With the Olympics in full-swing, I know the constant barrage of images and superimposed accolades will make it difficult for most Americans to be impartial about this debate, but I’m going to give it a try nonetheless.
Is Michael Phelps the greatest American athlete of all time?
With a record 22 Olympics medals - 18 of those being gold - it becomes impossible for most to look past his awards and just focus on the question itself. Is Michael Phelps the greatest American “athlete” of all-time? Not champion, not Olympian, not swimmer . . . athlete.
To which I have to say an emphatic, No! I believe the greatest athlete we have ever seen is none other than Bo Jackson.
The biggest problem I have with a swimmer being named the greatest athlete ever is the fact swimming is a repetitive action. There is no real hand-eye coordination required to be a great swimmer, just the ability to repeat a movement over and over.
And it sounds like I am belittling the sport, which is not my intention. I have a lot of respect for swimmers and those able to do it on the world’s biggest stage, but when compared to someone such as Bo Jackson, I am not sure the two belong in the same athletic sentence.
Bo Jackson's College Career
The first notch in Bo’s column came in 1985 when he took home the Heisman Trophy for his play as an Auburn Tiger. In his last season, Bo gained 1,786 yards (second all-time in SEC history) and finished his career with a 6.6 yards per game average (best in SEC history).
But Bo’s greatness did not merely rest with football, the reason Jackson is the player I chose to go head-to-head with Michael Phelps is due to his domination of multiple sports. Bo Jackson was also a great baseball player. In addition to his Heisman-winning season, Bo batted .401 with 17 home runs for the Auburn Tigers' baseball team in 1985.
There have been other two-sport stars, such as Deion Sanders or Brian Jordan, but no one was as good at both sports as was Jackson.
Bo remains the only player in professional sports history to be named an All-Star in two different sports. And while his careers in both were shortened due to injury, Bo Jackson was unquestionably one of the most dominant athletes during his time on those fields.
Bo's Professional Career
In 1989, Bo rushed for 950 yards on just 173 carries, in only 11 games. Extrapolated forward, a 300-carry season for Bo would have netted him 1,650 yards. But in that same season, Bo also hit 32 home runs, collected 105 RBI and stole 26 bases for the Royals in just 135 games.
Much of Bo’s career is shrouded in legend and whispered tales of superhuman ability. In his NFL Combine, his unofficial time in the 40-yard dash was said to be 4.12 seconds. Although the NFL did not start keeping official marks for each athlete until 1990, the fact Bo was also a track star at Auburn, who briefly thought about going pro in that sport as well, should give some credence to the claim.
In the NFL game which ended his career, Bo injured his hip when a tackle made it pop out of its socket. Legend has it Bo then popped his own hip back into place. After finding out he would need a hip replacement surgery which would end his NFL career, Bo Jackson still returned to play Major League Baseball – an incredible feat in itself.
And although he was no longer the same speedster he once was; the unmistakable power was still there. Bo hit a home run in his first at-bat after getting his new hip. And what may even be more impressive is when Bo threw out a runner from right field without taking a step as he remained flat-footed – something which can’t not be fully appreciated until you find that you could only throw a baseball about 90 feet flat-footed and Bo threw one 300.
Bo Jackson vs Michael Phelps
While no one should take anything away from Michael Phelps’ accomplishments, it is also wise to remember just what the words “athlete” means and understand just how much of a freak of nature Bo Jackson truly was, despite his full greatest never being realized.
Bo Knows Sports.