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Where does Usain Bolt rank among the greatest sportspersons of all time?

We take a look at the career statistics of some sportspeople who are often regarded as the 'greatest in the world' - Bolt and Steffi Graf among others.

The fastest man on Earth – Usain “The Lightning” Bolt 

Usain Bolt, labelled the ‘fastest man on earth,’ is considered by many to be one of the greatest sportspersons of all time. He recently won gold at the IAAF World Championships, proving once again that there’s no one who can truly challenge him in short-distance sprinting.

Bolt first captured the imagination of the world after winning the 100m and 200m gold at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, reducing his competitors to spectators. He later successfully defended his Olympic titles at London, and in addition, he won the 4x100m gold for his country too. 

The team finished in a time of 36.84, breaking the previous world record of 37.10, which had been set at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Incidentally, the teams for both editions were nearly identical, with the exception of Asafa Powell, who took part in the 2008 Olympics but was replaced by Yohan Blake in London.

Bolt holds the world records for 100m (9.57sec), 200m (19.19sec) and 4x100m (36.84sec).  With his extensive array of record-breaking runs and medals, the Jamaican is considered part of the elite league of sporting legends which comprises Muhammed Ali, Roger Federer, Michael Phelps, Mark Spitz, Steffi Graff, Sergy Bubka, Yelena Isinbeyeva and a few others.

He does not need to say much about his own performances – they do the talking for him. Bolt is arguably the best track and field athlete of all time, with only Carl Lewis and Jesse Owens coming close to him in terms of medals and wins.

Bolt’s place among the greats

But where does he rank among the greats from other disciplines? Is he the greatest ‘sportsperson’ of all time, and not just the greatest track and field athlete? A comparison with greats from other individual sports throws up quite a few interesting observations.

Yelena Isinbeyeva has dominated women’s pole-vaulting for almost a decade with two golds – one at the Athens Olympics in 2004, and one at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. She has won a total of 21 gold medals through a career spanning over 13 years, and also continues to hold the pole-vaulting world record of 5.05 metres which she made during the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Carl Lewis is another Olympic legend, having won nine gold medals at the Games and one silver. He dominated the 100m and 200m and also the long jump event, and he is tied with Bolt in terms of medals won at the World Championships – they both have 10 medals each. The Jamaican, however, has eight gold medals and two silvers to Lewis’ eight golds, one silver and one bronze.

Jesse Owens is believed to have revolutionized track and field, setting as many as three world records in less than an hour at the 1935 Big Ten track meet. Like Lewis, he dominated the 100m, 200m and long jump disciplines, winning four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin.

When it comes to tennis, Roger Federer is the undisputed best. The Swiss Maestro has the highest number of singles titles – 17, having overtaken the record of Pete Sampras, who had 14. Considered by many to be the greatest that tennis has ever seen, Federer is also a very stylish player, with a free flowing backhand and one of the most powerful forehands in the game. He glides along any surface to reach shots that would seem impossible for any other player.

Steffi Graf is another exponent of the game whose individual records speak for themselves. With a total of 107 career titles, the German ace has 36 more than World No. 1 Serena Williams, and with 22 Majors, she is the second highest in the overall Slam titles list behind Margaret Court (24).

The record for the most medals won in swimming at a single Olympic games was held by Mark Spitz. The American won a total of seven medals at the 1972 Munich Olympics, a record that was broken only 36 years later by Michael Phelps, when he won eight medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Spitz amassed a total of 59 gold medals during a career that spanned over 12 years. Phelps, meanwhile, is the most decorated Olympian ever, with 22 medals to his name.

Muhammad Ali is another legendary player who dominated his sport like no other. The American, formerly Cassius Clay, holds a record 55 wins and 6 losses in boxing. Ali also has an Olympic gold, won at the 1960 Rome Olympics. He retained the World Heavyweight title 28 times, including the matches of epic proportions – most notably the Thriller in Manila against Joe Frazier, and The Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman.

Here’s a statistical look at some of the greatest athletes of all time:

Athlete

Olympic Golds

Records

Turned pro at

Events

Usain Bolt

6 medals (10 World Championship medals including 8 golds)

100m, 200m, 4*100m

2004

100m, 200m, 400m, 4*100m

Carl Lewis

9 medals (10 World Championship medals including 8 golds)

65 victories in long jump over a period of 10 years, longest undefeated streak

1979

100m, 200m, Long Jump

Roger Federer

1 medal (87 career titles and 17 Grand Slams)

302 weeks at No. 1

1998

Tennis

Michael Phelps

18 medals (61 gold medal in total)

39 World records (29 individual and 10 relay)

2000

Swimming

Mark Spitz

9 medals (24 total gold medals)

33 World records (26 individual, 7 relay)

1965

Swimming

Steffi Graf

1 medal (107 career titles and 22 Grand Slams)

900-115 (wins and losses)

1982

Tennis

Yelena Isinbeyeva

2 gold medals (total of 20 gold medals)

WR – 5.05 m  

2002

Pole Vaulting

Muhammad Ali

1 medal (61 total fights with 56 wins)

Only three-time World Heavyweight Champion

1960

Boxing

Jesse Owens

4 medals

Set three World records in 1935 in the space of 45 minutes  

1936

Track and field

The statistics show that Bolt is a certified great, and can only scale greater heights in the years to come. He is set to retire in 2017, and so has a chance to beat Lewis’ record of 9 Olympic golds, the highest for a track athlete. A win in each of his events will mean he equals Lewis, but he would still be far behind Phelps’ medal record.

It is highly unlikely for Bolt to finish his career as the greatest Olympian of all time, which is partly because he competes in less events than Phelps; swimming as a discipline has a lot more categories than short-distance sprinting. But that doesn’t mean Bolt is in any way a lesser athlete than Phelps, or any other sporting great in history. The dominance he has exerted over the competition, and that too in the most high-profile discipline of all, hasn’t really been seen before.

Bolt may not have the numbers to qualify as the greatest sportsperson of all time yet, but the fact that he is inspiring such discusions is proof enough of his legendary status. Whether he is the greatest of all time or not, we should consider ourselves lucky to have the privilege of watching him in action.

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