LONDON -- Every Olympic Games leave in their wake more compelling stories than you can keep track of, most uplifting, some wrenching. The host nation, all by itself, produced a range of sweet endings in London, from Jessica Ennis' win in the heptathlon, to Andy Murray's breakthrough in tennis, to Ben Ainslie's sailing to a medal in a fifth Olympics, to Mo Farah's middle-distance brilliance.
The Caribbean athletes and American sprinter Allyson Felix, among many others, go home as co-stars, as does men's marathon winner Stephen Kiprotich, who earned Uganda its first gold medal in 40 years. There were dozens of competitors, some of them who finished dead last in their events, who earned the right to take a bow.
But they all had better stand behind Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt as they do it, because the London Games, as diversely entertaining as they were, belonged to Phelps the first week and Bolt the second. They were the dominant figures of the competition, the athletes other athletes from around the world set aside time to watch in person.
The 1936 Games in Berlin are remembered mostly for Jesse Owens trumping Hitler; the 1968 Games in Mexico City are identified by John Carlos' and Tommie Smith's black-gloved protest; the 1972 Munich Games are known, depressingly, for the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches; the 1980 Moscow Games are known, at least in the western world, for the American-led boycott; the 1992 Barcelona Games were the year the Dream Team and professional participation changed the Olympics. But the London Games, completely absent of political confrontation, will be known for the continued dominance of Phelps and Bolt, who started their runs four years earlier in Beijing.
It's difficult to imagine them being any more different, Bolt and Phelps. Obvious differences: One is black, the other white; one excels on land, the other in water; one is private and cautious, the other public and happily brazen. You can scan all the newspapers, magazines and Internet stories for the entirety of Phelps' life and not find a single boastful quote or anything out of his mouth more controversial than "Everybody pees in the pool." Phelps had his youthful mistakes, including a DUI, which got him suspended briefly from USA Swimming. But his coach, Bob Bowman, once told The Sunday Times of London that his pupil was "a solitary man."
Bolt, of course, wants nothing to do with solitude. He, not TMZ, tweeted a photo of himself with three female Swedish handball players after one of his victories and promised they would party when the Games were over. Bolt proclaimed he was "a legend" after he successfully defended his 100- and 200-meter Olympic titles, something no other man has done.
When Bolt was told that IOC president Jacques Rogge said it would take much more over a longer period of time to make him a legend, Bolt responded Saturday night after winning his third gold medal, anchoring the 4x100 relay, "What else do I need to do prove myself as a legend?" Bolt ticked off the headline points of his résumé. Back-to-back Olympic golds in the 100 and 200, world champion in the 100 and 200, and world records aplenty completely trashed. "Ask him next time you see him what else Usain needs to do ... "
Rogge wisely backtracked 12 hours later when he told reporters Bolt is indeed an "active performance legend, an icon and the best sprinter of all time." Here, too, we have a contrast. Old-timers (and Rogge surely qualifies) and folks who like their superstars quiet and short on braggadocio undoubtedly find it tough to get a handle on Bolt. Those who think their stardom requires some swag and flavor are likely to be a little bored by Phelps.
If we're dealing with something a little more substantive, like who has the higher number of medals and greater longevity, it's Phelps with 18 golds and appearances in four Olympics. But Bolt's six gold medals in the events he has won are perhaps more coveted in more places on the planet. A footrace is something everyone in every civilization in the history of man gets, even more than the breaststroke. If we're asking who has created the brightest light and widest appeal, it appears to be Bolt, who declared after his third gold here, "These are the glory days."
In that way, Bolt and Phelps are tied, perhaps forever, since Phelps has said a million times over the past two weeks he is done, and there are signs Bolt may not want to risk his legend by trying to three-peat in Brazil at age 30. Either way, they are best looked at and appreciated as separate and distinctive entities, as different as their athletic disciplines. It's as useless to compare Bolt and Phelps, in terms of what they do competitively, as it is Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky. The thing Phelps and Bolt have in common is they wound up sharing the athletic mountaintop.
Athletes in London these past two weeks, regardless of their sport, have taken to comparing any great performance to something Phelps would do. And Farah, the British middle-distance runner who earned two gold medals here and is himself something of a track god, said Saturday night, "There's no word to describe Usain Bolt. ... For what he's done for the sport, it's amazing."
Bolt said he plans to race for at least the rest of the summer at scheduled events in Lausanne, Zurich and Brussels, and the races will be, he says, "my first time running as a living legend." Beyond that, Bolt said he has no plans. Meanwhile, indications are Phelps plans to become really, really good at golf, a sport in which being 6-foot-4 or so isn't as helpful as it is in the pool.
Someone asked Bolt on Saturday night where he sees himself in 20 years, and not surprisingly, Bolt gave the kind of answer you'd expect a star to give. "Just chillin'," he said as his Jamaican lilt conjured up an image of Bolt letting kids chase him down some Caribbean beach. "Maybe own a few businesses, have some money coming in. I'm a lazy person."
He isn't that. No matter how naturally talented athletes are, they don't become the best at anything in history by being lazy. Phelps and Bolt long ago committed their lives to swimming and sprinting. Although Phelps seems utterly content to let other people knock themselves out debating how great he has been or what he should do next, Bolt, 26 years old next week, likely will have to come to terms with what in the world, if anything, a living legend does for an encore.