The Olympic athletics are mostly done and dusted, and Usain Bolt, having won 100m and 200m gold, has proclaimed himself “the greatest athlete to live.” This status can’t have been earned through sheer numerical power, since on numbers alone Bolt would be well down the medal list – five gold medals at two Olympics is nothing special and certainly can’t eclipse Carl Lewis’s nine gold over four olympics. It can’t be the act of retaining a title over two successive olympics, since Ian Thorpe did that, and in any case it’s not really comparable with sports like Judo where one can only compete in one weight division at one Olympics. By the measure of defending golds in at least one event for which one is eligible to compete, Saori Yoshida and Kaori Icho are far superior – they have defended gold at three olympics and seven and nine world championships respectively, and Kaori Icho has not lost for 150 or more matches. It can’t be through achieving perfection in one’s sport, since Nadia Comaneci did that in 1976 when she scored a perfect 10 (in fact she won seven 10s in total in that olympics). Ms. Comaneci also went on to win five golds, defend her beam performance at the next olympics, is credited with her own special moves, and is the only person ever to receive the Olympic Order twice). It can’t be for being the youngest person to break a record – again, Nadia Comaneci did that and, according to her wikipedia entry, it’s now impossible to legally break that record. Bolt didn’t break any records until he was 21.

I guess gymnastics just isn’t that special. That might explain why Japanese TV insisted on showing the 100m final even though no Japanese person was competing – imagine how little time they would have to showcase Japanese athletes if they had to broadcast the final of every event! In fact they don’t, so it must be that the 100m and 200m are really special.

This confuses me. I don’t understand what’s special about sprinting. It’s obviously impressive and important – like all athletics – but does it compare with any of the other major events in the Olympics? Compare it with synchronized swimming, for example, which is a genuinely impressive sport in which great talent is combined with challenging physical technique as well as artistic merit. Could Usain Bolt sprint in perfect lockstep with the rest of his Jamaican team? Could he do push-ups while holding his breath? Could he hoist one of his other team members into the air for a perfect backflip with a peg on his nose after doing hold-your-breath push-ups for 30 seconds? Come to think of it, could he even complete a 100m race while maintaining a perfectly fixed smile? Synchronized swimming often gets a bum rap, but if you look past the rigid smiles and scary make up, it’s actually a sport that requires amazing talent, focus and attention to detail, and the women who do it obviously have impressive backgrounds in swimming, ballet and gymnastics.

So what is so special about sprinting? Putting aside for the moment the fact that all of these sports are a complete waste of time and space, is there anything about sprinting that makes it different to weight-lifting, hammer-throwing or the marathon? Do you have to do it from childhood, like gymnastics? Does it require skills from multiple disciplines, like rhythmic gymnastics and synchronized swimming? Is there a risk of death if you do it wrong, as in diving, gymnastics or horse-riding? Does it require a special and intense team spirit to complete even the simplest of moves, like volleyball?

I think the Daily Mash puts Bolt’s achievement into a little more historical perspective:

Helen Archer, from Stevenage, added: “Usain Bolt just ‘practices’ running every day and, one assumes, eats a lot of macaroni and stays off the tabs.

“Perhaps the Pope should commission a new ceiling from him. Let’s see what that does to his ego.

“Once he’s finished, perhaps he could point at it in his trademark style.”

I think that puts Bolt’s “legend” status into a little perspective. Imagine if Einstein, receiving his Nobel prize in 1921, had said “I’m the greatest scientist to live.” Even rock stars tend to eschew this kind of stupidity. Freddie Mercury just said “I always knew I was a star,” but he never managed to get to the point of observing the obvious truth, that he was the greatest performer ever to live.

It’s probably a reasonable truism to live by, that if what you’re about to say outstrips Freddie Mercury, Oscar Wilde and Mohammed Ali in its arrogance, you shouldn’t say it. I’ll give you that tip for nothing, Usain Bolt. In exchange, could you tell me why I should value sprinting more than synchronized swimming?

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