Jamaican Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt during an Oct. 23, 2012, visit to the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro.
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Michael Phelps is an amazing athlete. The most-awarded Olympian of all time, he has collected an incredible amount of hardware for his display case: 23 gold medals, three silver medals and two bronze medals are nothing to scoff at.

He's an icon, an ambassador for his sport and, to quote Jay Z, not just a businessman, but a business, man. Yet, despite all of his accomplishments, because of the Eurocentric nature of swimming, he will never achieve the level of international fame occupied by Usain Bolt.


After Simone Manuel became the first black woman to win a gold medal swimming in the women’s 100-meter freestyle, much was made of the way in which swimming pools have divided Americans. In large metropolitan areas, there were usually segregated spaces for white and black swimmers. Part of why black Americans are stereotyped as being unable to swim stems from racialized assumptions about bone density, but in reality, the reason for the stereotype stems from the lack of access black would-be swimmers had to decent places to learn this skill.

In fact, swimming is such a racially contentious issue in American history that on June 18, 1964, Horace Cort captured a famous photograph showing a man pouring acid in a swimming pool to stop a "swim-in" planned by black and white protesters in Augustine, Fla. The protesters were trying to draw attention to racially segregated recreational facilities.

And yet, America is not alone. Segregated pools are not uniquely American, and racialized propaganda about what happens when an influx of black and brown people gain access to swimming pools is not hard to find in Europe. All over the world, access to swimming pools can be a contentious issue.

Furthermore, swimming is an activity that requires not only access but also leisure and economic means. That is part of why I think Phelps fails to appeal to a world audience. He is a white man in a sport dominated by white people. As Bomani Jones mentioned on The Right Time, Americans love Michael Phelps because he is distinctly American. He gives us bragging rights over other countries. He represents us well, but if you asked anyone outside of America—hell, if you asked anyone not living in the suburbs—who they’d rather emulate, the answer would not be Phelps—it’d be Usain Bolt.


The 6-foot-5 runner from Jamaica is a once-in-a-lifetime talent. He has won the gold medal in the 100-meter in three straight Olympic Games, and he has done so in startling fashion.

In 2008, as a 21-year-old, he set a new world record in the 100-meter by running it in 9.69 seconds. He then set another world record that year by running the 200-meter in 19.30 seconds on his way to another gold medal in the 4-x-100 meter relay. In London, he won the gold again in the 100-meter and 200-meter and was part of the relay team that set the world record in the 4-x-100 meter relay.


And in the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games, he won gold in all of his individual events again, making him the first man to ever win the gold in three straight Olympics in the 100-meter and 200-meter. Bolt’s athletic brilliance is awe-inspiring. We may never see another like him again.

Yet, Bolt is a worldwide phenomenon not just because of how many gold medals he has amassed but also because of the sport in which he dominates. Phelps is a star in a sport that has class and racial barriers. Bolt is a star in a sport in which anyone can participate, if you have shoes—and sometimes shoes are not even required.


Talking to the BBC, Bolt was asked about what he hoped his legacy would be as an Olympian. His response was telling.

“I want to be among the greats,” he said. “Muhammad Ali, Pelé and the like. So, to do that, I have to show up and perform.”


He did not say he hoped he would be remembered alongside Phelps. In fact, Phelps never came up as a great Olympian. This is no shade to Phelps, but it does speak to the fact that there is a difference between being an American great and being a great athlete in the eyes of the world.

Ali excelled in boxing, where there have been few historical obstacles to accessing the sport. Pelé is widely regarded as the best professional footballer to ever play the game, and soccer remains a sport where there are few economic and racial barriers to entry. Bolt stated that he wanted to be remembered among these men because these are men who were considered phenomenons in sports played by the world—not just by those who have the privilege necessary to gain access.


Phelps is a great Olympian—no one is denying that—but he will never be Usain Bolt. The sprinting phenom from Jamaica means something to people around the world that a swimmer never could. Phelps is great, but "the Big Man From Kingston" is GOAT.

Lawrence Ware is a progressive writer in a conservative state. A frequent contributor to Counterpunch and Dissent magazine, he is also a contributing editor of NewBlackMan (in Exile) and the Democratic Left. He has been featured in the New York Times and discussed race and politics on HuffPost Live, NPR and Public Radio International. Ware’s book on the life and thought of C.L.R. James will be published by Verso Books in the fall of 2017. Follow him on Twitter.

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