Souhan: After Bolt's latest feat, he's world's greatest athlete

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 10, 2012 - 9:38 AM

Because he's too shy to say it himself, let me: Usain Bolt is the greatest athlete who ever lived.

LONDON - In a short period of time on Thursday night, Usain Bolt won the Olympic 200 meters despite a sore back, became the first person ever to win the 100 and 200 meters in consecutive Olympics, fist-bumped a volunteer before his race, executed a perfect imitation of the Queen of England's parade-style wave, did pushups and paraded around Olympic Stadium calling himself a "legend."

Believe it or not, the man is selling himself short. Because "legend," given what Bolt accomplished in Beijing and London, is a grotesque understatement.

Because he's too shy to say it himself, let me:

Usain Bolt is the greatest athlete who ever lived.

It's simple as what Bolt said to fellow Jamaican Warren Weir at the starting line, when correctly predicting the Jamaican order of finish with his quaint Jamaican lilt:

"One, two, t'ree."

The popular comparison at these Olympics pits Bolt against swimmer Michael Phelps, who upped his take to 18 gold and 22 total medals in the Aquatics Center down the block. The proper comparisons are to Carl Lewis and Jesse Owens and ... who else even belongs in the conversation?

Bolt wins this comparison the way he wins Olympic sprints -- going away, and with ease. Thursday night, he won the 200 in 19.32 seconds, a shade off the Olympic record of 19.30, while slowing down to protect his sore back. He owns the world records in the 100 and 200, making him, logically, the fastest man who ever lived, and what is more seminal in sports than being the fastest man on land?

Phelps' achievements place him high on the all-time rankings of great athletes because of his longevity and productivity, but he can't be compared to Bolt. Phelps' sport allows a dominant athlete to collect medals by swimming in various relays and different disciplines.

Imagine if Bolt were allowed to run in the 100, 200, 400 relay ... and the 100 backwards run, the 200 with hands held over head, and the 800 relay.

And while Phelps competes with the portion of the world that has taken swimming lessons and has access to a pool and top-flight swimming instruction, Bolt essentially competes with the entire world.

Humans are built to run. They learn to swim.

This week in London, Bolt pulled away from the fastest 100-meter field in history, and coasted to a win in the 200 against a sprinter, fellow Jamaican Yohan Blake, who, if Bolt hadn't been born, would have won two golds at these Olympics and would be considered the fastest man in the world.

"I told Yohan two years ago, you picked the wrong time," Bolt said. "This is my time."

Bolt immediately moves past all team-sport athletes because no one can help you win a sprint. There are no assists. There are no timeouts. There are no favorable rulings or lucky bounces. There is only you.

He moves past Muhammad Ali because as great and apocryphal as Ali was, he lost a lot of fights. At the Olympics, Bolt is undefeated.

Carl Lewis might be Bolt's main competitor. Lewis won four gold medals in Los Angeles: the 100 and 200, the 400-meter relay and the long jump, meaning he excelled in a discipline Bolt would never attempt. He won two golds in Seoul, and long jumping golds in four Olympics.

That is a stunning rsum, but the long jump is more of an athletic oddity than an essential test. Nobody long jumps unless they are competing in the long jump, just as no one throws the hammer when they're hanging around the park.

Late Thursday night, Bolt indicated he might retire. He, like Phelps, said he can't imagine competing when he's 30. He ceded future track dominance to Blake.

And for all of his braggadocio, Bolt refused to place himself ahead of Jesse Owens or Ali.

He didn't need to. Anyone who watched him in Beijing or London -- or anyone with a stopwatch and an appreciation for the purity of his accomplishments -- knows that Bolt is not just a "legend."

He is the greatest athlete who ever lived.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500-AM. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com

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