By Budd Bailey
Fans of the Olympics probably will be spending the rest of the year talking about how such athletes as Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt proved that they were the greatest athletes in the respective specialties (swimming and sprinting) in history.
That sort of discussion, however, comes with a huge “but.” Some of the top athletes of the past could have duplicated those feats, but they didn’t have the chance. They couldn’t afford it.
Before 1990 or so, most Olympic athletes weren’t allowed to be fairly compensated for their efforts. After they had won athletic glory, they had to go about the business of trying to make a living. Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals at age 22, was reduced to running against horses for money. Swimmer Don Schollander won five gold medals by age 22, and retired. Debbie Meyer, who won three freestyle golds in 1968 (just like Katie Ledecky), gave up competitive swimming in 1972 at the age of 20.
We learned what a 31-year-old Phelps and a 29-year-old Bolt can do this year. We’ll never know if some of the other all-time greats could have excelled at their respective sports for several additional years.