Olympic pole vault champion Yelena Isinbayeva took the top place as sportswoman of the year and the only honor to buck the Olympic trend went to Spain's football squad, which was voted team of the year after winning the European Championship.
In a poll by the International Sports Press Association, journalists from 96 nations gave Bolt a narrow edge of 1673 points to 1557 over Phelps. Bolt won a three gold medals, setting world records in the 100 meters, 200 and 400 relay to become the star of Beijing's Bird's Nest stadium. In the Water Cube, Phelps was the outstanding star with a history-making eight golds in the pool for the United States.
In the wake of his thrilling victory over Roger Federer in the Wimbledon final, Spain's Rafael Nadal came third with 444 points, edging Manchester United star Cristiano Ronaldo with 401 points and new Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton with 275.
Isinbayeva was undefeated outdoors in 2008, defending her Olympic pole vault title in Beijing with one of her four world records this year.
The Russian dominated the poll with 1723 points, way ahead of fellow athletic star Pamela Jelimo who had 631. The Kenyan bolted out of nowhere this year to take Olympic gold in the 800 meters, and also collected the $1 million Golden League jackpot by winning her event at all six participating meetings.
Serbian tennis player Jelena Jankovic finished third with 583 after she moved atop the WTA rankings, ahead of Tirunesh Dibaba with 475. The Ethiopian clinched a long-distance double at the Olympics, winning the 5,000 and 10,000 meters.
Triple Olympic gold medalist swimmer Stephanie Rice was fifth with 431.
Spain won its first international football trophy in 44 years by beating Germany 1-0 in the final after dominating the monthlong Euro 2008 tournament.
The international journalists gave the team 1395 points, enough to push Jamaica's sprint relay team into second place with 1154 points.
Champions League winner Manchester United was third with 769 points, edging the U.S. Olympic basketball team with 597.