After college I moved to London where for three seasons I played American football in the now defunct Coca Cola league. Before I arrived in England I knew as much about soccer and hockey as I did about 4th Century Vietnamese Folk Dancing (if there is such a thing).
After being exposed to the sport that is truly deserving of the moniker futbol as it is broadcast and featured with the same intensity and vigor which our networks approach the MLB, NBA and NFL, I acquired a much deeper appreciation for the guys and gals that play soccer.
One day, while sitting in the house my owner had rented for me and a few of my American teammate, the house that didn't have satellite television. Too tired to get up and change the channel I sat down and watched the entire 1992 Olympic Hockey Final between Russia and Canada. Again, an epiphany struck me when I realized how athletic those guys had to be in order to multitask on the ice the way they did.
In fact I made up my mind right then and there that hockey was merely soccer on ice...with sticks...and fist fights.
The point being, that as an inner city kid who grew up a fan of the Yankees, Knicks and Jets, as far as I was concerned, the world's greatest athletes were in no particular order, Reggie Jackson, Walt Frazier and Emerson Boozer.
This summer we will get to see some of the most gifted athletes in the world congregate in Beijing for the 2008 Olympics and yet even most of those athletes cannot compare to world's greatest (more on them later).
First of all, regarding the fallacy of other athletes crossing over into other sports. The list of superlatives in that category is a very short one if you are looking for excellence at the highest level. I believe that Deion Sanders ranks just ahead of Bo Jackson, who ranks just ahead of John Elway who ranks way ahead of Julius Peppers. Yes, Peppers could easily have had an NBA career. Certainly not an All-Star career but he would've survived several years in the NBA.
Still, when talking about these guys we're talking about athletic skill sets that while may require superior mental focus and concentration, do not necessarily imply physical superiority.
You can teach Michael Johnson to catch a football, alot easier than you can't get Jordan's 6'6" frame around 200 meters in 19.6 seconds.
As a former long jumper I would often wonder if guys like Jordan, Kobe and Vince Carter would've been great horizontal jumpers. The answer more often than not is no. Anyone who knows a thing or two about horizontal jumping knows that the key is not leaping ability but rather speed and the transfer of speed.
You cannot find an individual who has jumped over 27 feet who has not also run 200 meters in less than 21 seconds. You can't do it. But I know dozens of track guys who can dunk a basketball better..yes better than Jordan (maybe not better than Vince).
You think Tiger Woods is tough for limping around a golf course for 91 holes? Tell him to try ducking 250 lb linebackers with a fractured collarbone or tackling 225 lb. running backs missing half a finger, i.e. Ronnie Lott.
Soccer and hockey athletes are much more athletically skilled on average than athletes from the 'big three' of American sports. A guy like Oliver Miller would never make a soccer or hockey roster. Ditto for MLB's David Wells, the NFL's William "The Refrigerator" Perry, and the PGA's John Daly.
Soccer players have to run pretty much the entire match..I mean literally run. There are some baseball players who can go three innings without being involved in a single play, while they are in the game.
While football players are certainly tougher than baseball and basketball players, they fall just a bit short in the toughness department to hockey players who aside from having to deal with just as much roughhousing as football players, have to do it while ice skating and swinging sticks.
How's that for degree of difficulty?!
Most Olympic athletes are concerned with defying the laws of inertia and endurance. They are challenged primarily with going faster, higher and farther than any other human has done before them. Which while grand and significant in the actual achievement, still usually boils down to one or two specialized events, which those athletes train endlessly for.
For my money the world top athletes are those who border on insane, the triathletes.
Seriously, If I could run a marathon, I'd be pretty pleased with myself. If I could run a marathon in under 3 hours I would feel as though my life had special meaning.
But if I could run a marathon in under 3 hours after i'd just swam for two and a half miles and rode a bike for another 100 miles, then I would proclaim myself a ninja and try to take over the world.
I'm well aware that many athletes that participate in one sport could have been successful in other sports if they had focused on those sports early in life.
But the way I see it, the day you decide to start training for a triathlon is the day you realize that you are made up of something different than everyone else.
And while they may not be able to hit a curve ball, nail a fadeaway three pointer over a seven footer, sink a 50 foot putt for an eagle on the 18th or even bend it like Beckham, I'll put my money on a triathlete learning those skills before other athletes can manage theirs.