Wednesday, 29 April 2009

State of...Greatness

Special thanks to my friend Bev for the assistance in the development of this topic. We were discussing his mancrush of the moment, LeBron James. He argued that with continued development LeBron could one day become the greatest basketball player to ever live AND one of the top five athletes of ALL TIME!

This brought up the discussion of who were the top five athletes of all time. We went back and forth with different athletes from different sports trying to determine who would qualify and who wouldn't. It became such an interesting discussion that I continued it throughout the rest of the day with several other sports minded folks. Who are the the top athletes of all time?
First we need some form of definition of the term "athlete". I'm not comfortable having Jeff Gordon or Secretariat included in this conversation. Nor am I interested in having great players who didn't fit into the category of "athletic". Or more eloquently put, "if you have man boobs then you shouldn't qualify!" provides this definition of an athlete: "A person possessing the natural or acquired traits, such as strength, agility, and endurance, that are necessary for physical exercise or sports, especially those performed in competitive contexts."

This feels too broad. By this definition someone performing heavy lifting could be an "athlete". I might tweak this a bit to something along these lines: "A person possessing the natural or acquired traits and skills INCLUDING strength, agility, and endurance that are necessary for the participation in sports and athletic competitions". Those three items need to be included in any comparison of athletic prowess. I've also taken our "physical exercise" from the previous definition as this enabled too many possibilities.
I've been fortunate enough to see many outstanding athletes. My generation has seen the greatest hockey player to ever lace up a pair of skates (and it's not the one you're thinking of - turn that 99 upside down), the greatest golfer ever (Woods), potentially the greatest tennis player of all time (Federer), one of the best basketball players of all time (Jordan), and plenty of baseball players who would merit consideration for this distinction (A-Rod, Pujols, Henderson, Bonds, Ryan, Rose). We've been very blessed. But do any of these specimens fall into the Top 5 Greatest Athletes of ALL TIME???
There will be plenty of athletes that I will overlook (many for good reason). I encourage your feedback and criticism. Before I get into the Top Five...let's look at the ones who just missed out but certainly deserve recognition:

JESSE OWENS (Track & Field)
Career: 4 Years: 1933 (first World Record in High School) - 1936 (his amateur status was removed after the Olympics when he "turned pro" by receiving endorsements and appearance fees to run against horses).
Crowning Achievement: 4 Gold medals at the 1936 Olympics (100m, 200m, long jump, and 4x100m relay)
Also: The "Buckeye Bullet" won 8 NCAA events (4 each in 1935 and 1936). This achievement would be matched for the first time in 2006.
Rationale: Imagine how good he would have been if he hadn't smoked?! His achievements are tremendous but they are only in one major discipline - running fast. If Usain Bolt decided to make a very long jump at the end of his 100m I'm sure that he would go very far. Carl Lewis also attained the 100m and long jump wins throughout his career. The two events share similar skill sets.
Did You Know: After smoking for 35 years, Owens died of lung cancer in 1980.

MICHAEL JORDAN (Basketball and Baseball)
Career: 16 Years: 1981 as a freshman at UNC - 2003 as a Washington Wizard.
Crowning Achievement: Led the Chicago Bulls to two "three-peats" as winners of the NBA Championships from 1991-1993 and 1996-1998.
Also: A ten time scoring leader of the NBA (including 7 years in a row). Defensive player of the year in 1998. Two time Olympic gold medalist (1988 and 1992). Ranks first all-time in NBA history for his 30.1 career points per game.
Rationale: Jordan dominated the game from an offensive standpoint. While he was a solid contributor on defence it was his scoring that made him known around the world. I want to "Be like Mike" may still be being said in countries around the world. Jordan's legacy was somewhat tarnished twice; the first time when opting to play professional baseball (fairly unsuccessfully) and the second when he made his comeback to the NBA (he put up decent numbers, but he was past his Jordan-esque days).
Did You Know: While his baseball career was FAR from successful, Jordan did show some talent on the base paths. In 436 AB (with a batting avg. of just over .200) he managed to steal 30 bases. Pretty impressive for a rookie who probably didn't have the best "read" on a pitchers delivery.

Jim Brown (Football, Lacrosse, and Basketball)
Career: 14 Years: 1952 as a freshman at Syracuse - 1965 as a Cleveland Brown)
Crowning Achievement: The only player to average over 100 yards rushing per game for his career (104.3 yards per game average).
Also: Brown retired as the leader in both single-season rushing yards and career rushing yards. Led the NFL in all-purpose yards five seasons (a record). Voted to the Pro Bowl in every season he played. As a sophomore he was the second leading scorer on the basketball team (averaging 15 ppg). As a senior he led the NCAA in scoring for lacrosse with 43 goals in 10 games. Is in the College Football Hall of Fame, the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and the Lacrosse Hall of Fame. Rationale: Browne was absolutely dominant in football and was named by Sporting News as the greatest football player in history. His multi-sport success is also impressive - very few athletes are in more than one Hall of Fame.
Did You Know:Even more impressive is that over his 9 years in the NFL he NEVER got to play in a 16-game season. Four times he played in 12 game seasons and 5 times he played in a 14 game season. In essence he missed out on 26 extra games that current players have. His numbers would have been extra ridiculous given almost an additional two seasons.

Career: 17 Years: 1984 - 1993, 1995 - 1996, 2000 - 2005
Crowning Achievement: Led his Pittsburgh Penguins to two Stanley Cup championships, in 1990-91 and 1991-92.
Also: Lemieux owns three Hart Trophies as the league's MVP. He also owns 6 Art Ross awards for leading the league in scoring.
Rationale: Lemieux had the misfortune of playing hockey in the Gretzky era. While the Great One may have put up better numbers throughout his career he had a much stronger supporting cast. Consider that in Lemiuex career year his team mates included Rob Brown, Paul Coffee, Dan Quinn, and Bob Errey. In Gretzky's career year his team mates were Paul Coffee, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson, Mark Messier and Mark Napier. The year that would have been Lemieux's crowning achievement was in 1992-93. His team mates that year included Kevin Stevens, Rich Tocchet, Ron Francis, Jaromir Jagr and Larry Murphy. He started the season out with goals in each of his first 12 games. Before that 13th game Lemieux made the announcement that he had been diagnosed with cancer (Hodgkin's Lymphoma) that would require him to undergo agressive radiation treatments. That year he still managed to win the scoring race with an astounding 160 points in 60 games. The numbers he would have put up that year would surely have topped Gretzky's record of 215 points. Beyond the numbers Lemieux brought a more aggressive game that Gretzky. Standing at 6'4" and 235 pounds he was a much more physically dominating player than the smaller Gretzky (he stood at 6'0" and 185 pounds).
Did You Know: Of all his NHL achievements, his greatest feat may have come in Juniors. Playing for the Laval Voisins Lemieux racked up 133 goals and 149 assists for 282 points in just 70 games. That's a clip of 4.03 points per game. Nobody has ever come close to that before or since.

PELE (Soccer)
Career: 25 Years (1952 - 1977)
Crowning Achievement: Led the Brazil national soccer team to three World Cup championships in 1958, 1962, and 1970.
Also: Arguably the greatest soccer player to ever play the game. Pele burst onto the national scene at the age of 16 years old, winning his first World Cup at 17. Pele was instrumental in the increased popularity of soccer in the United States. He played for the New York Cosmos from 1975 - 1977.
Rationale: Over his career Pele scored an unbelievable 1281 goals. This total is recognized by FIFA as the highest total achieved by a professional soccer player. His total dominance in the most popular sport in the world makes him a spectacular athlete. He was the cream of the crop...but the crop was larger than any other in all of sports. He was given the title "Athlete of the Century" by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
Did You Know: "Pele" is a nickname. Born Edison Arantes do Nascimento, he was given the nickname Pele for reason that are not completely known. What is known is that he despised the name growing up. But the more he protested the more people used it.

And now the Top Five...

#5. MUHAMMAD ALI (Boxing)
Career: 22 Years (1960 - 1981)
Crowning Achievement: Three-time World Heavyweight Champion.
Also: Won Olympic Gold at the 1960 Summer Olympics. Career record of 56-5 with 37 wins coming by knock out. Named by Sports Illustrated as "Sportsman of the Century" in 1999.
Rationale: Ali's appearance in the top five has more to do with his sport than his over performance. He was a great, GREAT, boxer mind you, but what got him on this list is the sport that he performed in rather than his record. ESPN did a sports ranking of "Degree of Difficulty". It ranked each sport in the following categories: endurance, strength, power, agility, flexibility, nerves, durability, hand-eye coordination, and analytic aptitude. The results, seen here, were somewhat surprising. They ranked boxing as the most "difficult" sport to play. Certainly I hadn't given boxing much consideration as a tough or difficult sport (although I definitely don't want to participate). It would be hard to argue that boxing doesn't require significant levels of each of the above qualities. And Ali demonstrated each with superiority over his rivals.
Did You Know: Ali was so frustrated by not being served at a "whites only" restaurant that he threw his Olympic medal in the Ohio River. Ali was given a "replacement" medal during the opening ceremonies at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, GA.

#4. WILLIE MAYS (Baseball)
Career: 22 Years (1951 - 1973)
Crowning Achievement: Won a World Series championship with the New York Giants.
Also: Mays was selected to 20 All-Star games throughout his career, tying a major league record for most All-Star appearances. Mays won 12 consecutive Gold Glove awards given tot he top defensive player at each position. His finest year came in 1955 when he hit 51 homers, drove in 127 RBI, and hit .319.
Rationale: Considered to be the best all-around baseball player of all time, Mays currently sits in 4th place all-time in home runs (660), 7th in runs (2062), 10th in RBI (1903), 11th in hits (3283) and 112th in stolen bases (338). During his 22 year career he led the Major Leagues in the following categories for a single season: Hits, Triples, Home Runs, Stolen Bases, Average, On-Base Percentage, Slugging Percentage, and Total Bases. His overall production and speed demonstrates his total athletic ability - he could do it all; speed, power, hand-eye coordination, and outstanding defense. Even when compared to current stars his numbers are astounding. He is one of only four players to have eight consecutive 100-RBI seasons (Mel Ott, Sammy Sosa, and Albert Pujols are the others).
Did You Know: Mays is the only player in history to have hit a home run in every inning from the 1st - 16th.

#3. LANCE ARMSTRONG (Cycling and Triathlon)
Career: 18 Years (1989 - 2005, 2009)
Crowning Achievement: Won an unprecedented 7 Tour de France championships in a row.
Also: At the age of 17 years old Armstrong was national champion for sprint-course triathlon. He repeated at age 18. He also won a total of 22 stages during his run as Champion on the Tour de France.
Rationale: If part of qualifying as an "athlete" is endurance, Lance qualifies with flying colours. Not only did his reign last longer than any other cyclist in the history of the sport - which dates back to 1903, but the actual competition is a test of true athletic endurance. Typically between 3,000 and 4,000 KM (that's between 1,800 and 2,500 miles) the Tour is 20 stages of gruelling competition. The number of competitors varies from year to year but approximately 200 of the world's best cyclists compete. And just to make sure that the Tour is a true test, the stages are of varying difficulty and skill sets. It's not all flat roads - it's roads, mountains, cities, uphill, downhill, etc. There is no faking this race; you're either ready for it or you're not. Lance was ready each and every time. Oh, and did I mention that he also overcame cancer before his run of yellow jerseys? Just three years before his first Tour win he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. After two years of treatment he was back on the bike. The following year he won his first Tour...and he never looked back. And just to make sure that his victories have been on the up and up...Lance is tested up to 24 times per year for performance enhancing drugs.
Did You Know: Part of what makes up Armstrong's incredible ability is his genetic makeup. Apparently his lactic acid levels are significantly lower than other high performing athletes. This allows for a quicker recovery and less muscle fatigue.

#2. MICHAEL PHELPS (Swimming)
Career: 9 Years (2000 - present)
Crowning Achievement: Eight Gold Medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics (4oom IM, 4x100m FR, 200m FR, 200m Fly, 4x200m FR, 200m IM, 100m Fly, 4x100m IM) with seven World Records and one Olympic Record.
Also: At the 2007 World Championships Phelps won seven Gold medals, setting five World Records and one Championship Record. At the 2004 Olympics he won 6 Gold medals and two Bronze medals while setting one World Record, three Olympic Records, and two American Records.
Rationale: In total Phelps was won 16 Olympic medals (14 Gold and 2 Bronze). His 14 Gold medals are the most for any athlete over a career. For those of you who feel that he is just a one-trick pony, the events in which he won were in several different disciplines. He swims Freestyle, Butterfly, and the Individual Medley (which includes all four strokes). He is the fastest human being in these events. That would be like LeBron leading the league in Points, Rebounds, and Assists - not only leading the league but being named as the best EVER in those categories. That would be astounding. Not only this, but at the age of 15 he participated in the 2000 Olympics becoming the youngest male swimmer at an Olympics in 68 years. All he did there was finish 5th in the 200m butterfly. A few months later Phelps became the youngest male to set a swimming World record; at 15 years and 9 months he broke the 200m butterfly record. Phelps was also named World Swimmer of the Year in five of the six years stretching from 2003 - 2008. Even in his "off events" he has some skills. He is ranked 3rd in the world for the 100m and 200m backstroke. If he decided to focus on backstroke and breakstroke there is no doubt in my mind that he could become competitive on the world scene in those events too.
Did You Know: At the Beijing Olympics Phelps was drug tested 9 times for performance enhancing drugs. Those results were all negative.

And the winner is...

#1. JIM THORPE (Football, Baseball, Basketball, Track & Field)
Career: 23 Years (1906 - 1928)
Crowning Achievement: Double gold medalist at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics in the Decathlon and Pentathlon (included disciplines: long jump, javelin throw, 200m dash, discus throw, 1,500m run, 100m dash, long jump, shot put, high jump, 400m, 110m hurdles, and pole vault).
Also: If that weren't enough, Thorpe also played professional football from 1915 to 1928 when he retired at the healthy age of 41 years old. Thorpe also dabbled in professional baseball for several years although with unsectacular numbers (.252, 91 Run, 82 RBI over 289 games). While little is known about his basketball days, he did play professionally; touring the country for at least a couple years.
Rationale: It seems like there wasn't much that Thorpe couldn't do. He was all-world in almost every track and field discipline, he played at the highest level of football, and he played well enough at both baseball and basketball to earn a living. In a time when the country goes crazy for the two-sport phenoms (Bo Jackson and Neon Deion Sanders) Thorpe was a true four-sport star (more if you count individual track & field events). Could you imagine the hype if Bo knew basketball, javelin, high jump, long jump, and pole vault?!?!? Thorpe is also a member of both the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the College Football Hall of Fame. In 1999 the US House of Representatives named Thorpe as "America's Athlete of the Century".
Did You Know: In college, while playing football for Carlisle, Thorpe played running back, defensive back, placekicker and punter and scored every single point in an 18-15 upset over Havard. He also reportedly kicked a wind-assisted 95 yard punt in a championship game in 1919.

So you be the you think that LeBron will ever get into the top 5? Regardless, it will sure be fun to watch him try.



  1. Phelps...really...either your swimming bias is coming to the forefront or Phelps got you high before you wrote down your top 5.

  2. I tried not to let any bias come into play. Do you have any idea what kind of accomplishment that was? It's NEVER been done before. EVER. He set WORLD RECORDS in 7 of his 8 events. That's insane!!!

  3. It was the swimming suit technology. There was a new swimming world record set in basically every event during those olympics. In my mind, those wet suits are on the same page as steroids.

  4. What about the top 5 women athletes of all time? Syke... I like how it rounded out and though I think Jordan should be in the top 5, I like it.