10 Aug 2012

Is Usain Bolt now the greatest Olympian ever?

Usain Bolt’s victory in the 200m makes him the first to do the “double double” of winning both sprinting distances at two Olympics. But there are other contenders for greatest Olympian of all time.

Bolt's achievements have reminded many of Carl Lewis's dominance in the 1980s and 1990s,

Bolt’s victory puts him on five Olympic golds, with another likely to come on Saturday in the 4 x 100m relay. The Jamaican can also boast two world records, including smashing Michael Johnson long-standing 200m record.

One athlete who has surpassed Bolt’s achievements in terms of medals is Carl Lewis. Although the American has never done the double double, he won four golds at the Los Angeles Olympics – in 100m, 200m, 4 x 100m and long jump – and retained his title in all except the 200m in Seoul four years later.

Loss of respect

Bolt’s achievements have reminded many of Lewis’s dominance in the 1980s and 1990s, although the present Olympic champion outshines his predecessor in terms of records, with both the 100m and 200m records to his name, while Lewis only held the record in the shorter distance.

But there is no love lost between the American and the Jamaican, with Lewis expressing scepcism in 2008 that Bolt’s records were set without the aid of performance-enhancing drugs.

Lewis’s comments, which had no evidence to support them, clearly needled Bolt who after his 200m victory on Thursday claimed that he had lost all respect for Lewis.

Aside from Lewis and Bolt, there are other noteworthy Olympians in track and field.

Flying Finn

In mathematical terms no track and field athlete can surpass the achievements of Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi, who won 12 gold medals including nine golds in several different distance races in the three Olympics of the 1920s.

But some argue that multi-event track and field athletes competing in the heptathlon or decathlon are also contenders, with just one medal representing excellence across seven or 10 different disciplines.


Outstanding examples of multi-eventers are Jackie Joyner-Kersee with six Olympic medals, three of them gold, and Britain’s Daley Thompson, who won decathlon golds in 1980 and 1984.

Three of Joyner-Kersee’s medals are in the heptathlon, which comprises seven different track and field events across two days. She also won medals in the long jump, and her Olympic career spans from Los Angeles to Atlanta.

Mathematically, the greatest Olympian is swimmer Michael Phelps who over the course of three games has amassed 22 medals, 18 of which are gold.

During his career he has set 39 world records, 29 of which are in individual performances rather than relay.

Phelps broke the record for number of medals in Olympic Games set by Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina in 1964. Latynina won 18 medals, half of which are golds, and is also credited with ushering in the dominance of Soviet gymnasts, which continued for decades afterwards.

Phelps broke the record for number of medals in Olympic Games set by Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina in 1964. Latynina won 18 medals, half of which are golds, and is also credited with ushering in the dominance of Soviet gymnasts, which continued for decades afterwards.


Like Phelps, Latynina won medals three Olympic Games. But there are other athletes who have demonstrated even greater longevity, winning medals over as many as five or six games, including Germany’s Kayaker Birgit Fischer who won 12 medals, eight of which were gold, over the course of 24 years. She could have won even more had East Germany not boycotted the 1984 Olympics.

Swimming is an event that has produced athletes like Mark Spitz, whose seven golds in the 1972 Olympics was the benchmark for swimmers until Phelps came along.

But critics argue that swimmers are at an unfair advantage because the timetable allows them to contest many different events. In Munich, Spitz contested seven events while Phelps competed in eight in Athens and Beijing and seven in London.

Sebastian Coe is one of those who have claimed that Phelps’s achievements make him the most successful Olympian, but not the greatest.

‘Good haul’

Speaking after Phelps clinched the medal that took him ahead of Latynina, Coe said: “It is a pretty good haul, but whether he is the greatest, I don’t know.”

Contrast Phelps and Spitz’s haul with track and field where an athlete like Carl Lewis winning four golds in one games is an exceptional occurrence.

Other athletes, including Michael Johnson, have had their chances for multiple golds reduced because the timetable does not allow them to give their full attention to each event that they have the ability to compete in.

As the Olympic decathlon gold medallist Dan O’Brien said: “The schedule is not set up for that. Michael (Phelps) has the advantage that he is able to do more than one event. Would Usain Bolt like to do the 50, the 75? Would he like a backwards run? Absolutely.”

So where do the Brits come in this? At this Games British cyclist Sir Chris Hoy won his seventh medal and sixth gold in London putting him ahead of the rower Sir Steve Redgrave.


As in swimming, track cycling is an event where a clutch of medals are up for the top cyclists and some have argued that Redgrave’s five golds and one bronze over five games is more impressive because of the fact it is an endurance event.

Greg Searle, a multi-medal winning rower himself, votes for Redgrave. “He had so much adversity , he had illness, he had injury. He dealt all the things that were thrown at him and he kept coming back and winning, makes for me Steve Redgrave the greatest Olympian ever.”

UK-centric commentators neglect the fact that there are other rowers who have more medals than Redgrave. One is Romania’s Elisabeta Lipa who competed in all five Olympics that Redgrave competed in and equals his number of golds but surpasses him in the total medal stakes with eight altogether.

But for some, being a great is about more than the number of medals or world records. Many point to Jesse Owens as the greatest Olympian, an African American athlete who competed in only one Games but who won four medals in the Berlin Olympics of 1936 debunking Hitler’s ideology of Aryan supremacy.

Picking the greatest Olympian is not easy and does not rely on mathematics alone. This is a debate that will run and run.