I have watched a lot of sports in my 17-year existence, ranging from the America's four major sports—football, basketball, hockey, and baseball—to European soccer whenever I get the chance.
Now, to reach this top level of competition in any sport is a great achievement, there is no doubt about that. However, I often hear the question of "who is more athletic: a ________ player or a _________ player?" and, in a way, this is a question that cannot be answered with just one or two words.
All real sports require some form of physical exertion or effort towards a goal. In addition to the physical effort needed, there is also a mental effort that is required in sports as well.
So, the question of which sport has better athletes can have a variety of answers. For every athletic freak like Kevin Garnett in a sport, there is someone like David Wells, who you look at and say "how is this man a professional athlete?".
So, I will break down each category of what makes an athlete, and give a verdict of which sport's athletes are the fittest.
This category is rather easy, it has to go to soccer players hands down.
They have to cover a field that is roughly 130 yards long, and 98 yards wide, with just 10 position players (goalkeepers excluded) per team. They must chase down a ball all across this massive field for 90 minutes; they have to be ready to sprint at any point in the game; and, they also have limited substitutions, so the majority of the players are on the field for the whole game.
Basketball is a close second place finisher, primarily because the area of the playing field is much smaller, and there is no restriction on substitutions.
The category of strength is rather hard to nominate a clear winner.
It is a close call between basketball and football.
The argument for football is that you have to push other people out of your way, or you have to pull people down to the ground. Football emphasizes a more mano-e-mano style of strength, as you are often assigned to either get past somebody, or take down somebody.
Basketball's argument is that you have to be able to push yourself in a more closed playing field. Also, you elevate yourself for jump shots, rebounds, lay-ups, dunks, and a wide variety of things while in football you only elevate to make a catch or to break up/intercept a pass.
My verdict goes to football, based on the fact that there are players whose sole job is to just move a 300+ pound body out of the way so you can get to the ball. If anyone tried to just plow through somebody in basketball, a foul would be called.
Speed, when used in the right sport, can easily change the tide of a game.
In something like basketball, speed is essential in conducting a fast break, or driving to the basket.
In hockey, the playing field for speed is somewhat leveled in the fact that the emphasis on speed has now been taken up by most teams that have had success (see Detroit Red Wings) and as a result, teams are looking to try and acquire guys that can out skate everyone else. Because each team is doing that, it all sort of cancels out.
In football, speed is great, but if you receive a hand-off from the quarterback and you get no blocking, your speed is useless because the 11 defenders are all free to bring you down.
Baseball requires you to do something before speed can come into play: hit the ball. You have to try and hit that 97 MPH fastball before you can show off your speed.
Speed is also good in soccer, but can be neglected by defensive positioning.
The sport where speed is the most crucial is basketball, as you can use speed to generate a fast break and score easy points (see Phoenix Suns).
Mental focus plays a roll in all sports, and is evidenced by the fact that if a player is not focused, he will not play well.
Baseball has a lot of focus elements involved, as hitters have to pick up the pitch that is being thrown, and pitchers must focus enough to execute their pitches.
Hockey also has a lot of mental focus, as not only do you need to pay attention to the puck, but also to the five skaters that the other team has out on the ice, so that you do not get crushed by a guy that you did not even know was there.
Football requires more discipline than focus, as every player is supposed to do their job, and then maybe the ball is thrown to them.
Basketball has elements of focus as well, but at the same time, basketball now focuses more on the physical aspect of the game rather than the mental aspect of focus.
Focus is possibly the only category of these four that baseball could have won, and indeed it did. Baseball takes this category based on that fact that there is so much stress placed on your eyes and mind, as you have to know what a curveball looks like leaving a pitcher's hand, or know when the pitcher is throwing over to first, etc.
And the verdict is...
A true athlete is someone who combines all of these four categories: conditioning, strength, speed, and focus, and hones them all into one craft.
The sport that does this the best is basketball, and these four characteristics are very well displayed by some of the best players: Kevin Garnett, Dwight Howard, and LeBron James just to name a few. I mean, what other sport showcases grown men jumping OVER each other?
Soccer comes in second due to the fact that the game seems to never really stop, and that these players are running around for pretty much the whole game unless they are taken out.
Nonetheless, this is an issue that can and will be discussed as long as sports exist.