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Copyright August 2016 by Paul Fein

Who are the Greatest Athletes of All Time?

If winning an Olympic gold medal in the decathlon makes you “the world’s greatest athlete,” as some cognoscenti contend, then that formidable title currently goes to Ashton Eaton. The American track and field marvel took the diverse 10-event competition at the 2012 London Games and at the Rio Games two weeks ago.

You wouldn’t get an argument from Eaton. “The decathlon is the only standardized test that covers a broad range of athleticism that is absolutely measurable, which I feel is great,” Eaton told Business Insider magazine. “You run the 100, you get a time. You do the long jump, you get a distance. You do the high jump, you get a height. You do a throw, you get a distance. You see somebody on a football field make a great, athletic 70-yard run, but the athleticism is immeasurable. It’s undoubtedly athletic, but compared to somebody else who did something else, how do you compare it? That’s the great part of track and field. It’s a test, but with results that you can compare to others.”

Not so fast, Mr. Eaton. In truth, statistics abound in just about every sport these days, and athletic performance in them is evaluated by numerous criteria that don’t depend on a tenth of a second or a half of an inch. What matters as much as how high NBA defensive star Anthony Davis leaps to block a shot is his anticipation, positioning, and timing. And blocks per minute of play is just the start of his defensive metrics that opposing coaches and players study.

When Eaton was asked who is the greatest athlete today, he refused to pick one. Instead, he picked a sport. “I personally believe tennis is the next most athletic sport next to the decathlon,” Eaton said. “Just because of certain things required. Those matches are three or four hours long. There’s the technical aspect, the agility, the mind-body awareness. Not to mention the game itself is a little bit like a chess match.”

Eaton cleverly turned the debate in the right direction. Some sports, such as basketball, tennis, ice hockey, and boxing, clearly require more athleticism than other sports. Furthermore, some positions in team sports demand more athleticism than other positions.

But what is athleticism in the first place?

Let’s start with the purely physical qualities of strength, speed, agility, jumping, and stamina. Then we have the skill-related qualities of hand-eye coordination, foot-eye coordination, and mastery of a wide array of techniques. Though it’s debatable, some coaches and athletes, like Eaton, also include mental qualities such as competitiveness, poise, concentration, team play, and tactical savvy. With these ground rules in mind, let the bar room ruckus—or water cooler debate, for the more civilized among us—begin.

5. Boxing — ESPN.com ranked boxing No. 1 in degree of difficulty among 60 sports. Its panel of eight experts used 10 criteria: endurance, strength, power, speed, agility, flexibility, nerve, hand-eye coordination, durability (“The ability to withstand physical punishment over a long period of time.”), and analytic aptitude (“The ability to evaluate and react appropriately to strategic situations.”). The last category is what makes “the sweet science” as much brain as brawn.

Imagine doing all that while getting punched in the head and stomach for 10 three-minute rounds (12 rounds in title fights) with only a 60-second break between rounds. Courage and toughness take on new meaning in boxing when fighters are bloodied, knocked down, and have reached their pain thresholds. There’s a reason boxing provides us with colorful, motivational idioms like “take a punch” and “on the ropes” and “get off the canvas.”

4. Ice Hockey — “When you take a second and break down what hockey actually entails, it’s kind of mind-blowing,” wrote Steve Boudreau on the Canadian Olympic Team Official Website. “Think about it. Grown men keeping balance on metal blades dangling and shooting a puck using a stick while going full speed and being chased by other 200-pound hockey players looking to crush you—all of it on ice.”

Aside from the (mostly stationary) goalie, hockey players get high marks for their speed, stamina, strength, physicality, accuracy, agility, and reflexes. Like basketball players, hockey players must be extremely versatile. In sharp contrast, offensive and defensive linemen in U.S. football are more specialized and less versatile.

3. Baseball — Granted, the designated hitter has diminished athleticism in the American League by denying pitchers the chance to hit and run, and DHs the chance to field. Even so, hitting a baseball pitch—delivered up to 100 miles per hour and with bewildering spins—both with power and for average remains one of the toughest tests, if not the toughest test, of athleticism in sports. A hitter had .37 second to react to a fastball from 6’10” Randy Johnson.

Everyday position players strive to hit for power and average, field with skill, throw with strength and accuracy, and run the bases with speed and sliding ability. Rare “five-tool” players, like Willie Mays and Ken Griffey, Jr., display a wide range of athleticism and skills that produced 450-foot home runs, thrilling stolen bases, and sensational fielding plays.

2. Tennis — On his trademark slam-dunk overhead, 1990s superstar Pete Sampras once crowed, “This white boy can jump.” He and other extraordinary tennis athletes like Rod Laver, Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King, Serena Williams, Steffi Graf, Rafael Nadal, Bjorn Borg, and Roger Federer could do a lot more than jump.

“In tennis, you need everything,” Sampras averred. “You need durability, hand-eye coordination, and mental endurance because it’s a one-on-one sport. There’s no help from your coach or manager or anyone out there. Tennis players are tremendous athletes, some of the best in the world. In some ways, it’s even more difficult to play tennis than to play in the NBA. There are no substitutions, no halftimes to recover. You definitely see someone’s true character on the tennis court.”

Tennis is also one of the very few sports that require both aerobic and anaerobic conditioning. Finally, the athleticism of tennis is showcased on three very different surfaces—grass, clay, and hard courts—and often in 90-degree heat.

1. Basketball — It’s a “moving-ball” sport, and the fact that the ball and the players move very fast and often unpredictably automatically makes it extremely athletic. More specifically, basketball demands terrific hand-eye coordination, plus speed, jumping, agility, flexibility, strength, stamina, reflexes, improvisation, teamwork, along with diverse technical skills such as dribbling, passing, shooting, rebounding, setting picks, blocking out, and switching on defense.

While centers, power forwards, small forwards, shooting guards, and point guards typically excel more in certain areas, what is most impressive is that these athletic abilities and skills are required for all five positions. LeBron James, the most versatile NBA player of all time, has actually played every position.

Here are the top 5 positions for athleticism.

5. Wide Receiver in Football — “In terms of pure athleticism, wide receiver is the position requiring the most athleticism,” wrote Exayex on the NFL Round Table. “Athletic measurements are everything here: height, weight, 40-yard [sprint] time, vertical leap, hand size, blocking. Coaches want you to be taller, quicker, jump higher, and have bigger hands than anyone else. Look at [all-time great] Randy Moss. I’d argue he’s the most athletic wide receiver to play. Plenty of people have said we’ll never see another Randy Moss, physically. You don’t hear people say that about cornerbacks or running backs.”

4. Center in Ice Hockey — “The center is the most athletic guy on the ice and the most important guy beyond your goaltender,” points out Mike Corrigan, a top player for the Los Angeles Kings in the National Hockey League. “Top centers, like Jean Beliveau, Wayne Gretzky, Henri Richard, Mario Lemieux, and Davey Keon, control the puck and run the show. A top center wins faceoffs, and that’s so important, especially when the puck is in your own end. Good centers? They’re always involved in the flow of the game. In my best season, when I scored 37 goals, I credited that to the stellar play of our center, Juha Widing.”

3. Midfielder in Soccer — “Football or soccer, as the Americans call it, has changed dramatically over the last few decades,” notes Ayon Sengupta, a leading authority from India. “The physical intensity of play is at a much higher level compared to the 1970s or ’80s. The speed of the game is much faster with managers and teams relying on fast counters and high-pressing defensive lines to win matches. The previously presumed gap in athleticism between players of different positions is far less evident today, and most modern day footballers are bigger, faster and stronger compared to the generations earlier.

The role of the box-to-box midfielders, which is making a comeback in football through the likes of Paul Pogba, Arturo Vidal, Sami Khedira, and Ilkay Gundogan, demands great physical tenacity and these engines of the team carry enormous workload on the field. With incredible stamina, they shuttle back and forth, playing equally important roles in attack or defense. The breakneck speed of today’s game demands inconceivable fitness, stamina, and tactical smartness to excel in such a role.”

2. Shortstop in Baseball — Mr. Versatile is a master of all trades. This middle infielder must handle ground balls that vary greatly in speed, spin, and trajectory, plus line drives and pop-ups. He also turns double plays at second base, takes cut-off throws from outfielders, applies the tag on attempted steals of second base, and backs up throws from other fielders. These roles require high-level speed, hand-eye coordination, quick thinking, nimble footwork, a strong, accurate throwing arm, agility, soft hands, and leaping ability.

Exemplifying this diverse athleticism was acrobatic Ozzie Smith, who won the National League Gold Glove Award for play at shortstop for a record 13 consecutive seasons (1980–92).

1. Point Guard in Basketball — This is the most athletic position in the most athletic sport. NBA point guards today typically possess explosive speed, uncanny agility to change directions and remain balanced, and split-second reflexes to grab loose balls and rebounds against taller, heavier opponents. They display incomparable hand-eye coordination to dribble through traffic and catch bullet passes, creatively distribute the ball to teammates at the optimum time and place, and have a soft shooting touch. And that’s just the offensive half of the sport.

For the rest of the game, point guards have to defend against other point guards, who just happen to be the best athletes in sports. Starting NBA point guards do all that for 35 or more minutes a game for 82 regular-season games, plus playoff games.

If basketball is an art form, it’s engendered in the passing, creating, dribbling game,” said Boston Celtics all-time great Bob Cousy, who revolutionized the point guard position in the 1950s. Not for nothing was the most talented and creative of them all, Earvin Johnson, nicknamed “Magic.”

Here are the top 10 greatest athletes of all time.

Honorable Mentions — Any list of the “greatest ever” must include these five giants in their sports.

Willie Mays, the ultimate 5-tool baseball player and supremely natural athlete, dazzled fans with his spectacular center field catches and daring stolen bases while smashing 660 home runs, hitting a career .302, and knocking in 1,903 runs.

Serena Williams took tennis to a new level with her prodigious power and speed, as she racked up 22 singles and 13 doubles (with her sister Venus) Grand Slam titles, plus four Olympic gold medals.

The superlative sprinter and long jumper Carl Lewis captured 10 Olympic medals, including nine gold, and 10 World Championships medals, including eight gold. Lewis was voted “World Athlete of the Century” by the International Association of Athletics Federations and “Sportsman of the Century” by the International Olympic Committee.

Bobby Orr, who revolutionized ice hockey defense with his rink-long offensive dashes and extraordinary scoring, remains the only defenseman ever to lead the NHL in scoring. Orr won the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman eight consecutive times (1968−75) and the Hart Trophy as the league’s Most Valuable Player three times (1970−72).

Jim Brown, the greatest running back of all time, was selected by The Sporting News as the greatest football player of all time. In 118 career games, Brown averaged 104.3 yards per game and 5.2 yards per carry, spectacular totals superior to other NFL career rushing leaders. Brown also earned a spot in the Lacrosse Hall of Fame, joining Ted Williams, and Cal Hubbard as the only athletes to be inducted into the Halls of Fame of more than one professional sport.

No. 10 Michael Phelps — While swimming is certainly not an A-list sport, this phenom is in a class of his own. Phelps became the youngest male to break a swimming world record at age 15 and remains the only athlete to win eight gold medals at a single Olympics (2008 Beijing Games). Amassing four more golds at the 2016 Rio Games, the 31-year-old American now boasts 23 (and 28 medals overall). That makes Phelps the most successful Olympic athlete in history.

No. 9 Jim Thorpe — The first great crossover athlete, Thorpe, a Sac and Fox Indian, first gained athletic fame at Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. There he dominated both college track and field, and football, where he played offense, defense, and special teams. At the 1912 Olympics, Thorpe astonishingly won both the decathlon and the pentathlon—try to match that Ashton Eaton!—by enormous margins. He finished first in nine of the 15 separate events.

Thorpe was also a star player (besides being an organizer, promoter, and coach) in the early years of professional football. To complete his amazing multi-sport versatility, this natural athlete also hit .252 for the New York Giants, a leading team, in parts of six Major League Baseball seasons starting in 1913 and led a Native American barnstorming basketball team in 1927. In 1950, the Associated Press voted him the top athlete of the first half of the 20th century.

No. 8 Sachin Tendulkar — At the risk of raising the hackles of Sir Don Bradman’s fans, the cricket GOAT accolade goes to the incomparable Indian. Tendulkar is the greatest because of his breathtaking stroke-play—he makes it all look so easy, which is the hallmark of a great cricketer. His hand-eye coordination, footwork, and discipline provide a lesson for any budding cricketer. And his longevity is amazing. It isn’t easy for a cricketer to last 25 years, especially if he is from India where the sport is something like a religion and the weight of expectations is bizarre.

Tendulkar’s stats are simply mind-boggling: 200 Tests with 15,921 runs at an average of 53.78 with 51 centuries and top score of 248 not out; and 310 One-Day Internationals with 18,426 runs at an average of 48.83 with 49 centuries and top score of 200 not out. These figures indisputably justify his supreme stature in the sport.

No. 7 Babe Ruth — Imagine being the best left-handed pitcher in baseball for your first five years and then switching to the outfield to become the best hitter for the rest of your career. That was George Herman “Babe” Ruth, the most charismatic hero of the Golden Age of Sport in the 1920s. He singlehandedly ended the “Dead Ball Era” in 1920 when he belted 54 home runs. The next season the New York Yankee slugger hit 59, 35 more than anyone else! He partied hard, caroused, and defied authority, especially frequenting speakeasies to drink alcohol during Prohibition. “Everybody was talking about Babe Ruth,” wrote Robert W. Creamer in ESPN Sports Century. “His reach extended far beyond the everyday baseball fan to people who had only the most marginal interest in the game, or even in American sports.”

No. 6 LeBron James — If God were to create a perfect basketball player, He’d start with a perfect physique, much like that of the broad-shouldered, thickly muscled, 6’8”, 260-pound James with a 7’ ” wingspan and a lean 6.7 body fat percent (in 2003).

This Ultimate Player would boast the superb court vision, dribbling, and passing of an elite point guard, plus the strength and explosiveness to drive to the basket like a shooting guard and small forward. This broad skill set would be supplemented by the ruggedly tough rebounding and high-flying shot-blocking of a power forward and center. Finally, he’d display courage and coolness to make clutch shots, particularly in playoff games, just as LeBron has done for the Cleveland Cavaliers and Miami Heat.

At 31, he’s already won three NBA titles, four NBA MVP awards, three NBA Finals MVP awards and been selected to 12 All-NBA teams and six All-Defensive teams. The reign of 31-year-old King James appears far from over. In the Cavs’ upset over the Warriors in June, LeBron led the 2016 Finals in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks to become the first player on record to lead any playoff series in those five categories.

At the annual Nike Skills Academy, James was asked what motivates him after bringing an elusive championship to Cleveland to end a 52-year pro sports drought. He confided, “My motivation is this ghost I’m chasing. The ghost played in Chicago.” On Michael Jordan, who owns six NBA titles, James told reporters, “I looked up to him so much…. If I can ever put myself in position to be the greatest player, that would be something extraordinary.”

No. 5 Pele — “Football is like music. In music, there is Beethoven and the rest. In football, there is Pele and the rest,” said the Brazilian immortal, who described himself the best. The world was left mesmerized by the wizardry of Maradona, Cruyff, and Zidane, and millions today tune in to follow the exploits of Messi and Ronaldo. But Pele still remains the greatest influencer in football with his appeal transcending generations and geography.

Pele won two World Cups, two Intercontinental Cups with Santos, scoring 1,283 goals in his career, of which 77 came for Brazil and 12 in the World Cup. His lithe, athletic frame offered him a natural grace and poise, and his lightning pace left defenders stranded as he breezed past them. A natural goal scorer and an all-around forward, Pele was a very good header and had the ability to generate power with both legs.

He retired from competitive football in 1977 when he was 37, after 21 years as a professional footballer. Such longevity was unheard in those days because footballers were yet to embrace modern science to help in the recovery and training process and increase the career span of athletes.

No. 4 Muhammad Ali — To appreciate just how transcendent a sports figure Muhammad Ali was for decades, ESPN The Magazine devoted nearly an entire issue to him after he passed away June 3. Its cover headline—“I shook up the world!”—encapsulated his legacy as an African-American boxer, humanitarian, and political activist against racism and the Vietnam War.

The most quotable, photographed, and polarizing (though he later became beloved) athlete of the 20th century, Ali really did “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” With fast feet, even faster hands, and the dazzling athleticism of a welterweight, this handsome 6’3”, 210-pound heavyweight would have starred as a baseball outfielder, basketball guard, or a football wide receiver. Boxing was fortunate to have Ali.

His shocking 1964 upset of 7-1 favorite Sonny Liston to gain the title, trilogy of brutal battles against Joe Frazier, and 8th-round KO of George Foreman in “The Rumble in the Jungle” in 1974 were highlights of his riveting career. Ali won 32 title fights, despite being suspended by boxing commissions for three and a half years in his prime for refusing to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces.

No. 3 Roger Federer — You know that even the superlative “great” is insufficient to describe an athlete when a renowned writer, David Foster Wallace, rhapsodizes about him in a New York Times essay titled “Federer as Religious Experience.” Like Ali, Pele, Wayne Gretzky, and Michael Jordan, Federer often transfixed spectators with “Wow! Did you see that?” moments. A fantabulous array of shots—between-the-legs and back-to-the net winners, half-volley flick passing shots, devilish touch shots, angles that seemed to defy the laws of geometry—and ethereal movement emanated from an athletic genius never seen before in tennis. The ultra-versatile Federer won his first Wimbledon title by serving and volleying and his next six predominantly from the baseline.

Yes, 17 Grand Slam singles titles is one of Federer’s many records that may never be broken. But the beautiful style of the Swiss master and his riveting duels with fellow superstars Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic will never be forgotten. The most brilliant and dramatic was Nadal’s epic 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7 triumph over Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final to end The Mighty Fed’s five-year reign there. The four-hour, 48-minute classic is widely considered the greatest match in tennis history.

“Oh, I would be honored to even be compared to Roger,” lauded Australian legend Rod Laver. “He is such an unbelievable talent, and is capable of anything.”

No. 2 Wayne Gretzky — The 60 NHL records that this ice hockey legend holds or shares is a stupefying record in itself. Gretzky’s nine Hart Trophies (MVP), 92 goals in 1981−82, 163 assists and 215 points in 1985−86, and 2,857 total career points are records that will likely never be broken or forgotten. The baby-faced assassin sparked the Edmonton Oilers to four Stanley Cups.

Felix Sicard, on The Hockey Writers, asserted, “The arguments against Gretzky’s place in hockey lore are everywhere: he played in the right era, on the right team, in the right system, bad goalies, etc. Yet no player has ever dominated his own era like Gretzky did, and it’s hard to imagine that anyone ever will. Not the most physically gifted, ‘The Great One’ was able to dominate thanks to his Jedi master-like perception and anticipation of the game. Others have come close, but no one did it to the degree and with the same longevity as Gretzky did.”

No. 1 Michael Jordan — After Magic Johnson and his “Showtime” Los Angeles Lakers and Larry Bird and his legendary Boston Celtics revitalized the then-languishing NBA with a terrific rivalry in the 1980s, Michael Jordan led the Chicago Bulls to six NBA titles and a new dynasty in the 1990s. A fiery competitor with a flair for clutch shooting, explosive drives to the hoop, and spectacular slam dunks, “Air Jordan” also displayed his athleticism with dynamic defense.

All told, Jordan racked up five Most Valuable Player (MVP) Awards, ten All-NBA First Team designations, nine All-Defensive First Team honors, fourteen NBA All-Star Game appearances, three All-Star Game MVP Awards, ten scoring titles, three steals titles, six NBA Finals MVP Awards, and the 1988 NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award. “By acclamation, Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time,” states his biography on the NBA website.

Also known for his many product endorsements, the smiling Jordan became the NBA’s first billionaire. Nike’s “Air Jordan” sneakers remain popular 32 years after they were introduced. Endearing and memorable Gatorade “Be Like Mike” commercials featured a song that was sung by children wishing to be like Jordan. Millions of admiring parents wanted to be like Mike, too.


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