The Greatest Athlete Debate

Inspired by the turn of the century, many media outlets felt compelled to offer their choices for the greatest athletes of the past century.  Unfortunately, most of them never qualified what constitutes a great athlete, or for that matter, even what an athlete was.  So their lists ran the gamut from golfers to horses, which caused a great deal of unneeded controversy.  I believe these debates have merit, but there certainly needs to be some criteria established before endeavoring to whittle down the many great sports heroes to one greatest athlete.

Now if the intention is to name the best pure athlete, in terms of overall fitness, someone who is an unbelievable cardiovascular machine, then one would probably have to look no further than some long distance biker like Greg Lamond or Lance Armstrong, or a middle weight Olympic wrestler like Dan Gable or perhaps some unknown triathlete.  Those are the athletes who are the fittest, those who can exert themselves for a seeming eternity.

However, that was not the quest of most of these exercises.  The intention for most lists was to name the most famous or the most influential or the best athlete with the most influence, etc.  In order to avoid the nebulousness that is sports debate, here are what I consider fair criteria:

First, the person has to be a person.  I can remember watching in complete awe Secretariat's epic run at the Belmont.  And each time I watch replays, I still get chills.  But for my purposes, I'm going to qualify athletes as human beings who pursue sport by choice, rather than being bred and selected to it.

Second, the person has to be an athlete, implying that they were/are a physical machine, capable of excelling at other physically taxing endeavors other than their chosen sport.  Sorry, golfers.  If you've ever seen Tiger Woods in a batting cage, you know what I'm talking about.

Third, the person has to dominate his/her sport.  By dominate, I mean he/she has to have established records that still stand today, or to have won an inordinate amount of championships, or more significantly, changed the rules of the game by his/her play or changed the way the game is played..

Fourth, because I am not familiar with many of the athletes outside North America, I will limit my list to only North American athletes.  However, of the ones with whom I am familiar, soccer immortal Pele, with his widespread appeal and 3 decade long domination of the world's most popular game, would have to be considered among the greatest athletes ever.

And lastly, this person has to have had significant impact on their world outside of sport, meaning their performance or their life has to have changed the world.

There have been many phenomenal athletic performances this century: Henry Armstrong held boxing titles in 4 weight divisions simultaneously.  Carl Lewis won gold medals 9 times over 4 olympiads, including 4 straight in the long jump.  Mark Spitz also won 9 gold in 2 Olympiads.  Eric Heiden completely dominanated every speed skating event in the Lake Placid Olympics in 1980 - the equivalent of which is winning every sprint and long distance race at a track meet.  Jesse Owens, perhaps the most significant competitor in Olympic history, shattered Hitler's theories of racial supremacy in 1936 with 4 gold medals and then mitigated the schism between white and black America during the 60's.  Jim Thorpe and Babe Didrickson flourished in several sports, with Didickson breaking 3 world records in one meet.  Jackie Robinson, a 4-letter athlete in college, re-integrated baseball, probably his worst sport, under almost unbearable scrutiny and pressure.

That said, there have only been four North American athletes who excelled in all 5 criteria: Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, Mohammed Ali and Babe Ruth.  Yes, there have been great athletes who dominated their sport during their era, or some like Bo Jackson and Jim Brown, who were stars in two sports.  But none of those guys excelled in all 5 criteria the way Jordan, Gretzky, Ali and Ruth did.

So let's go one by one and start with Michael Jordan.  Jordan has plenty of accomplishments - 10 scoring titles, 3 steals titles, 9 times named to the all defensive team, the all time scoring average leader, 6 championships (likely would have won 8 had he not taken two years off for a stint in minor league baseball) and untold number of endorsements, magazine covers and highlights on sports shows.  But would he have gained as much fame and notoriety without 1) the benefit of having followed Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, who saved basketball from anonymity, or 2) had the benefit of facing expansion diluted teams for much of his career or 3) enjoyed the benefit of gushing broadcasters repeating his highlights 5 times a day every time he played, whether he was productive the previous night or not?  My guess is no.  Even as great a player as Jordan was, basketball is played pretty much the same way as when he first joined the NBA.  There haven't been any rules changes or game strategies due to Jordan's presence in the NBA.  Jordan also has competition as the top titan in basketball history: Wilt Chamberlain.  On Wilt's side, there're 7 scoring titles, including one season where he averaged 50 points per game, 11 rebounding titles, 1 assist title, untold number of blocked shots (because back then they didn't keep track of that statistic, although many observers of Chamberlain claim he averaged at least 10 blocks a game for his career), 2 championships and three times as many 65+ point games as everyone else in history combined.  He accomplished all that and never fouled out of a game.  Throw in the fact that the NBA changed it's rules for free throw shooting (for fear that he'd dunk every one) and widened the lane because of him and Jordan's crown as top hoopster loses some luster when Chamberlain is brought into the picture..  Some would say that I'm devaluing Jordan's championships and perhaps I am.  However, Jordan faced 5 different teams in his title years and the most potential Hall of Famers his teams ever faced in a championship series was 3.  Most of Chamberlain's teams had to go through the Boston Celtics, a team with 6 of the NBA's 50 greatest players of all time, to win a championship.  Jordan never faced such an imposing nemesis.  And while Jordan struggled with an admittedly more challenging second sport, baseball, Chamberlain became a world class volleyball player after his career in the NBA.  Of course, Chamberlain was never worth $10 billion in marketing to the NBA, so they add up about even.

Unlike basketball, in hockey, there is really only one name - Wayne Gretzky.  In addition to holding 61 records (including both the season and career records for most goals scored and most assists) and 4 Stanley Cup championships, he changed the way hockey is both played and marketed.  Before Gretzky, only one player had ever scored as many as 150 points - combined goals scored and assists - in a season.  In just his second season, Gretzky broke the record for most points scored in a season with 164.  The next year, he recorded the first of his record 4 career 200-point seasons, scoring an NHL record 92 goals in 80 games.  He is still the only player ever to have scored 200 points.  Of the top 10 seasonal point totals in history, Gretzky owns 8 of them.  Gretzky's Oilers and their flying circus offense changed the way hockey was played.  But that wasn't his only influence on the sport.  Before Gretzky, hockey wasn't even considered a major sport and players salaries averaged one quarter of what the players in the other major sports made.  Gretzky brought fans to the game and money to the coffers.  While they still don't earn as much as basketball players, the average hockey player earns slightly more than the average football player and slightly less than the average baseball player. Additionally, Gretzky's influence extended beyond the players and the game to the teams themselves.  Before Gretzky, there was only 1 team that played south of Washington DC, and that was the failed Atlanta Flames, who moved to Calgary when Gretzky first entered the league.  When Gretzky was traded to the LA Kings, his presence made hockey a popular sports entertainment option in a warm weather city.  He revolutionized the way people thought about hockey and where it could be played.  Now 10 cities south of DC are home to NHL hockey.

Mohammed Ali often referred to himself as the greatest, and in many ways, he was.  He dominated his sport at the amateur level, amassing a record of 100-5 and winning the gold medal in the 1960 Rome Olympics  Then, he dominated the professional ranks for nearly 2 decades. He took on three generations of boxers, starting with late fifties and early sixties greats like Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston, moving through the late sixties/early seventies champions Joe Frazier, Ken Norton and George Foreman and finished his career by taking the title away in the late seventies from Leon Spinks.   His record of 56-5 is impressive considering he lost 3 of his prime years to a ban from boxing for his refusal on religious grounds to be drafted into the Vietnam War.  During those three years, he campaigned against the war, a message that reverberated across college campuses.  He became something of a folk hero for America's youth and an important figure in American history as he helped to turn the tide of sentiment against the war.  Upon his return to boxing, he set about an agenda of cultivating pride in the heritage of the African American community, refocusing on their roots in Africa.  That focus came to a climax when he defeated George Forman in Kinshasa, Zaire, Africa, to regain his heavyweight crown in 1974.  Ali defended his crown for 4 more years until losing to Leon Spinks in 1978, a loss he would avenge less than a year later at age 36.  And although he stayed in boxing a bit too long, slightly tarnishing his image with an unfortunate showing in his last bout when he was too old and slow to be fighting, there is little debate that he is the greatest boxer ever.

But my choice for greatest athlete is Babe Ruth.  From the time his contract was bought from Baltimore by the Red Sox until the time he was sold the Yankess, Babe Ruth was the second best pitcher in the American League.  He was second in wins, second in ERA and held the Major League record for most consecutive shutout innings in the World Series.  He was the pitching equivalent of All-star lefty Tom Glavine.  But it was when he was moved to the outfield so that he could play more that he revolutionized the game of baseball from a game of bunts and steals to a game of three-run bombs.  In 1918, while he was still a pitcher for the Red Sox, he led the league in home runs.  The next year, while not yet fully converted to outfield full-time, he broke the record for most home runs in a season.  He also led the league in runs driven in.  The following year, 1920, Rith hit more home runs than all but one team in the major leagues.  By the time he finished his career, he had led the league in home runs 12 times, RBI 6 times, runs 8 times, on base percentage 10 times, slugging 12 times and totalled more than twice as many home runs as anyone in history.  Ruth still has 3 of the top 10 most productive seasons in history.  But his legacy doesn't stop with his on-the-field accomplishments.  Baseball had just suffered a public relations nightmare when Ruth came to prominence: 8 players had been banned from baseball for throwing a World Series.  People were justifiably skeptical of the outcomes of sporting events, suspecting that the results had been predetermined by organized crime and gambling interests.  Ruth's home runs captured the imagination of the populace with their distance, frequency and above all, their honesty: there was no faking a home run, no money or bet could stop a homer.  Ruth inspired a rebirth in the popularity of baseball and elevated the athlete's place in society.  Ruth himself was a larger than life figure; his appetites are well documented. He became the most famous man on Earth as he appeared in movies and advertisements everywhere.  He made it possible for "professional athlete" to be a full time job.  Before him, players only endorsed cigarettes and bubble gum.  After him, they endorsed everything from insurance to clothing to appliances.  He brought baseball to Japan and Europe.  Before World War 2, he was hailed as a hero in Japan.  During the war, Japanese soldiers often yelled, "to hell with Babe Ruth" as a battle cry when advancing on American positions.  He is still arguably the most famous person to have lived in the 1900's.  The sad epilogue is that he never got a chance to manage a team, his greatest desire, and died of throat cancer at the age of 53.

Finally, I'd like to note a poll done by ESPN.  In the course of compiling their 50 greatest athlete list, they asked users to vote on each candidate as to whether or not that person deserved to be considered a top 50 athlete.  Some of the results were surprising, but none more than the results of the poll concerning their top 5 athletes:

#5 Wayne Gretzky was named on 97.1% of the votes.
#4 Jim Brown was named on a little more than 86%.
#3 Mohammed Ali was named on 96.3%
Their #2, Babe Ruth, was named on 95.2%.
And their #1 guy, Michael Jordan, had the 2nd fewest votes of their top 5, finishing with 94.7%.

And so it goes.