The World’s Greatest Athlete

On Friday, the Wall Street Journal published an article asking a question that has been repeated often. Who is the world’s greatest athlete? A companion story listed the top ten and outlined some sort of pseudo-scientific survey and performance criteria that yielded the results. I think it is bogus. I didn’t see best pharmacist or most clever doctor on the list of criteria, but it should be.

Today’s top athletes deserve to be under immense scrutiny for their training and performance methodology. And I’m not just talking about doping. The scourge of performance enhancing drugs have impacted just about every sport, but even accepted practices include the use of borderline supplements, advanced testing, and other sketchy techniques. It isn’t just athletics, cycling, weightlifting, and baseball with problems. Anywhere there is a victory on the line and/or money to be earned, the specter of drugs exists.

I could go on and on why I think these types of surveys are useless. It is hard to feel good about sport nowadays. When I was a kid, photos of the greats lined the walls of my bedroom. Jim Rice, Wayne Gretzky, Greg Lemond, Ron Francis, Martina Navratilova, Walter Payton, Jackie Stewart, Eric Heiden, Joan Benoit, Larry Bird, and Bill Rogers were among my favorite icons. How can you pick one person and all men as the top 10 athletes in the world? I guess you can do anything you want if you set your own criteria. I assume the point of the article is to entertain and stimulate discussion. It succeeds at that.

How do you know who is clean? If I dared to list a group of my own favorites, not necessarily a list of bests, I would have to add a disclaimer that if there is even the remotest chance that the person has cheated their way to the top, then they are off my list. A big * would suffice. I’m consoled by the fact that at least one multi-sport athlete beat out the other one dimensional jocks for the top spot on the list. Decathlon may be a contrived group of physical tasks, but Roman Sebrle* seems like a worthy contender for the crown. I’ve done a fare amount of adventure racing over the years and combining kayaking, cycling, running, and orienteering is pretty contrived too. Still, it can be fun.
I assert that the WSJ folks are missing a key criteria to be considered the greatest. My survey would be different. I would argue that to be a great athlete, you should have good values. We expect our great companies, organizations, leaders, etc. to have good values. We would have to define values, but why shouldn’t that be a criteria to be the best athlete in the world?
Who do you think would be the best?

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