~ Posted by Simon Willis, August 10th, 2012
Last night, after winning gold in the 200 metres, Usain Bolt declared himself a "living legend" and the "greatest athlete to live". Yesterday, we blogged that footballers could learn a lesson in modesty from Team GB, and Bolt's remarks left me feeling that they're not the only ones. Arguably Bolt wasn't even the greatest athlete in the stadium yesterday. Kenya's David Rudisha, who won gold in the 800 metres, became the first track athlete to break a world record at the London Olympics—his own.
But when it comes to claiming greatness, athletes like Bolt and Rudisha have two advantages over many of those competing in the Games. Firstly they race as individuals. Mark Cavendish might be the best sprinter in the world on a road bike, but the Olympic road race is a strange panto horse of an event, where riders compete on their own but work in teams. When Cavendish failed to win a medal on July 28th, he even laid blame at the feet of cyclists from other countries who in his view didn't do their share of the work to rein in the leading riders. There's no "I" in "team", unless you're an Olympic road racer.
Secondly, Bolt competes in events with clear winners and losers. When three editors from Intelligent Life went to watch Mary Kom box, one of them said the judging had "a whiff of Eurovision", with sometimes wildly divergent points being awarded by judges from different countries. The same goes for gymnastics, with its dance of art and athleticism, and equestrianism, where show-jumping is objective and dressage more subjective.
Woody Allen explains in the recent documentary about his life why he doesn't go to the Oscars, even when he has a good chance of winning. He said you can say you really like a film, but you can't ever say it's the best film. So, to Woody Allen, the Oscars are sort of meaningless. On that basis, you could divide Olympic events in two: the pure, where there are incontrovertible winners; and the not so pure, where there's an element of subjective judgment. Usain Bolt might not be the greatest athlete ever, but at least Woody would turn up to watch.