The best sports star ever
A few weeks ago, I started a discussion on my radio sports show about who is the greatest sportsman of all time. I raised the issue right after the Beijing Games, where Usain Bolt (as if he ever really needed to) once again demonstrated that he is a walking, breathing legend.
I had come up with the Australian Don Bradman as the best-ever sportsman for the simple reason that no other sportsman in any of the major sports was statistically as far away from his peers as Bradman was from his.
Bradman's 99-plus average, while the other world greats are averaging in the 50s, means that he is the sportsman whose feats are least likely to be repeated in our lifetime. The discussion has taken wings, and weeks after I first raised it, it is still being hotly debated on social media.
Most Jamaicans feel that I'm crazy in selecting Bradman. They feel that Bolt has now done enough to win that accolade easily. I won't regurgitate the topic here. Instead, what I will do in this piece is to compare Bolt's monumental feats to other track and field personalities' just to put some balance to the argument.
Most Jamaicans hate the name Flo Jo. They look at her unbelievable accomplishments and feel that her records should be expunged from the books because of lingering suspicions about her involvement with drugs. Some of those suspicions may be well founded, but because she has never been found guilty of anything, we have to take the achievements for what they are. Flo Jo's 10.49 in the 100 metres is probably more unbreakable than Bolt's 9.58 over the same distance. Her 200m record of 21.34 is more unreachable than Bolt's record in the same event.
Flo Jo and Carl Lewis
Yohan Blake came within seven hundredths of a second of matching Bolt's 19.19, but no woman has been anywhere close to that astounding 21.34. It could be argued then that gender for gender, Flo Jo was as good as, if not a better, sprinter than Bolt. Not only are her records out of sight, but she was also an Olympic gold medallist.
Many Jamaicans also loathe the name Carl Lewis, for reasons similar to Flo Jo, but to be the best in the world at the 100 metres, 200 metres, and long jump at the same time is no easy achievement. If Carl Lewis were Jamaican, we would be holding him up for what he is: one of the greatest athletes ever.
Not too many Jamaicans know Al Oerter, the discus thrower from the USA. He won four Olympic Gold medals in four different Olympics, starting with the 1956 Games in Melbourne, all in record throws. No other track and field athlete has managed to win four Olympic gold medals in the same event for four straight Games. If he was competing in the current era, he would be a superstar worthy of sitting alongside anyone.
He doesn't get the same oomph surrounding his name as Bolt or Jesse Owens because the discus throw pales in comparison to the sprints as a glamour event. If we are not emotional, though, we will accept that as majestic as Bolt's achievements are, Mr Oerter's record is pretty special.
And what of the phenomenal Edwin Moses? For 10 years, this man was unbeaten in the 400m hurdles, a stretch lasting 122 races from the 1970s to the 1980s. After he lost that 123rd race, he went on to win 10 more consecutively. That kind of dominance over one's peers in terms of number of events is hardly replicated in all of sports, not just track and field. He was setting records in that time, too. He won the Olympic gold in the 1976 Games and also at the 1984 Games.
He would, in all likelihood, have won the 1980 Olympic gold as well if the USA had not boycotted the event, because by then, he was easily the most dominant 400 hurdler around. How does his record stack up against Bolt's? Again, if we are objective and distance ourselves from the natural inclination to go with your own, one has to admit that Edwin Moses is worthy to be mentioned with Bolt as someone who really was out of class as a track athlete.
Space won't permit me to mention some long-distance athletes who have also accomplished superhuman feats. None of this is trying to take away Bolt's achievements. In terms of raw box-office appeal and his ability to get a crowd going, Bolt is probably unmatched.
Bolt may well be the most universally loved sportsman of all time. Is he the best ever track and field athlete ever? Maybe, maybe not. I know what I think, but now what say you?
- Orville Higgins is a sportscaster and talk-show host at KLAS ESPN Sports FM. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.