When contemplating a title for this entry, I considered using a vs., as this seems the logical debate to be had about the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Upon contemplating the argument, I became quickly aware that such a debate is fruitless. For starters, I have emailed both athletes managers and suggested a standoff between the two. How you may ask? It is quite simple, Phelps is the master of water, Bolt is the master of land. The obvious choice is that they meet is some kind of aerial combat. The champion of air shall be declared greatest athlete! May a suggest suited them up in Iron Man type suits - sans the weapons but simply with the rocket thrusters - and letting them go at it. The ancient Greeks would certainly be proud, as there is no truer test of a man's ability than hand to hand combat. It only seems fitting that in the modern sense, that this combat take place in mid air and involve rocket packs.
Assuming that the logistics of such a match will take some time to work out, I propose here that rather than contrasting the two athletes, we compare them. In truth, their superhuman accomplishments can be attributed to very similar factors. Each went undefeated in Beijing (in finals), each were prodigies, winning world championships at a young age, and each broke a number of records. How is it possible that in an era of supposed parity, two athletes can emerge to dominate their sports by so much? Well, in my view, the following factors help to shape these two separate but similar athletes.
1. Genetics - Most obviously, they got good Levis. I don't know who their parents were, nor do I care. It is obvious to anyone who has done some work with drosophila flies that genes played a big part of shaping these athletes. Each has been referred to as a "freak of nature". Perhaps freak is a bit strong of a word, but they are nonetheless special specimens. Phelps is 6'4" but has the wing span ("arm" span didn't seem to convey the message I wanted here) of a man 3" taller. His flipper size feet and Andre the Giant sized hands man him a veritable fish out of water. Bolt, for his part, has the turnover of a world class sprinter 6" shorter than he, but the stride length of a baby giraffe. Simply put, the creator was a bit generous when it came to mixing parts of Submariner and Flash into Phelps and Bolt's respective genetic slurries.
2. Mentality - Rather than labeling focus, or determination of strength of will, I have used mentality, as each athlete have the ability to both remain focused and relaxed simultaneously. Whether it is watching Phelps pre-race routine consisting of the iPod in one ear and the jacket coming off precisely after the first swimmer has been announced or Bolt's coiffing of his hair and display of his toothy smile, each athlete is clearly "present" and aware of the task at hand. These are not your pre-race barfing basket cases. These are men with true tunnel vision. Of course, these approach extends to their training routine as well.
3. Dedication from a young age - Many athletes are dedicated. I daresay that every Olympian is at least 78% more dedicated to their tasks than your average Catholic priest. Made up statistics aside, Olympians all share a common background of thousands of hours of training to bring them to this point. What separates Phelps and Bolt is their dedication at the highest level from a very young age. Commentators have suggested Bolt simply came out of nowhere, but that is simply not true. Bolt was a world Junior champion at age 16, while he was still a youth! Phelps was a world record holder before he could legally drive. These type of accomplishments simply don't occur because your grade 8 teacher noticed that you could beat the girls in a school yard foot race. These athletes had world class coaching at world class facilities with a world class dedication from a very young age. Bolt may only be 22 but he has been training as an elite level athlete for nearly 9 years. Same deal for Phelps (only a little older and a little longer training). When most 13 year olds would rather be stuffing their bras or playing with Transformers, these 2 were putting in hours of training with one focus - being the very best at what they do.
4. Luck - Finally, everyone needs a little luck. I would say that each benefited from specific and general luck (terms I just invented by the way). If luck is when preparation meets opportunity, Phelps was "lucky" to win the men's 100m butterfly. Certainly, he won the race by virtue of his race, but there is something cosmic about his final reach out of the water (normally frowned upon by swimming coaches) to out-touch the Hungarian by 0.01 seconds - the smallest margin of victory possible in swimming. Botl, well he was simply lucky to not fall down while doing backflips through the finish line! More importantly though, each was fortunate (or lucky if you will) to be born in the time and place they were born. Would either have succeeded if not born in the respecitve swimming and sprint powerhouses that is the USA and Jamaica? As well, each sport was lucky that neither athlete was not lured into playing basketball, baseball or heck, even water polo. I know that Bolt actually preferred Cricket for some time. Without their choice of sport, the world would have missed out on what has certainly been two of the most dominating performances in the history of modern sports.