Midweek Musings: Who is the Greatest Athlete of All Time?


I started to have this debate in my head the other day and despite this being a baseball blog about Washington Nationals baseball I wanted to bring it public here. Washington DC is the capital of our nation so in many ways it makes sense to discuss this, and that is who is the greatest American athlete of all time. These Olympic games so far have been incredible and we've seen historical feats and accomplishments. Michael Phelps has more swimming medals that anyone else and he did so in multiple strokes. Katie Ledecky made the rest of the Olympic swimmers look like four year olds, and Simone Biles has dominated gymnastics like no one else. 

Of those mentioned above Michael Phelps is the only one in the discussion for greatest American athlete. Why you might ask? First off, longevity, and second while Ledecky is arguably more dominant at freestyle that is what she swims. Michael Phelps has won medals for every swimming stroke there is and more medals than anyone ever. His is an amazing feat, but he is a swimmer. While longevity plays a part I'd say gymnastics is a more all around athletic endeavor, but Biles has competed at one Olympics and she might be the best athlete of these Olympic games but again it is her first.

It has always been said that the winner of the decathlon is the world's greatest athlete but without Google I'd have never known that the current world record holder for that event is American James Eaton. I don't know who James Eaton is and I'm certain he's a great athlete but in order to be the greatest American athlete of all time someone has to be a little well known. Which brings us to the olden days and Jim Thorpe. I'm sure you've heard the name Jim Thorpe before and you may not know why. 

There is a Jim Thorpe award handed out to the best defensive back in college every year and that is because Jim Thorpe was a standout at college football playing at the position of running back, defensive back, place kicker, and punter. As impressive as that is Jim Thorpe was also a two time gold medalist at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm in the Decathlon and Pentathlon. After the Olympics Thorpe went onto careers in professional football, baseball, and basketball. Thorpe wasn't great at baseball hitting .252/.286/.362 over a six year career but he did have good seasons and in his final season at the age of 32 he hit .327/.360/.429. 

Jim Thorpe is the type of all-around athlete that is hard to find these days and embodies what it means to be great. He excelled at the Olympics and football and had success in baseball and basketball as well. My only problem with Jim Thorpe is he was active so long ago and exercise science has come such a long way that it is doubtful he could compete with modern athletes. That is why my vote goes to someone not yet mentioned, Serena Williams. 

Tennis is a tougher sport than it gets credit for and Serena Williams is that rare combination of speed, strength, and endurance that qualifies an athlete to be the greatest of all time. She currently is tied with Steffi Graf for the most Grand Slam titles of anyone but that will fall and she will be the greatest tennis player of all time. She has dominated a sport that is struggling in popularity in America in a way that is surprising. Watching her enter the zone and crush her opponent is like nothing else. There is no current second best in women's tennis because there is no point. Serena Williams is on a different level than anyone else in her sport and I'd argue that the athletic qualities it takes to dominate tennis are more varied than the ones to dominate swimming like Michael Phelps has.


For the past few weeks, both longtime sports fans and casual Olympics viewers have talked about making the case that Michael Phelps is the greatest athlete of all time. To start, it’s highly unlikely anyone in the next decade or more will touch his coveted count of 28 Olympic medals. More importantly, as he demonstrated in Rio, Phelps has not just been consistent – in some respects, he’s gotten better, which is all the more fascinating when you take into account the fact that many of his fiercest competitors are more than a decade younger.
What makes the Michael Phelps narrative poetic is that the 6’4” athlete with an 6’7” arm span was, quite literally, built to be an Olympic swimmer. But, beyond genetics, Phelps’ dedication to the sport has set him apart for more than a decade – and, it shows through his versatility. While many swimmers specialize in one or two events, Phelps boasts a collection of medals in events across freestyle, butterfly, and the individual medley. And, while many make the case that it is “easy” to collect multiple medals in swimming, Michael Phelps stands atop the all-time gold medal list with 23. Who stands at number two? Mark Spitz, with nine gold medals.

Nevertheless, Phelps offers a shining example of much of the criteria to be considered the “GOAT”: dominance, longevity, record-breaking talent… (one might even add, announcing retirement and returning to compete, anyway). But, I’m writing to say that Michael Phelps isn’t the greatest athlete of all time.

Had Dave not beaten me to the punch, I would’ve likely made a case for Serena Williams. In July of 2002, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) ranked Serena number one for the first time in her career; just a month ago, Serena reclaimed that ranking for the sixth time of her career.

Compared to male or female tennis players, it makes no difference – Williams holds the most major singles, doubles, and mixed doubles combined amongst active players. And, her latest Grand Slam title (No. 22) tied her with the leader of the Open Era, Steffi Graf. Time and again, Williams has shown what it means to be a comeback player. She has overcome injury, personal tragedies, and adversity to nearly single-handedly shine a new spotlight on women’s tennis.

In addition to Williams, however, there are a few other names I’m tempted to declare as the greatest athlete of all-time. If you open it up beyond U.S. borders, you have to consider the obvious Wayne Gretzky. But along with him, Gordie Howe immediately comes to mind. As the only player to have competed in the NHL across five different decades, his career stands as the definition of longevity in sports. Never mind the fact the 23-time NHL All-Star set many of the scoring records Gretzky went on to break.

And, you can’t neglect the likes of Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, or even Babe Ruth.

All that aside, I can’t help but cast my vote for Bo Jackson, and here’s why (and why a similar case, of course, can be made for Michael Jordan). When speaking in general terms, looking to name the greatest athlete of all-time, my mind can’t help but insert another descriptor: greatest all-around athlete of all time.

Michael Phelps is without a doubt the greatest at his sport – although, Katie Ledecky may be fast approaching in his rearview mirror. But, many before me have made the argument, to which I have to agree: Phelps is still the fastest across the board in several strokes; but even as he touches the wall a full stroke ahead of everyone else, he does so without ever encountering a defensive challenge. Phelps has never had to come face-to-face in a battle of action versus reaction. And, while that shouldn’t take away from the greatness he has achieved, it does make it difficult to compare him to the likes of someone like Williams, or Gretzky, or Howe.

Similarly, each of the aforementioned athletes has achieved elite status in his or her sport; but, when we describe someone as “athletic,” more often than not, what we actually mean is one's ability to adapt well (as if, by nature) in a variety of sports environments.

Quite obviously, one can make a very strong case for Olympic gold medalist/football player/baseball player (and underrated basketball player) Jim Thorpe. And, similarly, let’s not forget that Jackie Robinson was a four-sport letterman at UCLA. But, I’ll echo Dave’s comments about how quickly modern science has changed the level at which our athletes perform.

And such, my vote falls unto Jackson who, by no stretch of the imagination, would rank as the greatest baseball or football player of all-time, yet his incredible versatility, and his All-Star-caliber careers in both sports (in the modern era) set him apart from the competition.

To start,  Jackson was so fast that he could have qualified for the U.S. Olympic Team for track and field. And, he still holds the fastest-ever 40 time at the NFL combine.

Even more, only a handful of athletes have achieved All-Star status in two major sports, and no one else has done it in baseball and football. Jackson boasts an All-Star Game MVP title (1989), and AL Comeback Player of the Year Award (1993). Perhaps most fascinating, however, was the year 1989, during which Jackson notched 30 home runs and 100 RBIs… in the same year he recorded his greatest season in the NFL.

Jackson might have gone on to repeat his All-Star-caliber performances in either or both sports, had it not been for the hip injury that ultimately ended his athletic career. Nevertheless, the chances of another athlete reaching such a high level of performance in both baseball and football simultaneously (and with cooperation from both the NFL and MLB) are incredibly low. And, by that standard, Jackson has permanently etched his name in history.

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