The Great Debate: What Defines The Athlete?

PJ EdelmanCorrespondent IAugust 17, 2008

In the eighth century BC, the Greeks founded the Olympics, a multi-day festivity displaying the strongest, fastest, and best athletes in a tribute to the gods.  Athletes competed in ancient sporting events such as wrestling, boxing, chariot racing, and the discus and javelin throws.  They often battled stark naked, showing off their physique proudly, expressing their triumphs along with the hard work they put into bettering themselves.

The city-states of Ancient Greece competed for hundreds of years with pride, simply for the right to represent themselves and their hometowns, for the coveted olive-wreath.  The games were suspended either by Theodosius in 393 or Theodosius II in the effort to Christianize Greece. 

The Olympics lay dormant for approximately fourteen centuries.

Finally, in 1896, the Olympics did its Persephone imitation, and came back to Earth.  Athletes from all over the world came to Athens to celebrate and compete in the first modern Olympic games.

Actually, competitors from many countries came to compete against one another.  The number of actual athletes is debatable. 

According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, an athlete is "a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina." 

Wikipedia.com explains that "A superior athlete is one who has above average physical skills (strength, agility, and endurance) and is thus more suited for physical competition.

I think in 2008, a good definition could be a person who has risen to the top in their respective field in strength, agility, and speed.  In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the most dominant competitor has been Michael Phelps.

There has been much debate about who has been the most dominant athlete.

In this year's Summer Olympics, Phelps has beaten long-time great Mark Spitz's previous single "season" mark of seven gold with a whopping eight first-place finishes.  Phelps is now the proud owner of 14 gold medals, and an additional two bronze medals (in Athens in 2004), bringing his total count to 16, just shy of Soviet champion Larissa Latynina at 18 over three Olympics.

At 23 years old, Phelps is already arguably the best competitor in the history of the modern Olympics.  That's the history of the modern Olympics. 

Does he even rank in the top most athletic people in the past 50 years?

My younger brother, father, and I have been discussing what characteristics define a true athlete.  

My brother claims that there is a difference between sports that require several athletic attributes like baseball, (which usually requires speed, hand-eye coordination, and strength) and boxing (which requires speed, quick reflexes and power) versus sports that require just one or two athletic traits, such as long distance running (which requires mostly heavy endurance). 

The question is this:  Who is more athletic--the competitor who has a ton of only one athletic trait, or the sportsperson who has a solid amount of athleticism in several athletic areas?  

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and an athlete is in the eye of the debater.

Tiger Woods is a great competitor, and the best in his sport.  He hits the ball far, and sinks tough putts, utilizing good hands and keen eyesight.  He may be an athlete, but should he be ranked over most athletes that run or swim?

Illya Ilin, Kazakhstan's 94 kilogram gold medal weightlifting winner, is an athlete, but should he rank above the athletes that play football, basketball, or hockey?  For instance, who ranks more highly: Ilin, the winner and top weightlifter in the world, or  NBA champion Boston Celtic Paul Pierce

This year, Pierce was 30th in scoring.  He had  about five assists and rebounds per game.  In NBA terms, Pierce had a very good, but not great, basketball year.  But he can jump three or four feet high, runs the floor fairly well, and has excellent on-court vision and agility.  Is he more athletic than world champion Ilin?

It's a difficult question to answer.

Phelps has come under criticism because he simply swims, and does not run, lift, throw, block, catch, or shoot.  But he seems to fit the requirements:  He has terrific speed (even though it is not on land, which may make his argument for top athlete even more compelling), great agility and flexibility, and especially, Olympian strength.  Swimming necessitates the use of muscles that most people don't even know exists.  The fact that Phelps makes it look so easy and fluid is a tribute to his sinewy strength, as well as a contribution to the narrow-sighted critics who refuse to realize that strength appears in various ways.

He may not run a ten second dash, or throw a ball 90 miles per hour, or lift three hundred pounds.

But give me the top golfer, best long distance runner, and Michael Phelps, and I'll take Phelps any day.         

And you know what?  Between Terrell Owens and Michael Phelps, well...I'm really not sure.


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