They have served as the twin peaks of every Olympics since 2008: the best swimmer ever and the best sprinter ever.
They are Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt, dual headliners who have towered over the rest of the Olympic Games for eight years.
Certainly there have been dazzling women’s gymnasts who grab a lot of TV time as well, but by the nature of that sport the cast is always changing. Hardly any gymnast can stick around for three Olympic cycles.
But first in Beijing in 2008, then in London in 2012 and now in Rio in 2016, Phelps and Bolt have done the same two-step.
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Phelps dominates the first week. Then Bolt takes over the second.
Their styles are very different. Phelps is more of a Michael Jordan, a relentless competitor whose sustained excellence inspires awe more than anything else. Until these Olympics, when he opened himself up a little more, Phelps mostly isolated himself with headphones before races. He has always been at his best racing when he drowns out the rest of the world.
Bolt is more of a Charles Barkley, a dazzling entertainer as well as an incredible athlete who is willing and able to take the crowd along for every ride. Before he kneels in the starting blocks, he dances and preens. Phelps smiles a lot after races, but rarely before. Bolt smiles before and after. He takes the world on his back in every race and yet doesn’t seem to feel the weight.
Who is the better Olympian of the two? I don’t think there’s any question it is Phelps, whose 23 Olympic gold medals and 28 overall medals will never be surpassed. Indeed, Phelps must rank as the greatest Olympian of all time.
Yes, Phelps has more chances at medals because swimming has more events that play into his strengths, but no one else has ever come close to doing what he’s done. At age 31, Phelps ended up with five golds and a silver in these Olympics, losing only once.
Bolt may well be the most charismatic Olympian of all time, as well as its fastest man for three straight Olympic cycles. He hasn’t lost an Olympic final since 2008. Phelps does lose occasionally, but he also competes far more often.
Bolt’s victory over Justin Gatlin the 100 meters Sunday night was his third consecutive win at that distance, and that was supposed to be his hardest race. Bolt should blow away the field in the 200 on Thursday night.
“I am always confident about the 200,” Bolt said early Monday after his win. “The 100 is always the hardest one for me.”
Then, if he and his Jamaican teammates can win the 4x100 relay Friday night, Bolt will realize his goal of a “triple-triple” — winning gold in the 100, 200 and relay for three straight Olympics.
Both men claim that this will be their last Olympics.
I don’t believe it with Phelps — he has retired and unretired before. I’m not sure what to believe with Bolt. Phelps is 31, while Bolt will turn 30 this week. The sprinter is committed to running through the 2017 world championships and then will supposedly retire, although I could certainly see him running at least the 200 in Tokyo in 2020.
There have been other fantastic Olympic swimmers and sprinters before these two men, of course. Mark Spitz won seven gold medals in swimming in 1972. Then he retired at age 22, which was customary at that time in the sport because there was so little money in it. Jesse Owens won four gold medals in Berlin in 1936, and no medals have ever been more symbolic since those Olympics were hosted by Adolf Hitler on the eve of World War II and Owens was African-American. But again, Owens competed in only one Olympics.
After Phelps finished his last race of this meet Saturday night, winning gold with another relay team, his longtime coach Bob Bowman offered the opinion that Phelps was not a “once-in-a-generation” swimmer but more like a “once-in-10-generations” swimmer.
I think you could say the same thing about Bolt. His world records in individual events will be broken at some point, but I’m not sure we will ever see another sprinter who is so joyous and so intent on making everyone around him that way as well.
Early Monday morning, Bolt described after winning the 100 a recurring dream he has been having where he is being chased.
“It is always that same dream every now and then,” he said, “but it is a good dream because they never catch me.”
They aren’t going to catch him in Rio, either, just like they couldn’t catch Phelps. As for those of us watching, it is wise to appreciate them now and catch them both while we still can.
We will never see the likes of either one of them again.