Is Usain Bolt the greatest Olympian in history? | Virgin Media
Is Usain Bolt the greatest Olympian in history?

Is Usain Bolt the greatest Olympian in history?

03/08/2016Sport

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Welcome to the Virgin Media Midweek Kick-off! With the Rio 2016 Olympics set to start, we ask writers Sam Diss and Matt Blake if star attraction Usain Bolt – the fastest man in history – is the greatest Olympic athlete ever...

YES! He’s the whole package

“He is damn-near perfect at the coolest thing a person can do” – Sam Diss, sports writer, Mundial Magazine


He made us care about athletics

For years athletics was impressive but uninspiring. It’s great to see muscly blokes being ace at running, sure, but who could make us really care? Well, when Usain Bolt came into our lives at the 2008 Olympic Games, we cared. Here was this huge, lanky dude – 6ft 5in tall with a 6ft-wide smile – who seemed more relaxed in a Lycra body-flag than any mere mortal could ever be. Then he blasted through a field of world-class opposition like a cheetah in a chicken race.

He’s really, really fast

An obvious one, but think about it. The undisputed social hierarchy in primary school saw the fast kids at the top, followed swiftly by the hard kids, and then the kids with good video games. For all the record books can tell us, Bolt is the fastest human in the history of humans. Scientists estimate the fastest a human could physically run 100m is 9.48 seconds – that’s just 0.10 seconds faster than Bolt’s record. He is damn-near perfect at the coolest thing a person can possibly do. 

He’s actually funny

It’s a kind of received wisdom that truly world-class sportsmen aren’t interesting. And they certainly shouldn’t be funny. They’re too busy focusing on being genius machines of physicality to do things like “be charming” or “talk in full sentences”. And then there’s Bolt – laughing his head off, mugging for the cameras, sweeping your mum off her feet through the television screen. That’s why he’s the highest-paid track and field athlete of all time. He’s not just a great sportsman, he’s a great guy.  

He’s dominated the toughest event there is

The heavyweight division of athletics, the 100m, is the cherry on top of the Olympic cake. It’s the main event – and nobody in history has dominated a sport so invincibly as Bolt. He is the first person in history to hold both the 100m and 200m world records, as well as the first athlete to sweep the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay at consecutive Olympics. Now he’s about to try it for a third straight time – a feat so rare they’ve literally had to make up a name for it – the “triple triple”.  If he does do it, they should probably just rebrand it as “The Bolt” – the universal term for doing three things, thrice. “Hey Phil, this is the third day this week my phone’s locked me out after I keyed in the wrong password three times in a row.” “Unlucky, Barry – your phone’s just done a Bolt!”

The Olympics needs him

Bolt went from sprinting on dirt tracks in the poorest parts of rural Jamaica to flying along the asphalt of the biggest stadiums in the world. He is universally lauded as some kind of sports alien, as if sent to Earth just to remind humans that we’re not as good as we think. And we love him for it. If he were beamed back to the mothership, the Olympics would miss him. He’s the main man, the lead actor, the president. Even if he doesn’t match the three gold medals he won at the last Olympics (and the one before that), his participation alone will lift the spirits of millions who tune in just to see him. Because that’s what Bolt does.


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NO! He’s not there yet

“Right now, there are other Olympians who’ve achieved that bit more” – Matt Blake, sports writer, Virgin Media


He’s not done enough – yet

The focus of this argument is not to Bolt-bash. Frankly, I can’t think of any flaws to nitpick anyway. The man is a machine, as if bred in a top-secret government lab for the sole purpose of running faster than the national speed limit for cars in most residential areas of England. You wouldn’t cross the road if you saw him haring round the bend, but he’s not history’s greatest. Not yet. Right now, there are other Olympians who’ve achieved that bit more.

Michael Phelps wins in numbers

As almost nobody knows, the best way to determine Olympic greatness is through a scientific test I call The Spandau Ballet Differential. It’s simple: if an athlete’s won more golds than the times Tony Hadley sings the word “gold” in the eponymous 1983 hit (six), then they can be considered an all-time great. Bolt has won six golds, so he’s definitely a great. The thing is, American swimmer Michael Phelps has won 18 – more than anyone in history. Between 2004 and 2012, the Baltimore Bullet broke world records like a cow breaks wind (39 in all). He was indestructible.

Steve Redgrave had 16 golden years

Another way to measure Olympic greatness is by longevity. And Sir Steve Redgrave – rower, knight, Fairtrade fashion designer – won golds at five consecutive Olympic Games, from 1984 to 2000. To date, Bolt has won golds at two. It doesn’t matter that Redgrave fails the Spandau Ballet test, because he consistently came first in the world’s biggest tournament at every time of asking over a period of 16 years. 

Jesse Owens wasn’t just great…

Jesse Owens doesn’t make most Top Ten Olympians listicles. He only won four golds at one Games, the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. But it’s not so much the achievement itself that makes Owens great, but the context in which he did it. In winning the 100m, 200m, 4x100m relay and the long jump as an African-American grandson of slaves, Owens single-handedly crushed Hitler’s myth of Aryan superiority. And he did it right before the tyrant’s eyes. I can’t imagine the pressure he must have felt as he crouched into the blocks amid the red-and-black Swastikas, goose-stepping brown shirts and Nazi sentiment bristling across the stadium. Yet he destroyed the opposition. The mental fortitude required beats anything Bolt’s faced to date. Owens was more than great – he was a superhero.

Bolt is a man of one talent

What about athletes who have won multiple medals in different disciplines? There are a few, but none have won medals in events so diverse at Games so far apart as Alfréd Hajós of Hungary. He was 18 when, at Athens 1896, he won golds in 100m freestyle and 1200m freestyle – an achievement made more impressive by the fact that he swam through 12ft crashing waves in the chilly Mediterranean Sea. But it was 28 years later that the legend was truly made, when he won silver in the discipline of Town Planning (yes, that actually used to be an Olympic event). Sure, Bolt can run incredibly fast, but can he – as Hajós did at Paris 1924 – design an entire Olympic stadium? I hope so, I really do… 


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