Usain Bolt will be attempting to pull off the gold medal trifecta of winning the 100 meter, 200 meter, and 4×100 relay for the third Olympics in a row when the heavily favored Jamaicans run the relay final tonight. How ridiculous is that? Here’s some historical perspective. Only three men before Bolt had ever won the 100 meter and 200 meter in the same Olympics: Carl Lewis (1984), Valeriy Borzov (1972), and Bobby Joe Morrow (1956). Only one man had ever repeated as 100 meter champion, across multiple Olympics, and that was Carl Lewis being awarded gold in 1988 after Ben Johnson was stripped of the title. No one, before Bolt, had ever repeated as 200 meter champion across multiple Olympics.
He’s sprinted past the rest of the planet.
Michael Phelps just finished his fifth Olympics, and now has the all-time medal record, with 23 gold medals, and 28 medals overall. How ridiculous is that? Here’s some historical perspective. Only four men besides Phelps had ever won at least four swimming gold medals in the same Olympics: Mark Spitz (7, 1972), Matt Biondi (5, 1988), John Naber (4, 1976), and Don Schollander (4, 1964). Phelps has the 1st, 3rd, tied for 4th, and tied for 6th most men’s swimming golds in a single Olympics. He has won gold in the 200 IM four straight times; only Tamas Darnyi (1988, 1992) had previously repeated in the event. He has won three golds each in his best single stroke events, the 100 and 200 meter butterfly. No one else has won more than one gold in either event, ever. He swept both events in 2004 and 2008; only Denis Pankratov (1996) and Spitz (1972) had done that.
He’s swam past the rest of the planet.
Comparisons are basically impossible when both have dominated their respective spheres, but here are some talking points if you choose to use them.
Yes, Phelps leads in medals over the rest of the world. Comparing medals for Phelps versus Bolt, to make broader statement about best Olympian, is troublesome. It would be like citing pitcher wins versus quarterback wins.
There are more events in swimming, and events where there is crossover in who participates. In swimming, competing at a high level in both the 100 meter and 200 meter of a particular stroke (or 200 and 400 in the IM) is not uncommon. In track, only a handful of people have been good enough to run both the 100 meter and 200 meter at a high level. Since World War II, while only three guys not named Bolt have won gold in both events, 15 have medaled in both.
There is pretty much no crossover beyond that. Michael Johnson is the only one to medal in both the 200 meters and the next distance, the 400 meters, in the same Olympics (winning gold in 1996). No one has ever medaled in both the 100 meters and the 400 meters. No one has medaled in both the 100 meters and a specialty event like the 110 meter hurdles in the same Olympics. (Harrison Dillard did win gold in the 100 meters, then switch and compete in the hurdles in the next Olympics, back in 1952).
If you went just by medal count, you would decide that swimmers and gymnasts were the best athletes in the world, and would have to reconcile Ryan Lochte being better than Michael Johnson.
While there is more crossover in swimming, there is little doubt that Michael Phelps shattered some of those barriers. While there are plenty of examples of swimmers doubling up in the 100 and 200 events within the same stroke, very few had success across events. No one had ever medaled in both the 200 freestyle and either the 200 and 400 IM, which Phelps did on the way to his record number of eight golds in one Olympics. No one had ever medaled in both the 100 meter butterfly and the 400 meter IM. The last swimmer before Phelps to medal in both the 200 meter butterfly and 200 IM was John Ferris in 1968 (bronze in both).
So, Michael Phelps’ medal count may be bolstered by multiple, more common distances in events, but he also crossed events that were otherwise too specialized to see that kind of crossover before.
RELAY DIFFERENCES and NATIONALITY
There is no 4×200 meter relay in track. If there was, Bolt would have a decent chance at 3 more golds. There is both a 4×100 relay and 4×200 relay in swimming, along with a 4×100 medley relay. American swimmers get a large number of golds in relays, because the U.S. has dominated. Other nations can come up with a generational individual talent. Finding four at the same time to compete with the Americans is tougher.
The United States has won every single Medley Relay it has ever raced in the Olympics. The U.S. has won the 4×200 freestyle in 14 of the 17 Olympics it has competed since World War II. Americans had only failed to win gold twice in the 4×100 freestyle before 2004, so the team results (2 gold, 1 silver, 1 bronze) in the last four Olympics have been worse than the ridiculously high standard set before Phelps.
Usain Bolt, in breaking news, is from Jamaica. Have we fully grasped how ridiculous it is that a nation the size of Jamaica has won two straight team relays in the Olympics in the 100 meters, and may win a third in a row? The United States dominated this event until recent years. Jamaica, meanwhile, had only one previous team medal in the event, before Bolt. That was a silver medal back in 1984. Is there any doubt that Bolt is integral to those relay medals?
You can make arguments to narrow the gap if all you rely on is medal count. In the end, both have dominated their respective sports for longer, and more brilliantly, than anyone else in history. They have broken the mold. Enjoy them both, and be prepared to add Katie Ledecky to the discussion some day.
[all data via Olympics Reference]