Friday, December 05, 2008

What makes a great athlete?

This is an interesting article by some guy who thinks about these things from time to time. It questions whether Michael Phelps, who won seven swimming gold medals in the Olympics, is even close to being "the world's greatest athlete," as many have billed him. The article makes interesting points like:
a. Penn State's starting safety actually beat Phelps in races several times when they were young, but quit swimming to pursue football, because, well, football is football and swimming is, well, unless you're in the Olympics...
b. Lance Armstrong admits he sucks at football
c. Most swimmers admit to being like fish out of water in other sports
d. Aside from the gymnastics, swimming is like the only sport in which you have an opportunity to win eight medals...

None of this is to deny that Phelps is a great swimmer, but it gets down to the definition of athlete. Should a truly great athlete be able to accel in multiple sports or just be super great at one? I'm predisposed to the multiple-sport view, which is what I think helped Jim Thorpe gain such fame as the "world's greatest athlete" in the first half of the century-even though he had a pretty mediocre career as a major league baseball player.

Just some chowder to swish around in your head.



Danny Lucas said...

This post made me chuckle Ralph.

I received an email photo of an egg patiently sitting. To the right are jillions of swimming sperm, heading for the egg.
Three inches in front of all of the group is a sole sperm homing in on the egg.

As Erie Blogs detects GoErie errors and circles them in red ink with a notation and red arrow saying HERE ------>
the email had a notation like that with red arrow to the solo swimmer sperm titled
"Michael Phelps"!

Swimming counts from the very first moment of life, eh? The fastest swimmer always wins.

The claim that swimming is not a sport is beguiling.
Budny swam across Lake Erie, to the Presque Isle Peninsula, and a Beach was titled after him at the spot he hit the "egg", home. It was determined a great athletic accomplishment. Hmmm.

The "pick a category" is NOT a sport, is claimed often. Usually by people who do not participate in said sport.

Golfers go through this often as "Golf is not a sport" per some. Tell that to Tiger Woods.

Some may argue it is still not a sport, just entertainment and he is king of "earnings". The inference is fame due to wealth accumulated versus skill of the sport.

Whether swimming upstream against the pack, hitting the ball into the hole with fewest strokes, or winning the primaries and presidency, sport is in the eye of the beholder.

Ralph said...


Good call. Swimming and golf are certainly sport, but just because a person excels at a single chosen sport, does that make them "the world's greatest athlete?" It may make them a "great athlete," but I guess that question is, should the world's "greatest" athlete excel at multiple disciplines?

It's a very subjective topic, which is what makes it so much fun.


Danny Lucas said...

The media covers "World's Greatest Athlete" for entertainment value, not for fact.

All media is reduced to covering Madonna, Brittany, and Paris, so the swimmer athlete was a touching moment of relief.

You are correct that multiple disciplines shouls be a variable to convey the depth of "World's Greatest Athlete".

Admiring singular talent over multiple talent, would be akin to praising a personality, over a multi-personality person.
That doesn't add up!

The media finds no entertainment value in recording the one and only, TRUE and viable "World's Greatest Athlete", who happens to incorporate multiple disciplines to exponential factors.

That winner, of course, would be the fans of the Cleveland Browns!

Year after year, they brave the elements off Lake Erie, embibe brew of every color, face tire slashings when the Steelers park in their lot, watch gravity-defying fumbles, endure coaching from the Fred Flinstone League, and master the art of seeing interceptions each week before their very eyes.

If that isn't multiple discipline, I don't know what would qualify.

The fans of the Cleveland Browns are clearly the World's Greatest Athlete.
They were put by the government on an Endangered Species List during the days of Brian Sipe.

Few sightings have been recorded since.

The species is believed extinct, though occasional reports of sightings are made tauntingly in Baltimore. No confirmed fan can be found there however.

Hence, we go with swimmers, instead of a group of dimmers.

Ralph said...


DWC said...


I usually refrain from sports arguments, but clearly the title “world’s greatest athlete” as it applies to Michael Phelps is a media tool. Trying to answer such a generalized question is silly. In fact I think it officially falls under the fallacy of reason known as “meaningless question,” like asking “how big is large” or “can everything be good?”

Why not ask who the greatest practioner of a sport is? That makes sense and I think you’d find consensus if asked whether Phelps’ is one of the greatest swimmers of all time. Your comments about Thorpe are also telling and I think come closer to the real gist of this argument, which is may who is the greatest “all-around” athlete. Those guys excel at many things but master none, and as far as a I know there are fewer of them, so that should be easier to answer. I also think that asking this question as it applies to team sports is again pointless. There you’re rooting for a corporate brand that changes constantly with the influx and departure of players. Althougth, again, maybe it you ask the question as it applies to a position, you get good results (i.e. the greatest pitcher).

A lot of people seem to think of swimming as a pussy sport, bringing more fuel to this debate. As someone who participated in competitive swimming from 6 to 18 years of age, I have to say on the contrary that maybe if you did have to pick the “greatest athlete,” casting a vote for a swimmer makes a lot of sense. I can think of no sport that is more all-consuming physically nor more psychologically grueling. The level of discipline is immense. Consider Phelps’ training schedule and tell me of another sport that requires this level of total athleticism and commitment:

"Phelps trains for six hours a day, six days a week, without fail. Even if Christmas day falls on a training day, he does a full day of training. Total dedication to his training program has made him a world champion.

He swims approximately 50 miles (80km) each week, which is over 8 miles per training day. He has two massages everyday and also takes icebaths to help his body to recover."

Has anyone reading this every tried swimming even 20 minutes non-stop a day? 6 hours!


Ralph said...

Not doubt Phelps trains hard, but you could argue that he has to because he's not that great of an athlete. Jim Thorpe, he could smoke two packs a day and still crush you in a wrestling match and the 100-yard dash. Now, there's an athlete!

I guess the bottom line is that, if it can pull you into a sports discussion, the "greatest athlete" thing remains a great currency for debate.

Speaking of sports, there was bizarre story in the paper the other day about an animal protection agency breaking up a cock-fighting operation near Dunkirk, and then, because it was their part of their policy, killing like 100 chickens/roosters or whatever it was they confiscated. So, I guess they figure it's better for these animals to die than live as fighting cocks. I don't get it.

I do know that a lot of great althletes are into cock fighting, and dog fighting and horse racing, etc.

Anonymous said...

So you're saying his accomplishment is diminished because he trained to reach his goals?

Two packs a day. Yes, clearly now we're moving into new territory and adding the "party" criterion to the contest.

Yet, what better indicator of natural talent and athleticism? Tearing your body down daily and still performing amazing feats of physical prowess and finesse.

I defer to your wisdom on sports and partying.

Ralph said...

I don't mean at all that his accomplishments are diminshed. Being a great athlete and accomplishing great things are not one in the same. A lot of great athletes have accomplished nothing I'm sure. I don't think many would argue that Michael Vick is a great athlete. Michael Irvin happened to be a great athlete and a great partier and accomplished things. Steve Young I think was a great athlete, not a great partier, and accomplished great things...the mix is endless.

Jim Thorpe said...

It's true, I do enjoy a good smoke whilst I watch my fighting cock.

P.S. How did I end up in Pennsylvania?