesn’t undermine their accomplishments or their excellence, but it’s premature and irresponsible to put them in a lofty category that assuredly must require a broader spectrum of considerations. Phelps may have won the most medals of all time, but he also participates in a number of variations of a similar movement.  Certainly, if we held a race for running backwards in the 100 and 200 meter, or perhaps a race where participants run sideways for similar lengths, Bolt would have a larger medal toll.  It wouldn’t change anything though.  We might consider him more versatile in his short distance running, but how would he fare in the 800m or 3000m or the 10,000m? How would Bolt fare if we threw him in a pool and had Phelps run short-distance track?  Is there any guarantee that either would achieve any level of success in the other’s field?   Each is an impressive physical specimen, but their genetic advantages and dominance in one sport do not necessitate that their skill sets are easily transferable into other disciplines.  It’s just not that simple.  They might still excel in other sports, but for us to assume they would achieve outstanding feats in other sports undermines the dedication, discipline and skill to be great at anything.   It also minimizes the great accomplishments of other athletes competing in different disciplines.  It could be argued that Farah Mo’s winning both the 5000m and 10,000m are just as impressive as Bolt’s winning the 100 and 200; but outside of Great Britain how many people even know who Mo is? The major difference between Bolt and Mo is that Bolt competes in the more popular sport; short-distance track has long been the darling among spectators and the media.  It’s the easiest to understand and it comes with the title the fastest man on earth.  As a result, there has long been a different standard applied to the way certain sports are covered and discussed among media and fans alike.  There is an element of favouritism to short distance track and admittedly there is a unique sex appeal to winning the 100m that doesn’t come with winning other track events such as middle or long distance running.  After all, who doesn’t want to be the fastest man on earth? But whose accomplishments are greater and what are the traits one needs to have to be considered the greatest athlete of all time?  I don’t pretend to know the answers, but I do know that we need to give consideration to a much wider group of athletes.

It’s a daunting task trying to determine who the greatest athlete of all time is.  Men like Bolt and Phelps will always be in the conversation, deserving or not, simply due to their dominance of a sport during a particular era.  But shouldn’t we consider athletes who require a broader skill set such as decathletes, or gymnasts? These athletes must be great at a number of disciplines and yet how many reading today can tell me who won the Olympic men’s decathlon in London(Adam Eaton)?  Part of the reason men like Bolt are considered among the top candidates is due to the nature of the sport they compete in and its vast popularity; but that should not preclude us from considering athletes participating in far more gruelling and nuanced disciplines.  Also we need to determine the physical movements, attributes or combination of skills that should be given a higher ranking.  This task in itself is subject to so many variables, that it warrants a much broader treatment than is being written here.  In addition, we need to consider broader influences such as the evolution of nutrition and training, technology, cultural, political and historical settings.  How do we compare athletes from different eras considering all of these aspects?  It’s fair to say that getting a consensus on who and why someone should be considered the greatest athlete of all time is something that requires more thought than simply rewarding the most recent headline-grabbing athlete.

Another group of athletes that are not given enough consideration are professionals.  The Olympics occur every four years; professional athletes have to play every night 6-10 months a year.  Dominating a sport such as hockey, football or soccer for a decade or longer is far more impressive and challenging.  Enduring the rigours of difficult travel and having to perform at the highest level nightly in front of large stadium and massive television audiences, while enduring the physical and emotional pounding and being subject to daily media scrutiny makes the professional athlete’s role a distinctly challenging one.  Yes they are paid vast sums of money, but that doesn’t mitigate the impressive qualities they tend to have – especially the generational players that define eras.  Men like Bobby Orr, Pele, Michael Jordan, and Joe Montana dominated their sports for an era; and it can be said that the versatility required to do so is far more difficult to embody than the ability to run quickly in a straight line for 100 meters consistently.  This doesn’t minimize the accomplishments of men like Bolt, but we need to have some collective perspective on the topic and give more serious consideration to those athletes who perform above their peers on a nightly basis.   Professionals have no place to hide when they have a bad night, or a bad year. Amateur athletes have the advantage of living in relative obscurity and are almost always given the benefit of the doubt when they don’t live up to expectations.   We hold amateur athletes in such high regard, because there is a tendency to view their accomplishments in a more honourable light.  There may be some truth in that point of view; however, it shouldn’t prevent us from considering professionals among the greatest athletes of all time.

The truth is that’s its impossible to designate one person as the greatest athlete of all time.  It’s a topic muddied by media coverage, popularity, history, technology and subjectivity to name a few.  And yet we seem determined to anoint someone simply because he has demonstrated recent excellence, especially one who competes at an amateur level. In the process we forget all that has passed before: like the history of sport has no relevance or meaning; or that a professional athlete cannot be considered because he receives a regular pay check for playing sport.  I don’t pretend to have a solution and perhaps the important thing to take away is that it’s a fun topic to debate which has no objective truth.  But it seems ludicrous to name someone the greatest athlete of all time, because he swims laps or runs short distances faster than his peers during a specific era.  They may have achieved greatness, but they are not the greatest.


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