NBA great turned noted basketball pundit Charles Barkley recently named basketball legend Michael Jordan and golfer Tiger Woods as the two greatest athletes he has seen in his lifetime. Surely, he has never tuned in to track and field to witness the exploits of Jamaican sprint king Usain Bolt.
Of course, at first glance, I chalked up Barkley’s comments to the long-extolled values of ‘America first’, commonplace for USA sporting analysts and popular in that arena long before President Donald Trump weaponized the ideology to disastrous effect.
After all, it is routine for the US to refer to its national sporting champions as world champions, despite playing the competition only within the country’s borders and excluding other contenders around the globe.
Resisting the urge to completely dismiss the observance as humdrum, overly exuberant nationalist fervour, I decided I took a closer look. It’s a lot closer than you would think.
There is often a tendency to try to forget the greatness of Tiger by looking at the player’s recent injury issues and scandal-hit career, forgetting that at his best Tiger was one of the most dominant players to ever play a sport.
For starters, at the age of 20, Woods became the first man to win three consecutive U.S. Amateur titles. He was the youngest to win the Masters, the fastest ever to ascend to No. 1 in the World Golf Rankings and, at 24, the youngest to win the career Grand Slam.
In addition, he held on to the No. 1 ranking for 281 consecutive weeks, which is to say five-plus years. His 82 PGA Tour wins has him tied with Sam Snead for the most ever and nine ahead another legendary golfer, Jack Nicklaus. Tiger’s 15 major titles leave him three behind Nicklaus but he is no longer a sure bet to break that record. For some, this means he might never be the greatest golfer, but let’s leave that argument for the time being.
In addition to his remarkable achievements, Tiger’s propensity to always shine when the lights were brightest made the game of golf sexy. From massive sponsorship deals to a major increase in prize money, he revolutionized the game.
But, without taking anything away anything from Tiger, he still doesn’t quite measure up to the legend of Bolt.
In a sport like track and field where dominance often seems to barely last longer than the 10-second dash to the line, Bolt’s near-decade-long supremacy is unprecedented.
The sprinter’s haul of 14 World Championships (11 gold), 8 Olympic Games medals combined with three earth-shattering world records speaks volumes for themselves. But, in a sport where the winner is defined by mere fractions of a second, Bolt’s four-year 45 race winning streak over 100m is a feat in and of itself. His longest undefeated streak in the 200 m was in 17 finals, lasting from 12 June 2008 to 3 September 2011. There is an endless number of statistics that could be added to the pile on this comparison but that isn’t really the point.
The simple fact of the matter is that Bolt, like Jordan, had in the same vein a potently combined aura of invincibility and transcendental quality that Tiger does not.
Outside of the US, little boys and girls around the globe took up their basketballs and dreamt of being like Mike. On tracks around the world, no matter what the surface, after seeing or hearing of his surreal Olympic feats, kids took off running as they fantasized about being like Bolt. Tiger would, of course, have influenced some to play golf but to imagine a level of influence anywhere close to the other two is surely a bridge too far.
Both the symbols of Bolt and Jordan, the ‘Jumpman’ and lighting Bolt, after all, became trademarks associated with triumph, conquest, excellence, and unquestionable status as the ultimate competitor. I’m not sure the same could be said about Tiger’s swingman. Oh wait, there is no swingman.