Who is the greatest Olympian of all time?

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With the Olympics having recently come to a close, two athletes once again dominated the quadrennial event: Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps. The two have a combined total of 32 gold medals over the course of their careers.

Our staff decided to ask: Which one is the greatest summer Olympian of all time?

Usain Bolt

The last three summer Olympics had one constant: Eight athletes line up at the start line for the 100 meter finals and wait for the signal.

Bang! The race starts, and in less than six seconds of the approximately 10 seconds that it takes to complete the race, you know that Usain Bolt is the clear winner.

Usain Bolt is the greatest sprinter we have seen. And, much like Bolt in his races, this statement is undoubtable. There is no question that he is a man who came, saw and conquered.

Controversial statement alert: I honestly believe that Bolt’s achievements have eclipsed those of Michael Phelps.

Yes, let that sink in.

Let me back up my claim with some evidence. Bolt has always had to contend with a greater pool of talent than Phelps has considering that running is a more popular sport than swimming. Greater participants increase the possibility of better competition.

Phelps obliterates Bolt when it comes to the number of golds. 23 to nine is not even close. It’s a massacre if you ask me. But this argument is not about quantity. It is all about quality. A swimmer definitely has the advantage of the different number of events that swimming has to offer.

There are four different strokes, and 16 different events overall. Track and field has 24 events to offer for men, but unlike swimming, not every athlete can participate in each event. I mean, just in the running events, the physical needs of a sprinter and a long-distance runner are very different. I do agree that Bolt could have maybe participated in long jump or 400m, but that still does not take away from the way he has dominated his field.

Phelps’ glorious career has, however, seen something that Bolt’s career primarily has not: silver and bronze. Bolt’s only loss in the sprint events came at Athens 2004, running with a leg injury. Phelps, in his prime, has seen losses. Whether it was to Joseph Schooling this year in the 100 fly, or to Chad Le Clos in the 200 fly at London 2012.

Bolt, on the other hand, completed the triple-triple, an unprecedented feat in running. Since 2008, he has stepped on the blocks nine times at the Olympics, and won nine golds. He is the first person to win the 100m three times, as well as the 200m, setting records on the way. Bolt currently holds the world records for both events.

He truly is the “fastest man on earth.” And, we have to consider the ease with which he wins. When he won his maiden gold at Beijing, he was so far ahead that he slowed down by the end to celebrate, and set a then-world record of 9.69.

Bolt’s ascension to the top has led to Jamaica becoming the superpower in sprinting. Before Bolt, a Jamaican had never won gold in the men’s 100m. Bolt came and changed it all.

Both Phelps and Bolt have Godfather-like legacies in the world of sports, but down the line, I believe that Bolt will be remembered as having the greater legacy. The difference is very minute in my opinion, but it is in favor of Bolt.

When DC Comics created the character Flash, he was supposed to be a superhero — a fantasy. Little did they know that a man would actually come so close to owning the scarlet speedster’s moniker in real life.

Devang Prasad

Michael Phelps:

Michael Phelps is the greatest Olympian of all time. It’s hard to argue with 23 gold medals — and 28 overall — because they have shown Phelps’ dominance, longevity and versatility. All three characteristics are exemplified in one statistic: Phelps is the first swimmer to win one individual event — the 200-meter individual medley — in four consecutive Olympics.

Throughout Phelps’ career, he has scared his predecessors, intimidated his peers, dominated his aspiring competitors and inspired his young successors.

Phelps made his Olympic and international debut shortly after turning 15 years old. Although he qualified for just one event in 2000, Phelps earned the first of his 30 finals appearances at the Olympic Games. Phelps finished fifth in the 200-meter butterfly — his worst-ever finish at the Olympics.

After the curtains closed in Sydney, Phelps returned to the relative unknown, where most swimmers stay between Olympic Games. Within a year, however, Phelps became the youngest male swimmer to set a world record. Months later, at 16, Phelps chose to turn pro and forgo his NCAA eligibility.

It wasn’t until Phelps turned 19 that the world realized it had been exposed to the greatest Olympian of all time. In 2004, Phelps showed the world he was hungry for every record. He left with six gold and two bronze medals in addition to two world records, three Olympic records and two American records, which were all bested four years later during his famous performance in Beijing.

But, in 2004, Phelps also captured the hearts of many. After edging out Ian Crocker — the world record holder at the time — in the individual 100-meter butterfly, Phelps ceded his automatic berth in Team USA’s 4×100-meter medley relay to Crocker for a chance at redemption and a confidence boost.

As if five Olympics and 28 medals weren’t enough, Phelps was the best all-around swimmer — a feat Usain Bolt can’t claim about track and field yet. It was hard to tell his specialty. He could sprint. He could swim mid-distance. He could swim any stroke and make it a world-class race. At his peak, Phelps owned world records in butterfly, freestyle and individual medley events in addition to him being one of the world’s best backstrokers.

Bolt’s nine Olympic gold medals are definitely impressive. Bolt, however, couldn’t match Phelps’ range of events. Bolt’s 400-meter isn’t comparable to his shorter races. His javelin throwing post-race celebration after his ninth gold indicates he probably won’t compete in that event at the Olympics, though I’d be curious to see what he can do in some of the jump events. By comparison, Bolt would need to put together a world-class decathlon performance in order to match Phelps’ ability to simply do everything well.

To give credit where it’s due, Phelps has revolutionized the sport of swimming — a sport with limited glory every four years. Phelps showed the feasibility of swimming as a career and of pushing the boundaries of swimming.

Chris Zheng

Contact Devang Prasad and Chris Zheng at [email protected].