Put a Bolt On It, Usain

Mark Radcliffe gives Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt’s claim of being “the greatest athlete” a reality check. 

Usain Bolt walked into the history books last night for winning gold in the men’s 200 meter, his 2nd time repeating gold in two consecutive Olympics.

It’s a very impressive feat, one that has escaped every other sprinter in history before.

I was made a fan of his bold, explosive style all over again.

Until he said this after the race: “I’m now a legend. I’m also the greatest athlete to live.” 



The greatest athlete to live?

Somebody call up Michael Phelps. Tell him his 22 medals (with 18 Golds) don’t hold a candle to Bolt’s 5.

After that, better get on the horn to Muhammad Ali. At least when he said he was “the greatest” he didn’t add “athlete” or even “boxer” to it. I was just charming bravado that he seemed to imply no one was better than him in any way whatsoever. And we’re a little more willing to let an athlete who endures 2-hour fights on a daily basis claim that more than a guy who simply runs for 9 or 10 seconds and then goes off to sign autographs for the rest of the day.

But one thing I know for sure is when you’re actually the greatest at something, you don’t have to tell people. They’ll tell you.

Bolt forgot the one lesson that got them the whole way to his dreams: let your legs do the talking, not your mouth.

Let’s take a little humility step:

Sure, you’re an unbelievable sprinter. Yes, you’d done something that no other sprinter has ever done. But hell, man, you didn’t even break any world records last night.

And more importantly: the only thing you do is run in a straight line.

You can’t even do it for very long. Put you in a 10k and let’s see if you win. Forget a marathon.

Hell, let’s you put in the decathlon against Gold medalist Ashton Eaton and see how that goes. He can sprint 93% as well as you. But would you do 93% as well as him in the other 9 events?

You can’t throw. Or tumble. Or flip. Or work a pommel horse. Or ski 85 mph down the icy slopes of Kitzbuhel. Or hit golf balls with the precision and consistency of a Tiger Woods. Or do what Jordan did in basketball.

And that’s what the true definition of an athlete is: complete physical ability. The ability to make your body do a multitude of amazing things. For my money, the most amazing athletes by that criteria are gymnasts. Measure them by strength, power, explosiveness, aerobics, and sheer physical ability to make their bodies do improbably things, and someone like a baseball player pales in comparison (though he’ll make 200 times more). In fact, if you took, say, the top gymnast at the games and put him in the 100m, he’d do 85% as well as you, Usain Bolt. But put you in the men’s floor events, parallel bars, rings and pommel horse and would you do 85% as well as him? No. Maybe 8%. But you’d have a broken neck after 20 seconds.

So, no, Usain, you are not the greatest athlete ever. You’re not even the greatest athlete if we handicap the phrase with the confines of “ability to travel quickly in a straight line.” Hell, not withstanding the doping case that could erase his whole career, I’d have to go with Lance Armstrong for that. We’ll never see 7 straight years of dominance like that again. But there are countless other runners, sprinters, speed skaters and more who’d gladly fight you for that title.

But most troubling about comments like this from Usain is that at a time when everyone is coming together, he’s separating himself out, insulting everyone else around him, before him or after him. He even had the temerity to insult Carl Lewis after his win.

He’s showing the world once again, how some athletes, no matter how talented they are on the field, often lack the essential life qualities of respect, humility, appreciation for their fellow man.

Give me a Michael Phelps any time—a man who not only wasn’t bagging like this when he won 8 out of 8 golds 4 years ago, but also candidly talked about his own personal failings and newfound sense of humility this year. And then went on to nail 5 medals and still be the most successful athlete of the games and the most awarded Olympian ever.

Imagine if he said, “I’m the greatest athlete ever” how much less we’d like him. The endorsement offers wouldn’t be in such steady supply. Because we’d all know he’s a bit of an asshole.

And we can only look up to brilliantly talented assholes for so long before we need something a little more.



AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus

About Mark Radcliffe

Mark Radcliffe is a writer living in New York City. He has a weakness for bourbon, jazz and girls who can drive stick. You can read more of his essays here: www.theradcliffescrolls.tumblr.com and http://markradcliffe.com.


  1. Mark Radcliffe says:
  2. Also check out this bit of respect for other athletes:

  3. I think that was the result of being on the high generated by a great feat.

    It’s like a boxer winning a title and the first thing they say is, “I’m the greatest of all time!!!”

    If Bolt is still saying stuff like this a few weeks later after the high should have worn off then we might have a problem.

  4. Since they started to measure the 100 meters electronically, almost to 40 years ago, the record time improved by .5 seconds.

    For about 25 of those years, between Carl Lewis and Powell, the needle moved about .16 seconds. In 4 years, Mr. Bolt moved that needle the same .16 seconds and against the greater gravity of approaching terminal velocity, sans improvements.

    This alone makes him the greatest sprinter ever.

    And triddo to what the folks just above said

  5. Bolt is the greatest sprinter. That 2008 100m Olympic Final run is still electrifying. I still remember the bugeyed-in-shock look on the face of two competitors when they were being interviewed.straight after.

    What would be interesting is to see if he is the greatest ‘pound for pound’ sprinter. Bolt’s stride length is so much larger than the others, I wonder how fast he would be if his times were adjusted for his longer stride length

  6. He even had the temerity to insult Carl Lewis after his win.
    Bolt is right to slam Braces. I dont know how old you are (im 37) but i remember Lewis as being obnoxious.
    Lewis should also hand back that 1988 Seoul 100m gold medal to Ben Johnson, who as far as Im concerned won it fair and square

    • Joanna Schroeder says:

      Did you see Lewis’ comments on Pistorius?

      I don’t judge either way, as it isn’t my expertise, but it’s sorta fascinating that Lewis didn’t think Pistorius should even be at the olympics.

  7. Wow…okay so few things. Firstly, “the world’s greatest athlete” is actually the title given to the winner of the decathalon. Bolt’s already come back and been like ‘whoops, my bad, that’s Eaton this year.’ (Not in those exact words, but pretty close). Or at least, that’s what was said in an interview on NBC with Eaton…so apparently Bolt’s sorted it out.

    Second, “the greatest” is one of the most subjective terms like, ever. Greatest in terms of what? Of just what he’s done for his sport in the time he’s been in the sport? Of how his achievements has effected his home country? Of how many medals? Of how many golds? Of how many Olympics-in-a-row he’s done whatever it is he did? I mean, goodness me…you can’t really say he isn’t the greatest any more than he can say he is the greatest.

    Third, that interview was minutes after he’d just swept the sprints for the second time in a row. Humility is not something I’d expect from Mother Teresa in that moment, let alone someone who is known for his antics, like Usain Bolt.

    Finally, that brings us to the idea that perhaps, just perhaps, Bolt’s persona in interviews and at races is actually a character. He gets people talking about him, and revved up during a race. He goofs off and what-not a whole lot. Part of that is arrogance, and part of that is just being goofy. And yet you’ll see him do things like bump the fist of the guy assigned to take away his little box thing before the 200m final, which so obviously just made that guy’s day. Apparently there’s some video around of Bolt hushing a reporter who was talking during the U.S.’s national anthem, which is kind of sweet considering he isn’t even from the U.S.

    So basically…you’ve no idea whether he’s an arrogant asshole, and I’ve no idea whether he isn’t. We just know what little bits we see on the screen. And frankly, if he is an arrogant asshole, it doesn’t affect his racing, so why does it even matter…


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