Logo for the DFR Audible post categoryInsane in the Bolt Brain

Did you watch Usain Bolt win his third straight 100 meter gold medal on Sunday? If you did, you’re not alone. Probably half the humans on Earth, at least, were watching that race and utterly captivated by Bolt’s relatively easy victory.

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Usain Bolt blows everyone away.

That third consecutive gold in the Olympics’ showcase track event is indeed a monumental achievement, historic in its impressiveness and unprecedendted nature. However–there’s always a ‘however’–some of the reaction to Bolt’s win has been a little over the top. For example: Usain Bolt’s claim as greatest athlete ever.

Perhaps that statement merely represents an overenthusiastic headline writer. But…greatest athlete ever? Greatest athlete? Ever? Please, folks–put down the bong and clear your heads. Even in an era where the latest thing is always the greatest thing, this claim is wildly over the top.

The claim for Bolt being the greatest athlete ever can be easily refuted, simply with one question: what does Bolt do? Answer: he runs. He runs. Period. Nothing else. ‘s’it. Th-th-that’s all, folks. Whatever other athletic skills Bolt may possess, he’s never shown them in any general sense; certainly not in competition. All he does is run–and he doesn’t even run that far, either. Bolt is clearly the greatest sprinter ever; but greatest athlete? That’s utter nonsense.

That anyone would even speculate in that vein just shows how detached from reality today’s sports media has become. Throughout modern sports history–basically, the modern Olympics era–it was generally acknowledged that the winner of the decathlon earned the title “world’s greatest athlete.” The current world-record holder in the decathlon, Asthon Eaton, should have claim to “world’s greatest athlete” status. If you want to get historical about it, Daley Thompson–who won back to back Olympic decathlons in the early ’80s–has the strongest case for “greatest athlete ever,” at least if you limit it to people who do the most varied athletic actions in competition.

Or maybe you don’t want to limit the conversation so narrowly. You could point to other candidates for greatest athlete. How about the world’s best triathlete? The triathlon includes running (not sprinting, but distance running) as well as swimming and bicycling–all in immediate sequence. The “Olympic distance” triathlon–1.5km swim, 40km bike ride, 10km run–is considered a “short course” triathlon. At the end of an “Ironman” triathlon, you run a full marathon. Anyone who can pull that off in above average time, considering the varying effort and endurance demands, has to have a better claim to world’s greatest athlete than Bolt.

You can also go further afield if you want to crown someone the greatest athlete ever. My favorite candidate? Wilt Chamberlain. Back in the day, The Big Dipper was considered an athletic god in a sport, basketball, that demands a superior level of fitness. Chamberlain’s play in the NBA required speed, endurance, strength, and athletic dexterity (in shooting the ball, though Wilt did lack touch when it came to free throws). Not to mention leaping ability, though Chamberlain, at 7 feet tall, hardly needed to jump too high to set numerous rebounding records. Wilt was also an accomplished track and field athlete in his younger days, was as strong as an ox, and played pro volleyball after his NBA career. Oh, and if you really want to expand the territory, Chamberlain’s claim of having bedded 20,000 women in his life gives him a shot at the title “world’s greatest sexual athlete ever,” at least.

Put all of that up against a guy who just runs, and calling Bolt the “greatest athlete ever” becomes an exercise in nonsense. Bolt is a wonderful Olympian, terrifically entertaining and remarkably accomplished in his sport–but, as is protocol for sprinting events, he does have to “stay in his lane” when you’re talking about greatest of all time.


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