'Immortal' Bolt and Phelps bow out with golds

Serial winners: Neither Bolt (left) nor Phelps are expected to compete in Tokyo in 2020.

The two greatest Olympians of the current age have won gold medals again. As Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps prepare to retire, who is more impressive: the rapid Bolt or the relentless Phelps?

For a brief moment, he looked vulnerable. Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt got out of the blocks slowly in Sunday night’s 100m final in Rio; America’s Justin Gatlin had a two-metre lead on him.

But by the half-way point Bolt was catching up and 9.81 seconds after the starting gun was fired, he crossed the line, as he is used to doing, at the head of the field. He became the first person ever to win the Olympic 100m title three times.

Bolt now has seven Olympic gold medals and could claim a previously unheard-of ‘treble treble’ before he bows out of the Olympics this weekend. ‘Somebody said I can become immortal,’ he said after Sunday’s race. ‘Two more medals to go and I can sign off.’

American swimmer Michael Phelps also fortified his place in history on Sunday, as part of the victorious 4x100m medley relay team. It was his fifth gold of Rio 2016 and left him with an astonishing career haul of 23 golds – and 28 medals. If Phelps were a country, he would be 32nd in the all-time Olympic medal table – ahead of 175 real nations. Like Bolt, he does not plan to compete at the Olympics again.

Pundits have compared Bolt and Phelps since the 2008 Olympics, when the runner won his first three golds. On the surface, Phelps’s medal count should make him the obvious superior. He has competed in five Olympics and often recovered from races quickly enough to win back-to-back golds in the same evening. His coach, Bob Bowman, says: ‘It might be once in 10 generations that someone like Michael Phelps comes along’.

But Bolt has dominated the most significant event of the Olympic Games: the contest to become the fastest man in the world. He is three and a half times faster than Phelps and according to Christopher Clarey, of The New York Times, has ‘the edge in charisma’. His career has been a testament to the intoxicating power of speed. He has the world and Olympic records at 100m and 200m and has reduced the 100m world record by more than a fifth of a second. Does he deserve more admiration even than the seemingly peerless Phelps?

Bolt from the blue

Bolt’s fans say his raw pace is electrifying. His unique ability to run at speeds nearing 28mph appeals to our animalistic side, while his personality is infectious. An estimated two billion people watched him win the 100m in 2012. He has demolished records and, unlike Phelps, he has never – yet – lost on the biggest stage.

But supporters of Phelps respond that Bolt is just a fast runner. Phelps has been the master of both freestyle and butterfly for 16 years. Most significantly, his success is a testament to the power of endurance: his determination to keep succeeding, even when he has nothing to prove, should inspire us all.

You Decide

  1. Which do you think is more impressive – speed or endurance?
  2. Who is the greater Olympian: Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps?

Activities

  1. Re-write this story in no more than 200 of your own words, making clear whether you find Bolt or Phelps more impressive — and explaining why.
  2. Think of an Olympic athlete whom you find inspiring. Prepare a two-minute presentation to your class, explaining five things you can learn from studying your athlete’s career.

Some People Say...

“The true measure of an athlete’s greatness is how many people he or she inspires.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m not a runner or a swimmer. Why should I care about Bolt or Phelps?
Both of them have stretched the limits of human achievement – so what they have done has lessons for all of us. Even if you do not intend to emulate them, you could learn a lot from the qualities which have helped them to dominate their sports. Both Bolt and Phelps have shown dedication, trained precisely and been determined to be the best.
But why should I care who is better?
Asking whether Bolt is better than Phelps also means considering who you would rather emulate. Do you think it is important to do things quickly? Do you think endurance and sustained achievement are more important? How important is your charisma and ability to entertain people? These questions could apply in science or the arts, as well as sport.

Word Watch

Catching up
Bolt is 6’5“. His height hinders him slightly at the start but it means he has a huge stride once the race is underway. He usually completes the 100m in 41 steps – three or four fewer than his rivals.
Treble treble
Winning all three in this case sprinting titles — the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay — at three consecutive Games.
28 medals
Nobody else has ever won more than nine Olympic golds, or 18 medals in total.
Recovered
Lactic acid causes pain in the muscles as a natural defence mechanism against overexertion: Phelps produces less than half as much as his rivals.
Faster
During his world record 100m race in 2009, Bolt ran his fastest 20m section at 27.44mph. Phelps swims at around 6mph.
200m
At Beijing in 2008, Bolt overcame the world record set by legendary runner Michael Johnson, who ran the 200m in 19.32 seconds in 1996. Many assumed Johnson’s mark would take decades to break. Bolt’s time was 19.30 — and the following year he ran the 200m in 19.19.
Fifth
When Bolt began racing professionally in 2004, the record was 9.79 seconds. By 2009, he had lowered it to 9.58.