“If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” – Sir Isaac Newton
Although the Olympics have almost concluded, it wasn’t until we were over halfway through these games that we were treated to the appearance of Usain Bolt. The Jamaican sprinter began the quest to repeat his performance from four years ago in Beijing, winning gold in both the 100 and 200 meters. Mission was accomplished; and in addition to these two gold, he also helped his team win a gold medal in the 4×100 meters relay. Once Bolt’s first race concluded, I had resigned myself to believing that yes, Usain Bolt is the real deal, and it’s just not possible that his lightning fast speed is anything but real. I could finally relax and like this guy. Along with millions of others, I needed to just sit back and enjoy watching him. This merely lasted for a few days before I was turned off following his win in the 200 meters. As he crossed the finish line, he did a few push-ups as if to say, “I’m not even tired.” He then told the media that he was “now a legend” and “the greatest athlete to live.”
Yams may be part of the Jamaican diet, but apparently humble pie is not.
Bolt’s statement had me thinking: Is he the greatest athlete ever? Is he the greatest Olympian?
We can say without question that Usain Bolt is the greatest sprinter in our time. He has beaten all of his competition and set new world and Olympic records. Many consider Michael Phelps to be another contender for this
title. While I believe that Phelps is more deserving of the title than Bolt, he is not my choice either. The title of world’s greatest athlete has, and still does, belong to Jim Thorpe.
When I think of who can be called the greatest Olympian ever or who we can say is the greatest athlete ever to live, I’m looking for someone who proved themselves over many years in various disciplines, events, or sports. At the 1912 Olympics, American Jim Thorpe competed–and won gold–in not just one event, but two: pentathlon and decathlon. And because pentathlon and decathlon are both combined events combining multiple track and field events, Jim Thorpe wasn’t just proficient at sprinting and middle distance running. He also excelled at the shot put, javelin, discus, long jump, high jump, pole vault, and hurdles. Think about this. How can we compare one race by Usain Bolt (two if we count both the 100 and 200 meters) to a grueling schedule of multiple disciplines over several days?
We must also take into account that 100 years ago, when Jim Thorpe won his two Olympic gold medals, his conditions for training and competing were quite different from those of Bolt’s. There was no aerodynamic clothing, or non-slip track surface. Athletes like Thorpe competed on grass, dirt, and cinder ash, wearing heavy cotton clothing; leather cleats with metal spikes! There were no juicer machines, sports nutritionists, or corporate sponsors. Nor were there state-of-the art gyms with special weights and resistance training. What could Jim Thorpe have done with training conditions of today as well as modern technology?
Thorpe wasn’t just a multi-event Olympic gold medalist. He also excelled at baseball, football, and basketball, and he was good enough to play professionally in all three of these sports.
While it might not technically be a qualification for the title of either greatest Olympian or athlete, Thorpe possessed one other quality which makes him all the more deserving in my book: humility. It is giants like Jim Thorpe whose shoulders Usain Bolt has stood on to reach his achievements. And most of those predecessors, like Thorpe, did so humbly.
Faster, Higher, Stronger.