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Both of them. As I said in the Swimming thread, no way to really single one out. They're both in the Olympic pantheon with guys like Jim Thorpe, Jesse Owens, and Michael Johnson.

 

A better question would be, if Eaton keeps winning World Championship decathlons and (maybe) wins in Tokyo, would he also be considered in the same discussion? My thoughts are yes, but he seems to be pretty much invisible to the public (Even with all his commercials).

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Am I the only person on the planet who remembers Carl Lewis? Did I just imagine him? Cause every reporter in the world wants to declare Bolt as the best ever. 

Just watched Bolt win his ninth gold. Yep, he's one of the all time greats. But he's at best tied with Carl Lewis for most successful track and field olympian. (Lewis has nine golds, and a silver). Paavo Nurmi has nine golds and three silvers may be ahead of both, but it's so hard to compare from such a different era. 

In swimming, Phelps has 23 gold medals. Second place is Mark Spitz with 9. It's not even close. 

Phelps!

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Bolt has competed in 9 events in 3 Olympics and won gold in all 9. Carl Lewis also has the stench of doping around him. It is the same reason Jackie Joyner-Kersee is not thought of highly anymore. 66.7% of Bolt's medals have been one individually.  57% of Phelps medals have been won in individual events. Phelps has entered 33 events and has a winning percentage of 79%. Bolt has a 100% winning percentage.

If Bolt got to run a 50, 100, 150 and 200 plus 3 relays it wouldn't even be close. It just goes to the point, that total medals won don't always make one Olympian more great than another. Some just have a lot more opportunity to win medals because of their sport. 

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>>   66.7% of Bolt's medals have been one individually.  57% of Phelps medals have been won in individual events.

Oh, come on... that's being silly. Are you saying that if Phelps had not entered the 11 relays where he won gold and had "only" the 12 individual gold medals that would be better? Or that qualifying for the Olympics as a 15-year old and coming in 5th somehow makes him less successful???

Because of the different events, it's hard to compare swimming to track. That's why I looked at Phelps vs all other swimmers, and Bolt vs all other track and fielders. There have always been a lot of swimming events. The best anyone other than Phelps has ever done is 9 gold. Phelps has 23. 23!!! In track, Bolt is one of three guys with 9 gold...and the others have silver too. 

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19 minutes ago, Faster said:

If Bolt got to run a 50, 100, 150 and 200 plus 3 relays it wouldn't even be close. 

Just to be a stickler, if Bolt got to run a 50, 100, 150 and 200 plus three relays, and he won gold every single time, he'd still have "only" 21 golds vs Phelps 23. 

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This is a tough one. Phelps went to 5 games and has won a swag of medals. Bolt has done the treble - treble which will probably never be beaten. They are the best of all time in their respective sports. 

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For me, the difference between Phelps and Bolt is that Phelps has fundamentally changed swimming in a way that Bolt has not changed athletics.  Phelps' success has brought a ton of sponsorship money into swimming that has been spread to many swimmers around the world.  Prior to Phelps, very few swimmers were able to stay competitive for multiple Olympics, but with sponsorship money, swimmers are now able to stay in the sport and improve well into their 30s.  Phelps also helped to elevate swimming to an 'A' level sport for IOC funding, which will build swimming programs in many countries.  Although the U.S. won half of the swimming events in Rio, the results at the last two World Championships show how much the rest of the world is improving, with medals spread out across more countries than ever before.

There's no question that Bolt is a more popular global figure than Phelps, but he has brought a lot of attention to himself and not to athletics as a whole.  Interest and attendance at events in which Bolt does not compete is decreasing worldwide.  Something like 75-80% of sponsorship money in athletics goes to Bolt, and other athletes have not seen greater sponsorship opportunities because of his performances.  I think athletics is facing a pretty dire immediate future without Bolt, as there don't appear to be many options for major stars to fill his shoes, and his world records won't be approached for at least a generation, so there won't be the possibility of record-setting performances to generate interest. 

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By sheer medal count, I would say Phelps. He has more golds, individual or otherwise. But Phelp has also swam more versatile races in swimming than Bolt has done on the track. He's done both individual medley disciplines, which require him to do all 4 styles of swimming (freestyle, butterfly, breaststroke, backstroke). No Olympian has ever pushed himself so hard for Olympic events than Phelps, except maybe decathletes and heptathletes. Hell I give more props to Allyson Felix on the track than Bolt, even though her medal count doesn't compare to his, because she's at least attempted to run the 100m, 200m, and 400m all in one games. Bolt won't even go anywhere near the 400m, which is a shame because I believe he would stand to be pretty good at it.

I would even put Ashton Eaton over Bolt in my book as well. Anyone who can come back 4 years later and defend his Olympic title in the decathlon is godlike in my book!

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