Determining The World's Greatest Athlete

Shaun AhmadSenior Analyst IAugust 18, 2008

Human nature causes us to quickly classify the latest amazing feat as the “greatest ever”.  Whether it is a quarterback’s superb season, a golfer dominating the field, a basketball player scoring at will, a tennis player winning title after title, or a swimmer smashing world records, we as fans and the media jump the gun to give the title of “Greatest Athlete” prematurely. 

Think about all the different athletes we have given this title to, and then stripped it from, over the years.  Michael Jordan was once considered the greatest athlete only to be followed by the likes of Michael Johnson, Lance Armstrong, Lebron James, Tiger Woods, and now most recently Michael Phelps.  Each of the aforementioned athletes is undoubtedly among the best in the world.  However, being the best in the world at a particular sport does not necessarily translate to being the greatest athlete.

One of the reasons we hear the title of “Greatest Athlete” being thrown around so freely is because the definition has evolved over the years and varies in interpretation.  Some view an athlete as simply as anyone who participates in a professional sport.  If one dominates the sport, he is considered a great athlete by default. 

Others view a great athlete as a human being who pushes the limits of strength and endurance.  A renowned cyclist like Lance Armstrong fits the bill. 

Yet another viewpoint takes the overall difficulty to complete an event as a factor to consider.  An example would be a winner of a triathlon (Swimming, biking and running all in one race).  Most would agree that a triathlon is among the hardest tests of physical and mental ability in sports. 

If there are so many different variations and understandings of the title “Greatest Athlete”, how are we to determine who is deserving of the honor? 

Is it fair to say Tiger Woods is a greater athlete than Lance Armstrong?  Some don’t even consider golfers to be athletes when the likes of Phil Mickelson and John Daly are among the better players.  The argument could be made that Armstrong exerted more strength and physical ability in becoming the best in his sport than Tiger did in his. 

The counter to that argument would be that it is not Woods’ fault that his sport of choice does not require pedaling up a stretch of mountains or having his lungs adapt to different altitudes.  His sport is one that requires hand-eye coordination, mental toughness, and the ability to judge terrain.  Each would have an argument but both have been named “Greatest Athlete in the World” at some point in different publications. 

The hottest athlete right now is Michael Phelps.  Could one say that he is a greater athlete than Michael Jordan was?  Maybe Phelps can swim faster, burn more calories in a day and hold more oxygen in his lungs for a longer duration.  But can he hang in the air while defying gravity the way Jordan did?  Can he move with the agility and quickness that Jordan did while controlling a ball?  Can Phelps jump from the free throw line and hang in the air on his way to a one handed slam? 

The answer is no.  But that does not mean that Phelps is an inferior athlete to Jordan or vice versa.

Each athlete mentioned plays in a different sport which requires different skill sets.  While Tiger is working on his backswing, Phelps is working on his backstroke.  While Jordan was working on his lateral defense, Michael Johnson was working on sprinting 100 meters.  While Lebron works on his jumpshot, Roger Federer is working on his backhand.  Each athlete is the best at what they do, but each does something different.

The term “athlete” combines all those who participate in sports into one general category.  It doesn’t take anything else into consideration.  This presents a significant problem because it opens the door to not only a lot of controversy and jealousy, but a breeding ground of disrespect.

I heard the topic come up on national radio last week as Phelps was on his way to his eighth gold medal.  A heavy debate broke out about whether Phelps can be considered the greatest athlete in the world.  One analyst believed he could while the other was on the polar opposite.  Their argument led to each presenting examples of great athletes. 

When one brought up Tiger Woods, the other quickly and rather disrespectfully shot it down by saying “Tiger Woods doesn’t even play a real sport.  He plays a glorified version of billiards or croquet.” 

After hearing this, the opposing analyst barked back saying that Phelps doesn’t have the athletic ability of Gilbert Arenas or Kobe Bryant.  Back and forth they went, unnecessarily ripping various elite athletes and their sports.  At one point, the argument got so off base that the debate turned into whether all football players are even athletes (since linemen regularly weigh in at 300-plus pounds).

The reason I present this example is to show you the ignorant and downright disrespectful remarks that can be made about others and their sports based on an argument on who’s the greatest athlete in the world; an argument that lacks a conclusion.

There is no way of definitively knowing who is the greatest.  The one thing in common that each of the elite has is their drive, passion, and mental toughness.  Each elite athlete shares these characteristics along with many others, such as determination.  However, since each has a completely different craft, you cannot compare them.  It would be like deciding who is more successful; a wealthy banker or a wealthy real estate agent. 

Unless we can turn back the hands of time and see how successful Tiger Woods would have been as a swimmer, or Michael Phelps as a basketball player, or Michael Jordan as a cyclist, there is no way of knowing who the greatest athlete is.

So I conclude by saying that there is no “Greatest Athlete” in the United States, let alone the world.  Instead, there are a select few of five, maybe ten athletes who together comprise the group of “Greatest Athletes in the World”.  But understanding the desire and necessity for debate, I will leave you with a more constructive topic to tackle.

Who is the most dominant athlete in the world?  Have at it.     


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