This Michael Phelps "Best Athlete Ever" stuff is getting under my skin. Now, not to take away from his amazing ability, genetics and domination, but there is a lot more to trying to determine who the best ever is beyond just medal counts. Swimming has a ridiculous number of events which serve to boost the egos of young athletes and inflate medal counts. The argument can plausibly be made that M.Phelps is the most dominant Olympian ever, but a) that might not even be true and b) let's choose the sport to work with first.
I am considering an equation which could be constructed that would attempt to solve this problem. My first step is to determine the various factors involved with picking the right sport.
- Endurance. Endurance athletic events require rigorous training put in over years of build up are factored higher. Longer events should be factored somewhat higher, for instance the Ironman triathlon world record time is 8 hrs 4 mins.
- Strength. Table tennis does not require much physical strength. Muscular development has to be considered to be the "best athlete ever".
- Mental toughness/strategy. The 100 meter dash is an amazing showcase for the human body, but there is very little gamesmanship involved.
- Body type specificity (less is better) You simply have to be over 6'9" to be a center in basketball. Sports that any body type can play gain advantage because the pool of contestants is higher.
- Access to sport/equipment cost. Polo is out of reach for 99% of the population. Soccer requires a cheap, durable ball and that's about it. Cycling is a sport which should be considered highly, but expensive technology is a requirement at the elite levels.
- Injury edge. The description needs work, but in many sports, athletes push their bodies up the point where additional training would result in injuries. Some sports, swimming included (it seems), don't suffer from this problem.
- Body fat/diet requirements. Many sports require extremely low body fat to be competitive and as we all know, keeping <10% body fat requires incredible dedication. Events which allow you to eat nothing but McDonalds get deductions here.
- Coordination. Both arms/hands and feet need to be considered.
- Years in training. Some sports require athletes to begin their training at a very young age and require 7+ years of training in order to become competitive.
- Dominance. In order to be considered the best ever, the athlete should at least be considered the best ever within their respective sports and hopefully by a wide margin.
The next step would be to weight these things against each other and put some scales and numbers to it, but just in talking through this quickly last night two sports emerged as contenders.
Tennis: requires full body coordination, requires years of training, there is some argument over whether the access is egalitarian or not, endurance is needed to sustain five set matches and any body type can play (male champions span 5'7"-6'5").
Soccer: requires lots of endurance, anyone can play, skills are easy to learn but hard to master, but your arms don't do anything.
Cross country skiing: these folks get a mention because whenever VO2Max, a measure of blood oxygen capacity is brought up, studies of athletes has shown that these athletes consistent test highest.
Hybrid sports like the modern pentathlon which is shooting+fencing+swimming+horse jumping+3000m run are neat ideas, but just not very many people compete in these things.