A Bolt From Above: Usain Supplants Phelps In Olympic Lore.

Daniel MuthSenior Analyst IAugust 20, 2008

For those of you that might be inclined to take this as an anti-Michael Phelps article, you couldn’t be farther from the truth. Up until last night, I still would’ve argued that Phelps had the clear lead in the overall Olympic glory category, as he was accomplishing something that had never been done.

He had also done it with the right mix of dominance (7 world records; one Olympic record), drama (100m butterfly win by .01 second; 4x100m freestyle relay by .08 second), and class. 

He had accomplished all this in a grueling set, and had still managed memorable performances in his final two races, when fatigue had clearly become a factor. Phelps is the man. Nothing can take away from that. 

Except for maybe…

Usain Bolt.

In another seemingly effortless performance, this unshaken, awakened, pass-me-the-bacon Jamaican has claimed the meat and the Lion’s share of this Olympic kill. In what amounted to another walk in the park for the tall strider from just South of Cuba, Bolt demolished the field, winning the men’s 200m final by over half a second, and laying waste to Michael Johnson’s over-a-decade-old world record. 

His time of 19.30, shaved .02 of Johnson’s time, and served notice that we are entering a new era of sprinting dominance.

There was little doubt that Bolt would win the 200m, a race that he was born to run and in fact mostly trained for in his early career. It was his surprising early speed in the 100m that was completely stunning, given that he had only competed in the event FIVE times before breaking the world record earlier this spring in New York. 

That he broke that record AGAIN at the Olympics, while clearly easing up over the last 15-20m of the race, put the world on notice. 

After this, it was merely a forgone conclusion that he would win the gold in the 200m, but many questioned whether or not he had the were-with-all to approach Michael Johnson’s record of 19.32, given that the fastest time Bolt had ever posted prior to this competition was a 19.67.

Question answered.

Bolt just turned 22 today, which is young for a world-class sprinter, and he seems to be getting better and better, indicating that the bar might well be unimaginably high for the fleet-footed prodigy.

Michael Johnson was present for the 200m and showed great class, giving smiles and thumbs up, to the deserving Bolt, as the crowd at the Bird’s Nest went absolutely berserk. So jubilant was the celebration that subsequent events had to be delayed, in order for the adoring throng to give Bolt his proper due.

Bolt becomes the first man since Carl Lewis in 1984 to capture this elusive double, and becomes the first man in HISTORY to claim both titles in world record times. Bolt will also have a chance to claim gold in the men’s 4x100, where he will be racing with countryman Asafa Powell and the strong contingent of Jamaican sprinters. 

Though he will not therefore eclipse the Jesse Owens/Carl Lewis mark of four gold medals, his indomitable run through the sprints has set a precedent that has never been equaled.

The question now is: what if he had trained for the 400m? It looked like he had plenty left.

And now comes the part were I take the laurel off the head of Phelps and place it on the head of Bolt.

The truth of the matter remains that EVERYONE can run (apologies to the disabled). Those of us that are fast, invariably test ourselves against other people who are fast, until we realize that someone is even faster. 

We know that upwards of 40% of Americans can’t swim at all and the United States is considered one of the most swimming literate countries in the World.

Though there is no statistic that I’ve come across that details world-wide swimming competency, I have traveled extensively in Africa, South America, and somewhat in the far-east, and can tell you that the great majority of the people that I’ve met have never even attempted to swim a stroke, let alone competitively.

Accessibility to swimming pools is something that only wealthy nations enjoy. 

Yet even in the most remote village in Africa, the locals test themselves by competing in running competitions. 

This is point #1:  The competition in running is more world-wide, expansive and intense.

We also need to consider that swimming is just one of those sports were one can pile up the medals. For some reason, there are different strokes and then combinations of different strokes that are all deemed medal-worthy. 

Honestly, I’ve never understood this, as it seems that it shouldn’t matter what you’re doing, as long as you cross the finish line first. To hold competitions in backstroke, breast stroke, butterfly, and freestyle is akin to holding the 100m sprints in running backward, skipping, hopping, and of course running forward. 

This would be absurd, and yet, it is commonplace in the pool. Add to this the multiple availabilities to race on various relays exhibiting one or all of these strokes, and it is just plain easier to pile up medals in swimming.

This is point #2:  There are many more opportunites to win multiple medals in swimming.

Finally, we need to look at the legitimacy of the world records that were set at the 2008 Olympics. I have purposefully not mentioned doping, and will not cover that in this article because that degrades into speculation. Those of you who’ve read some of my earlier stuff would know that I think it’s rather wide-spread. 

Beyond chemical doping, however, swimming is stricken with “technological doping” and it seems that any race that isn’t setting a new world record is an anomaly these days.  Not only do the suits swimmers wear shave seconds off their times, but pool and lane marker design have evolved in the last year or so to reduce chop and wave activity in the pool. 

Most agree that this has also shaved considerable time off the world records. This leads to speculation as to what Phelps' times might have been had he been competing in the old equipment rather than the technologically savvy stuff. 

Usain Bolt however, is not operating under those improvements, and is breaking world records that have stood for many years.

This is point #3:  We really don’t know how to categorize Phelps’ times because the very equipment in swimming has significantly changed. Most all experts agree that this has lead to an epidemic of fast swimming.

In the final analysis, what Phelps has done is still phenomenal, but it no longer ranks as the best Beijing performance in my mind. 

Instead I look to the Bolt from above, treading ground that almost transcends the humanly possible, and invokes the images of Gods and heroes that are cemented in the very pillars of the Olympic games.