2012 Olympics | July 27 - August 12
Posted: Monday August 13, 2012 10:55AM ; Updated: Monday August 13, 2012 12:52PM
Michael Farber
Michael Farber>INSIDE OLYMPICS

Bolt's star power is unmatched, but Phelps' numbers set him apart

Story Highlights

With unprecedented 18 golds, Michael Phelps is greatest Olympian of modern era

Bolt may move needle, but Phelps' excellence over extended period is unmatched

Phelps' greatness has inspired a generation of swimmers now trying to top him

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Michael Phelps
Michael Phelps won 18 of his 23 Olympic events, placing second twice and third twice.
Heinz Kluetmeier/SI

LONDON -- Allison Schmitt, a freestyler whose enthusiasm is as powerful as her final 50, opined that Michael Phelps was "the most famous man in the world." This sentiment is so 10 days ago. On the day Schmitt blurted her endorsement of her USA swimming teammate, Phelps was not even the most famous man in that particular East London postcode. A brisk 12-minute walk south from the Aquatics Centre, Usain Bolt already had primped and preened his way through his opening heat in the 100 meters.

Bolt is the most famous athlete in the world.

Even Phelps would tell you that.

So, assuredly, would Bolt.

There was an aura surrounding the Jamaican star, who runs in the only event on the Olympic program with the power to take an 80,000-seat stadium and turn it library-quiet in anticipation of the gun. The Games were in Bolt's thrall. Asked if she were excited about being at the Olympics, 400 runner Maziah Mahusin, the first woman from Brunei to compete, replied, "Yes. I got to meet Usain Bolt!"

Famously so did three members of the Swedish women's handball team. They convened back in Bolt's room in the athlete's village after the 100, a moment captured via an Instagram that duly found its way into the newspapers, including Aftonbladet, a Swedish daily.

If TMZ ever replaces NBC as an Olympic broadcaster, Bolt -- whose talent, gregariousness and good looks make him the Muhammad Ali of the modern era -- will take the gold, silver and bronze.

But return to those good ol' days of last week, before Phelps became a civilian, before Bolt began to strut and fret his 10 seconds on the world stage. Phelps was en route to the quietest six-medal performance in Olympic history: four golds -- two in individual races -- and two silvers. By the end of the Games, the People's Republic of Phelpslandia was tied with four countries (including, ironically, Jamaica) in golds and with four countries in the overall medals table.

Beyond the discomfiting fourth-place finish in the opening 400 IM, Phelps' problem at London 2012 was that "the meet," as Phelps kept calling it, constituted an encore. He had been Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma in Beijing, and there is no place to go after that. Phelps went eight-for-eight in '08, a one-off in the history of the Games. (Phelps gets bonus points for IMs, in which he swims all four strokes.) In London 2012, he entered a mere seven events. Unless he won every race and did some groundbreaking work on the human genome between morning prelims and night finals, he could not have upped the ante.

TAYLOR: Forget Phelps, Usain Bolt is the greatest Olympian of the 21st century

For the sake of argument -- and this is a barroom-style Ginger-or-Mary Ann argument -- run Phelps' numbers one final time. Since making a final in Sydney 2000 at age 15, Phelps won 18 of his 23 Olympic events, placing second twice and third twice. In baseball terms, he batted .780 since Athens. Bolt was at the University of Technology in Jamaica in 2004. Phelps, already in his second Olympics, had six gold medals.

The display of unadulterated excellence over an extended period can hardly be dismissed. The most decorated Olympian in history seemed genuinely touched when FINA presented him with a sculpture to mark his achievement, and Phelps referenced Michael Jordan, whom he considered the best athlete, in a press conference after his final relay swim. In the tacit view of his sport's governing body, Phelps at least had entered that conversation with the other Michael. The sheer tonnage of those Olympic medals, which represent an ability to perform at the biggest moments, anchor an incredible résumé. Just because they are statistics, a glut of medals is neither a lie nor a damn lie.

Bolt, of course, has the universality of sprinting on his side. His is the most primal of sports. Hominins in the Pleistocene Era probably raced to the second boulder. (Meanwhile, IOC lawyers were making sure signage on the caves was in order and all animal skins were made by Games sponsors.) As one clever typist in The Times of London noted, running is the sort of thing they put on Grecian urns. The Babel of languages in the Olympic Stadium was noisy testament to track's -- and Bolt's -- appeal.

But swimming isn't exactly dressage or BMX, you know? Its global footprint is noteworthy. Swimmers from five continents, including Africa, won gold medals in London. This was not the English-Speaking Invitational that Phelps owned, taking advantage of the opportunity for medals that greet only Olympic swimmers and gymnasts. If his sport were a trifle -- and few athletes train harder than swimmers -- then others in the Speedo set would have been backing up a U-Haul for the medals. Phelps is an Olympic outlier.

Phelps does not have the celebrity of a Jamaican sprinter who actively courts the spotlight. (Don't know if Phelps has three Swedish handball players as new Facebook friends, either). He has inspired a generation, as they have been saying in London, and not merely in the U.S., where numbers of participants are up sharply since 2004, but worldwide. Chad le Clos, the 20-year-old South African who edged Phelps in the 200 butterfly, had every Phelps race on tape as a boy and watched them "a million times." Le Clos seemed gobsmacked by the idea he had out-touched his idol.

No 21st century Olympic athlete has owned a major sport like Phelps, although the century is young. If Bolt is in Rio 2016, primping and prancing and winning, we can talk some more.

 
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