Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Prime Time

My brother always claimed he was a better athlete than me in high school because I never played a sport where you had to try out for the team. I ran cross country and track, while he played football and basketball. My brother was and still is a better athlete than me, but it's not because he plays more exclusive sports than I do. It's because he's bigger, stronger, faster, and it better shape than me. Skip Bayless essentially rehashes my brother's old argument in this piece about Lance Armstrong.

I'm a big fan of Lance, no doubt, but I do understand Bayless' desire to knock him down a peg or two. What he has done in the Tour has been amazing, but the desire to crown him greatest athlete of all time is somewhat annoying. For my money, Lance isn't even the greatest cyclist of all time, that honor still belongs to Eddy Merckx.

Bayless basically takes the low road and makes all kinds of ridiculous statements like: "cycling doesn't test enough athletic talent or skill" and "Yet Armstrong hasn't had to battle the quality or depth of competition in his sport that baseball, basketball or football greats have risen above in theirs." His column wouldn't have been so bad had he managed to come up with a more convincing best all-around athlete. I have a hard time respecting the arguments of anyone who thinks that Deion Sanders was the greatest all-around athlete in history. Bayless seems to disqualify anyone who excelled at only one sport from contending for the all-time best athlete. To make matters worse, Bayless includes other multi-sport athletes much more worthy than Deion in his list of candidates, yet he still picks Deion. Jim Thorpe (football, baseball, track & field), Jim Brown (football, lacrosse), and Jackie Robinson (baseball, track & field) were all multi-sport athletes who were better at both of their sports than Deion was at either of his, and yet he seems to disqualify them because they only played one of their sports professionally and none of them during the ESPN era.

I don't like to get into discussions about greatest athlete of all time, because it's too difficult to compare different sports and different eras. While its true that riding a bike doesn't take as much hand-eye coordination as socking a 95 mph fastball out of the park, it's also true that racing your bike 2500 miles over 21 days takes more cardiovascular endurance than rounding the bases a couple of times. To say that cycling is less of a sport because it doesn't require some of the skills that ball sports require but failing to criticise ball sports for lacking some the demands that competitive cycling places on its participants is a very unconvincing argument. All in all, I'd have to say I agree with this post from David Irwin.

Hat tip: Dusty Young


MDS said...

I would love to engage in a "greatest athlete" discussion with someone who was actually:
1) capable of forming an intelligent argument; and
2) knowledgeable about sports history.

Unfortunately, when ESPN engages in these discussions, it rarely asks people who fit both criteria, and often asks people who fit neither.

When I was about 15, Skip Bayless covered the Dallas Cowboys, and I always thought he was insightful. I don't know if I was just a stupid kid then, or if I didn't see a representative sample of his work (this was pre-Internet), or if he has changed because he thinks being a loud-mouthed jerk will help his TV career. But in any event, I no longer think he's insightful.

dhodge said...

Before anyone can debate who the greatest athlete of all-time is, some parameters need to be established. Otherwise, it turns into a discussion about the most successful or who benefited the most from weak competition, etc. I would pick Jim Brown from Bayless' list of ten finalists, though I'm basing my opinion entirely on what other people have said and a few NFL films highlight reels.

MDS said...

I guess if I had to choose from among Bayless's list, I'd go with Jim Thorpe. I really don't understand how he came to choose that list, but whatever. The ESPN list that they did in 1999 set no parameters at all. That's why, for instance, a few horses were on the list, and Muhammad Ali was much higher than any other boxer, even though most boxing experts don't consider him to be the best boxer ever. If ESPN would have just called its list the greatest "sports figures" of the century, rather than the greatest "athletes," its final list would have made a lot more sense.

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