Lewis or Bolt?


By Jamal Bovell

There have been many arguments over which specific individual might have been the greatest in a particular sporting discipline.

Much of this discourse has tended to be subjective and others have tried to be as objective as possible. I have waited until the completion of the London Olympics 2012 to touch on a subject that is sure to have already captured the imaginations of sports fans, in particular, those like me who are passionate about track and field. Who is the greater between Carl Lewis and Usain Bolt?

Rather than simply put my personal views out there, I will put all the facts in front of you Barbados TODAY readers and let you decide for yourself. What makes this debate even spicier is that these two major names in the history of athletics have previously publicly engaged in a war of words.

But to answer the question as to which one should own the bragging rights, one would have to look at this issue from several angles: medals, accumulated impact on the sport and overall legacy.

Carl Lewis has accumulated a medal count at The Olympics and World Championships that will be hard to match. Between 1983 and 1996 Lewis amassed ten medals at each of these championships. He has nine Olympic gold medals and one silver. These include four consecutive gold medals in long jump, a back to back 100m title in 1984 and 1988, two 4x100m titles and one 200m title.

His silver came in the 200m. It should be noted that his back to back gold medal performance was only possible due to Ben Johnson being caught on a drug violation in 1988 and having his medals stripped. His tally at Worlds includes three consecutive 100m titles and three consecutive 4x100m titles.

Lewis won the long jump twice in a row before Mike Powell demoted him to second in what is largely accepted as the best long jump showdown in history. The battle these two men had was so epic that they both set personal best with Powell setting a world record that still stands today.

This defeat ended Lewis’ 65 consecutive victories in long jump. This is still one of the longest streaks in any sporting event in history. Many argue that Lewis’ medal tally might have been even higher had the USA not boycotted the 1980 Olympics. He would have gone into those games ranked in the top 10 in Long Jump and on a strong relay team. Lewis equalled Jesse Owen’s record of four gold medals in a single Olympics with his 1984 performance.

As it currently stands Bolt has six Olympic Gold medals from three Olympic appearances. His first Olympic appearance was in 2004 where after a stellar early season a hamstring injury hampered his performance and caused him to crash out disappointingly in the prelims of the 200m. Since then his Olympic performances have been two things – golden and record breaking. His seven World Championship medals include five gold and two silver.

The silver came in 2007 in the 200m and 4x100m as Bolt was regaining his form from injury and making his climb up the world rankings. His World Championship medal tally is believed to be one short due to Bolt surprisingly being disqualified under the false start rule. Bolt was the overwhelming favourite to win the gold medal that year. On medal tally alone it would appear that Lewis is the greater of the two but their impact goes deeper than just winning medals.

Carl Lewis has had a far from controversial-free career. In 1988 he tested positive three times for a series of performance enhancing drugs. The US Olympic Committee(USOC) ruled that his intake of these drugs were “incidental” and failed to report them or take any disciplinary action against Lewis. This has led to many athletics fans placing some doubt on the validity of his records and accomplishments.

Lewis was king in an era that saw many champions being caught or believed to have been on drugs. Lewis’ public image has also long been under scrutiny with him losing sponsors after his first Olympic Games due to rumours surrounding his lifestyle. Lewis’ final gold medal in the long jump at the 1996 Olympics is also held in some cloud of doubt as some believe he only won this due to injury to Mike Powell and Ivan Pedroso, the two leading jumpers at the time.

Lewis wanted to grab one more medal and tried to get on the relay team. He had however skipped the mandatory relay training camp and after much debate and Lewis pressuring and trying to coerce public support the USA team decided to stick with their original squad. The team finished second behind Canada who were anchored by new Olympic champion and record holder Donovan Bailey. This would have been Lewis’ 11th medal and possibly 10th gold.

Bolt on the other hand has been the poster boy for drug-free athletics in recent times. Bolt came about in an era when drugs were linked to all the stars. The sport had been rocked to the core by several world champions and Olympic champions being caught and the poster girl Marion Jones being involved in a huge drug scandal.

Bolt, however, has continually raised the bar and has not been found to be in any wrongdoing. He pushes the line with what is acceptable behaviour for athletes. He’s seen by many as cocky due to his jovial and carefree antics on the track. He’s been known to party and fool around and this has led to him being in three car accidents in recent years.

However, in a sport crying out for a saviour due to all the tarnish heaped on its name Bolt has stepped up and done just that. His signature “to the world” posture is one of the most recognizable and copied in modern times. Suddenly, there is fun in athletics with his fellow Jamaican athletes joining in. English distance champion Mo Farah has even developed his own signature pose and even found the time to do sit-ups after his win.

Bolt found time to do push-ups after the 200m and to even copy Farah’s signature “mobot” pose after the 4x100m. Bolt has broken the 100m record no fewer than eight times in five years. He was once considered a lazy athlete due to the fact that for many years he was reluctant to run 400m and this was reflected in the effort he put in at training. However, since the switch to 100m and 200m his work ethic has come in for high praise, and the performances reflect this.

Is either of these men a legend? In my view, they both are. As it stands both Lewis and Bolt have set the bar high for all to follow. Despite what others may argue, they are both living legends in the sport.

Lewis retired in 1997 and since then the International Olympic Committee has voted him Sportsman of the Century in 1999 and the IAAF has voted him Athlete of the Century.

Bolt is still actively participating so no comparison can be made at this time in those regards but on mere influence on the sport Bolt’s contribution is immense. Will he be able to compete and medal in four Olympics as Lewis did? Highly unlikely, as it stands, but we can only wait and see.

So readers, who do you think is the greater between the two?

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