Usain Bolt vs. Michael Phelps: Who’s the ultimate Olympian?

Phelps has won more medals than anyone else at the Olympics. But Bolt has never lost a race on the world’s biggest stage.

Olympic rings are formed during the opening ceremony at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Friday, Aug. 5, 2016. (AP Photo/Tim Donnelly)

Olympic rings are formed during the opening ceremony at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Friday, Aug. 5, 2016. (AP Photo/Tim Donnelly)

You’re at the Olympics. You’re a sprinter. You’ve made it to the grandest stage, the signature event of the entire Games. You’re doing your final leg flicks before getting set in the blocks. You glance to your left and there’s Usain Bolt, limbering up for another 100-metre gallop.

Now you’re at the pool. You’ve made the 200-metre butterfly final and it’s almost time to pull down the goggles. Just before gearing up, you catch the tapered profile of Michael Phelps, a man so natural in water you half expect him to gasp and flop on terra firma.

Imposter syndrome could swallow you up in either scenario, but if there were a single warm thought to cling to between the two situations, it would be found standing next to the American swimmer. That’s because, if nothing else, there is actual precedent for Phelps entering an Olympic competition and not claiming victory.

The same cannot be said of Bolt.

When Bolt lands in Brazil, he’ll be looking to build on a perfect Olympic record. Between the 2008 Beijing Games and the 2012 London Olympics, Bolt is four-for-four in individual events, winning gold in the 200-metre and, of course, the 100-metre in consecutive Games. The only male sprinter other than Bolt to win back-to-back golds in the 100-metre is American Carl Lewis, who did so at the heavily boycotted 1984 Los Angeles Games before winning the honour in Seoul four years later after the original victor, Ben Johnson, was disqualified for using performance-enhancing drugs. Bolt, on the other hand, established new Olympic and world records at his first Games, then bettered the Olympic mark in London. Now, he’s aiming to become the first sprinter ever to record a hat trick of 100-metre golds.

Phelps, meanwhile, won five individual golds in China alone. But that’s the nature of the beast when you’re an all-time swimmer who has many more disciplines in which to exert your dominance. Phelps’s career total of 18 gold medals (including seven in relays), claimed over the course of four Games, is double the amount won by anybody else. That means, no matter what happens this summer, he can spend retirement lying around the pool, soaking in the sun and feeling pretty good about his standing among the greatest-ever Olympians.

What he can’t claim to be, though, is invincible. And until somebody, under Olympic-level glare, laces up his spikes and proves it’s possible to best Bolt, the Jamaican sprinter will continue to inspire more fear and awe than any other athlete.

Jamaica's Usain Bolt


Born: Aug. 21, 1986 in Trelawny, Jamaica
Height: 6-5
Weight: 207 lb.

Individual Olympic medals:

2008 Beijing: Gold, 100-metre
2008 Beijing: Gold, 200-metre
2012 London: Gold, 100-metre
2012 London: Gold, 200-metre

Bolt has won 100 percent of his individual Olympic races.

Personal bests:

7-time world champion
9.58: World record in 100-metre (2009 worlds)
9.63: Olympic record in 100-metre (2012 Games)
19.19: World record in 200-metre (2009 worlds)
19.30: Olympic record in 200-metre (2008 Games)

Twitter followers: 3,986,468

United States' Michael Phelps competes in a heat of the men's 200-meter butterfly during the swimming competitions at the 2016 Summer Olympics, Monday, Aug. 8, 2016, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Matt Slocum/AP)

United States’ Michael Phelps competes in a heat of the men’s 200-metre butterfly during the swimming competitions. (Matt Slocum, AP)


Born: June 30, 1985 in Baltimore, Md.
Height: 6-4
Weight: 194 lb.

Individual Olympic medals:

2004 Athens: Gold, 100-metre butterfly
2004 Athens: Gold, 200-metre butterfly
2004 Athens: Gold, 200-metre individual medley
2004 Athens: Gold, 400-metre individual medley
2004 Athens: Bronze, 200-metre freestyle
2008 Beijing: Gold, 200-metre freestyle
2008 Beijing: Gold, 100-metre butterfly
2008 Beijing: Gold, 200-metre butterfly
2008 Beijing: Gold, 200-metre individual medley
2008 Beijing: Gold, 400-metre individual medley
2012 London: Gold, 100-metre butterfly
2012 London: Gold, 200-metre individual medley
2012 London: Silver, 200-metre butterfly

Michael Phelps has won gold in 73.3 per cent of his individual Olympic races.

Personal bests:

15-time world champion
4:03.84: World record in 400-metre IM (2008 Games)
1:51.51: World record in 200-metre butterfly (2009 worlds)
49.82: World record in 100-metre butterfly (2009 worlds)
29: World records set in individual events

Twitter followers: 1,611,258

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