The greatest athlete in the world?  //  Is Roman Sebrle the greatest athlete in the world? So say some experts…

28 Jun 2008 Posted by
Roman Šebrle during the World Championships 2009 in Berlin. Photo by Erik van Leeuwen.
Roman Šebrle during the World Championships 2009 in Berlin. Photo by Erik van Leeuwen.

I’m not one of them; I will declare all my cards up front on this one. But this was the verdict delivered by the Wall Street Journal in their survey last week, based on the performance achievements and physiological characteristics of some of the world’s greatest athletes.

You can read the news article here, but I thought that since our last post looked at the debate of who the FASTEST man in the world was, the logical extension would be to look at who the best all-round athlete in the world is.

The process followed was to identify some 79 of the world’s greatest athletes and then rank them in terms of their standing in six criteria deemed important for athletic performance. The judging was carried out by five experts, including exercise physiologists, medical specialists and former athletes, and high-profile coaches.

So, here are the top 10, according to the Wall Street Journal:

  1. Roman Sebrle – Czech decathlete, current World and Olympic champ and world record holder
  2. LeBron James – Cleveland Cavalier basketball superstar. And, I must declare, my pick at the moment, though that’s based purely on his astonishing physical attributes. He plays in a relatively weak team, which has not yet won major titles, which would have counted against him. But as I wrote some two months ago, James stands out in a sport with some exceptional athletes, and I think he is one of the most impressive physical athletes around.
  3. Floyd Mayweather – boxing world champion, now retired. Mayweather went 39 fights unbeaten, and retired as the widely-recognized best fighter in the world.
  4. LaDainian Tomlinson – a running back from the San Diego Chargers. According to the judges, he can “sprint like crazy”, and is unmatched for acceleration from a standing start and ability to change direction. This is a “bald assertion”, made purely on the basis of their impressions, because I don’t know who that was compared to. I know some rugby players with equally impressive sprint ability, though they were of course not considered (it’s a very US-centric list). However, I must acknowledge that the NFL has some pretty incredible athletes, and I’d love to know their capabilities in track athletics
  5. Roger Federer – the Swiss world number 1 has dominated tennis for about 7 years now, and is currently bidding for his sixth consecutive Wimbledon title. His strength will have been his achievements (see criteria below), though he was recently humbled by Rafael Nadal on clay in France.
  6. Sidney Crosby – NHL superstar from the Pittsburgh Penguins (we did say it was a US-centric list!). Ice hockey, apparently, combines stamina, power and co-ordination like few other sports. They would “put golfers to shame”, according to the article…I know little of ice-hockey physiology, I can appreciate how tough it is. But this inclusion demonstrates the inherent bias in any such debate, and the difficulty in comparing athletes across sports.
  7. Liu Xiang – track and field, 110m hurdle athlete. Well, if there was a prize for mental strength under pressure, then come August, Liu might win it. We have written often of the enormous pressure he finds himself under ahead of the Beijing Olympics, where only a billion people want him to win gold! But it’s his speed and co-ordination that gets him into seventh on this list. His world record was broken recently, adding to the pressure he’s under.
  8. Jeremy Wariner – Olympic and World 400m champion. Gunning for Michael Johnson’s world record, and still a huge favourite for the Beijing Gold, though he was beaten recently by LaShawn Merrit. Merritt is closing, but probably not enough to dethrone the current king. Again, how a 400m athlete beats out an 800m or 400m hurdle athlete is anyone’s guess – he’s a great athlete, make no mistake, but it reveals the “dangers” in such analyses.
  9. Ronaldinho – Barcelona and Brazil’s soccer superstar. I must confess, a very bizarre pick, considering that few would even put him in a list of top 20 players on CURRENT form. Two years ago, he was incredible, a sensation, but injury and apparent attitude problems have contributed to something of a fall from grace, and he’s no longer the feared player he was. Ronaldo of Manchester United has probably taken his crown for now, but next year, it could well be someone else. Perhaps we should just say that ninth is held by the world’s best soccer player, or you could just as well pull a name out of a hat
  10. Alex Rodriguez – New York Yankees baseballer. Again, I’m not in the USA, and so I immediately question these inclusions out of some ignorance of never having played the sport myself. Rodriguez earns one of the highest ON-FIELD salaries in all of sport (reported at $26 million per year), but then being highly-paid was not a criteria for inclusion! Eye hand co-ordination and power were, and it’s on this basis that he makes the list. I’m not convinced, however..

The process: Six criteria and category winners

Very briefly, the six criteria and the “winners” in each category were:

  • Vision and reflex: Lewis Hamilton
  • Stamina and recovery: Alberto Contador (not an East African runner in sight, I’m afraid)
  • Power, strength and size: World heavyweight champ Vladimir Klitschko came out top
  • Speed: Asafa Powell, who was the record-holder at the time of the survey. Presumably, if done today it would be Usain Bolt
  • Success and competitiveness at sport: Perhaps the most important category if you want to evaluate the simple criteria of “greatness”, because this one probably packages all the required criteria into one outcome per sport. The winner here was Tiger Woods
  • Co-ordination and flexibility: Yang Wei, Chinese gymnast, won this category.

Summing up: The debate will continue, but some personal thoughts

Since it’s a weekend, many of you will only be reading this on Monday, two days later, and so I expect much debate around the list. Therefore, we’ll pick it up with more of a detailed analysis in the next week.

But very briefly, my opinion is that this kind of survey is good fun, and great bar-room conversation – it’s the kind of discussion you’d have with with ten friends watching a game on TV or over drinks, but to do a “scientific” survey is clearly fraught with danger.

As you read this, you probably already have an idea of who you’d put in your top five. So do I, and I make no claims that this is even vaguely objective – it would be the vote of a fan, not a scientist, but then it is weekend, after all! But that’s for today. In the week, we’ll be much more objective and look at the criteria and how they were weighted (and assessed, since many were not – bald assertions, as I said earlier)!

Until then, have a great weekend!

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