With 22 Olympic medals, Michael Phelps is certainly the most decorated Olympian of all time. If every Olympian in London wore all their Olympic medals at once in a strange photo opportunity of overall greatness, Phelps would probably need a chair, unable to stand with all that greatness draped around his neck.
Still, Usain Bolt eclipsed Phelps as the greatest Olympian in London and, perhaps, the greatest Olympian of all time. There's a short list, and they are both on it, but Bolt may be closer to the top after another legendary performance on the London track.
Phelps has averaged more than seven medals in each of the last three Summer Games, and while Olympic greatness is obviously measured in medals, it's hard to watch what Bolt has done over the last two Olympiads and not consider him the best in London, if not the best ever.
Before we get too far into this comparison, let's all agree we are discussing the equivalent of the crispest apple to the creamiest ackee, if we may tie in a Jamaican flair. They're just different, and different people will never agree on which is better. (Remember this before you blast me, or others, in the comments section, please.)
Bolt has run in 17 Olympic races in his career. In those 17 races—including the first round, quarterfinals, semifinals and finals of the 100-meter, 200-meter and 4x100 relay—Bolt has finished first in 16. The only race Bolt ever ran on an Olympic track without crossing the line first was his first-round qualifier in the 200-meter in Beijing, where he finished second, two days after breaking the world record in the 100-meter.
In Beijing, Bolt not only won three gold medals, he did so by breaking three world records in the process. Bolt's sparkling 9.63 in the 100-meter final in London actually beat his time in Beijing—posting another Olympic record—a historic time bested only by his uncanny world-record time of 9.58 in 2009. And on Saturday, he anchored another world-record 4x100 relay, as Jamaica crushed its own mark, with a 36.84.
Bolt is the reigning world-record holder in the 200-meter as well, breaking the record in Beijing before also besting that time in 2009. Bolt could have broken another 200-meter Olympic record in London if he didn't coast to the finish with just under 15 meters to go so he could soak in the moment (and eat a proverbial hot dog while beating teammate Yohan Blake) on his way across the line.
Bolt's 19.32 in London tied Michael Johnson's record 200-meter run in 1996—the second-fastest time ever recorded at the Olympics and a world record that stood for more than 12 years—and Bolt was coasting the last few steps.
Jamaica won the 4x100-meter relay even without injured star Asafa Powell, giving Bolt six gold medals in six Olympic finals. He is the first man to ever—in the history of the modern Games—sweep the 100 and 200 in back-to-back Olympics. Not to mention the addition of back-to-back relay golds.
It's a shame Bolt doesn't do the long jump, because as amazing as he is, the diversity of disciplines is where Phelps may have the edge.
Phelps has five gold medals and one silver medal in butterfly events, with an undefeated record in three Olympics in the 100-meter butterfly. He has two medals, one gold, one bronze, in the 200-meter freestyle. He has a gold, silver and bronze in the 4x100-meter freestyle relay, three golds in the 4x200-meter freestyle relay and three gold medals in the 4x100 medley relay.
Yes, there are more. There are nearly too many to remember.
The individual medley is where Phelps has always separated himself as the best all-around swimmer in history. Despite finishing a disappointing fourth in the 400 IM in London, he ended his career with two gold medals in that event, breaking the world record in both Athens and Beijing.
Phelps ended his individual Olympic swimming career—if you believe he is actually retired—by winning the 200 IM in London, his third straight gold medal in that event.
Phelps set 12 Olympic or world records in his career at the Olympics and currently holds six world records, three from individual events.
With Phelps being so diverse, it makes you wonder how amazing it would be to see what Bolt could do in the 400 meters.
Bolt is just 25 years old, so there is no telling how long he can be on top of the sprinting world. What if he decides to "retire" from sprinting to focus on the 400 meters, just to break another world record or two? It would be amazing—and entirely plausible for him to accomplish.
In all seriousness, if Bolt can stay healthy over the next four years, he would certainly be a favorite to win his third straight gold medal in the 100- and 200-meter sprints at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, making this conversation—or any conversation of who the greatest Olympian would be—completely and utterly moot.
For now, it's fun to compare two great resumes, debating greatness over greatness. Phelps has 22 medals over three Olympics, but he has so many more events in swimming than Bolt has in track. If there was a 100-meter backwards dash or a 200-meter skip and gallop, Bolt would be the favorite for gold in those too.
In the end, it's left up to each of us to decide which fruit we find more delicious, which racer we find more incredible. For me, as amazing as it must feel to hold 18 gold, two silver and two bronze medals in your hands, it cannot compare to holding six gold medals and calling yourself the world's fastest man in history.
There is nothing greater than that.