Lance Armstrong s recent announcement that he is planning to compete in the New York City Marathon on Nov. 5 has got people talking again about whether he is the greatest athlete of all time. There is no doubt that before his retirement, the 34-year-old Armstrong booked an indelible place in the record books by becoming the first rider to win seven Tours de France. It is a truly remarkable achievement in anyone s eyes.
But Armstrong is not the best athlete of this or any other time. In fact, nobody is.
There are some good reasons why we cannot don a decisive crown on anyone s head. First off, it is always a risky business to compare sportsmen from different generations. Would Mike Tyson have been heavyweight champion of the world if his opponents were Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano (never defeated in 50 fights) and a bit later, Mohamed Ali, (the self-proclaimed Greatest ), Joe Frazier and George Foreman? Maybe yes, maybe no.
How would Maria Sharapova have fared against Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert and Steffi Graf? Perhaps she would have done well, perhaps not. Had they met, who would have been more successful – Pete Sampras or Bjorn Borg, Tiger Woods or Jack Nicklaus?
To all of the above questions, we won t ever know, so we can t say.
Note: Different generations would not matter if the criterion for success is the second and the centimetre. The bare fact is that Hicham Gerrouj is speedier than Sebastian Coe, who in turn was faster than Roger Bannister. It s only when you are up against an opponent in more subjective sports does the yardstick change. But the argument does not. Athletes from different eras will never meet and as such no one can be cited for the ultimate prize.
Point number two: You can never compare between athletes in individual and team sports. With six NBA titles and a season scoring average of 30.1 points a game, Michael Jordan is considered the best basketball player ever, but where would he be without assistants Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippen and the rest of the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s?
Would Pele have won three World Cups and scored 1,281 career goals had he not played for the illustrious Brazilian and Santos teams? Could Wayne Gretzky of the NHL have netted 894 career goals with 1,963 assists had he not had the Edmonton Oilers as his supporting cast? Steve Regrave s five straight Olympic rowing golds, while that is truly phenomenal, was achieved as part of a team, and very good ones at that.
Conclusion: In team sports, the sum is more important than the parts. Outstanding team athletes might not have shone as brightly had they played on teams of lesser stature.
And trying to pick the best in a pack is a difficult proposition. Lev Yashin in goal, Franz Beckenbauer in defense, Di Stefano orchestrating the midfield and Maradona spearheading the offense; all brilliant footballers playing in different positions, doing different things. Who s the best? Hard to figure.
There is a third point to consider; the number of countries that play a certain sport. Sports like cricket, baseball and American style football are played by just a tiny global pool of participants. Thus, people like Don Bradman s (cricket) test career average of 99.94 runs, Babe Ruth s (baseball) 714 homers, average of 0.342 and Joe Montana s (American football) four Super Bowl rings, for all their heroics, cannot really be considered the greatest because few people and countries play their sports. Ergo, the competition is greatly reduced and not a true test of athletic ability.
And let s not forget, you can t compare men with women (in sports or anything else). Not because it s not fair (we all know that Mr. Man will forever dominate in feats of speed, jumping ability and sheer power), but because of segregation. Some women can excel, and conceivably beat a man at his own game, if they had the opportunity. The trouble is that in sports like gymnastics, fencing, equestrian, archery and shooting, in which females are on an equal footing with males, the sexes are kept apart in championships. Thus, another guessing game is produced.
One more thing. It is impossible to compare athletes in different sports. Carl Lewis won nine Olympic golds on the track but if you threw him in an element not his, he would get nowhere fast. He certainly wouldn t achieve anything like Mark Spitz s seven gold medals in one Olympics pool. But then again, put Spitz on ice and see whether he can skate like Eric Heiden whose winning of all the speed skating gold medals at a Winter Olympics wasn t quite the equivalent of a runner winning everything from the 100m to the marathon, but it came close.
Many sporting champions defy belief with their dominance, and a select few pull off feats that send our jaws tumbling towards the floor: The perfect 10s of Nadia Comaneci; Michael Schumacher, six Formula One titles; Alberto Juantoreno, 400 and 800 meter track gold medals in the Moscow Olympics; Alpine skier Ingemmar Stenmark, 70-something World Cups; Jesse Owens, who, if nothing else, ruined the Fuhrer s day; long distance legends Paavo Nurmi and Emil Zatopek; speed demon Michael Johnson; Siberian master Aleksander Karelin who wrestled internationally for 13 years without defeat; Edwin Moses, the winner of the 400 meter hurdles 122 consecutive times from 1977-1987; Jhangir Khan, unbeaten in squash for five and a half years, winning 10 British Open titles.
Armstrong s feat was also a show stopper. The Tour is 3,600 kilometers long and must be covered in 23 days. Winning it seven straight times is equivalent to asking Ali to box 20 times in three weeks, Nicklaus to play 20 rounds in three weeks, Lewis to compete day after day for three weeks, and win. Then ask them to repeat what they just did every year for six years.
Yet for all his heroics, Armstrong is not even considered the most accomplished rider to have mounted a bicycle. Some observers say he will forever stand behind his predecessor Eddy Merckx in cycling annals. Armstrong might even lose the debate over who owns second. Though there is a very strong case for the Texan, many would argue he rates behind another oldie but goodie, Bernard Hinault.
Armstrong can lay claim to his sport s most significant record. For sustained domination in a speed endurance event, in what is probably the toughest endurance sport in the world, he is king of the hill. The fact that he bounced back from a cancer that almost killed him in 1996 to inspire millions and become a global sporting icon makes his feat even more incredible.
Armstrong is worthy enough to go down in the annals of history as one of the greatest athletes in history. But he is not the greatest. Nobody has that accolade. We just cannot separate them. But we certainly can applaud them.