Tue | Aug 4, 2020

Oral Tracey | Bolt and the greatest male athletes of the decade

Published:Monday | January 6, 2020 | 12:00 AM

The Associated Press recently released its list of male athletes of the decade with NBA superstar LeBron James, NFL legend Tom Brady, sprint ace Usain Bolt, football great Lionel Messi, and swimming icon Michael Phelps, in that order, comprising the top five.

This has sparked a firestorm of debates in local sports circles.

Jamaicans generally seem flabbergasted that the eight-time Olympic champion was not the unanimous choice as male athlete of the decade.

Emotions and the obvious American bias in the process aside, objective and nuanced comparisons of the performances of Bolt and James over the last decade make for interesting and enlightening consumption. There are indeed two fundamental differences in the manner and dynamics of Bolt’s dominance over his peers compared to the exploits of the likes of LeBron James, Lionel Messi, Christiano Ronaldo and Tom Brady.

Bolt, Phelps, boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr despite being completely dominant in their respective sports, because of the nature of their events, they dominated on select and relatively winfrequent occasions.

Bolt had his greatest and most spectacular moments at the Olympics and the World Championships. ‘Back-to-back-to-back’ Olympic sprint doubles and sprint relay titles between the 2008 and 2016 Olympics, These performances were interspersed with periods of comparative inactivity.

Three Olympic Games and five World Championships, spread across alternate years, actually totalled less than 10 big performance moments in over a decade. The same principle would apply to Phelps, who enjoyed his glory at the quadrennial Olympic showpiece.

Matter of context

Mayweather’s dominance in the ring must also be contextualised by the similar infrequent moments of having, on average, one or two fights per year during his stellar career.

On the contrary, the likes of James, Messi and Ronaldo, by the nature of their crafts, demand more frequent, high intensity, season after season, game after game high-level performances.

LeBron James, over a 17-year career, has played, on average almost a hundred games per season, averaging 27 points, seven assists with almost 50 per cent shooting average per game. LeBron managed to conquer the incessant demands of an 82-game regular season, in addition to the increased intensity of the play-offs, by leading his respective teams to an unbelievable eight straight NBA finals, with his dominant individual brilliance remaining a constant.

Similarly, footballers Messi and Ronaldo have displayed unbelievable consistency and brilliance with more frequent consistency at the highest level of football.

In any given year, they play in excess of 50 high - intensity, high stake professional games in addition to participating in international competition. Professional footballers of the calibre or Messi and Ronaldo do not take onto themselves the luxury of seasons off, competitions or tournaments off, or even games off, as Bolt, Phelps and Mayweather were prone and privileged to do.

Another poignant fact specific to the big Jamaican sprinter that seems to be getting lost in the rhetoric is that Bolt’s best and most dominant years were indeed 2008 and 2009 when he summarily arrived on the scene and in very short order proceeded to stamp his imperious authority on the sport.

The triple Olympic Gold and triple world records in 2008, were followed by triple World Championship Gold and triple world records in Berlin in 2009, but unfortunately 2008 and 2009 are not included in the last decade, which ran from 2010 to 2019.

If indeed 2008 and 2009 were included in the decade in question, the case for Bolt would have been significantly stronger.

The fact that Usain Bolt even got to as high as third on that list is actual testament to his greatness and his marauding excellence over the last decade.

All things considered though, inclusive of the nuances of the comparisons, they reveal that Bolt’s dominance was very real, but, comparatively, it was different.