Best Athlete Ever

imageThis 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.
  • Reflexes.
  • 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.



  1. How does someone like Bo Jackson factor into your equation? To this day, that guy is still the best athlete I have ever seen.

  2. I would also argue that mental toughness is underrated in sprinting (whether land-based or water-based) events. You’ve got to be a mentally strong SOB to consistently dominate. So, I’ll give Phelps his props there. You can look to Katie Hoff as an example of someone who is physically talented (see US olympic trials) but mentall weak (see Beijing Olympics).

  3. A) Bo Jackson does get bonus points because of the two sport thing, definitely. Perhaps in order to be considered in the “Best Ever” category I should add durability to the formula though and of course, that was Bo’s downfall.
    B) Yeah, the mental toughness calculation would have to include both “performance under pressure” and “strategy” components. Sprinting does not really have a “I’ll go out slowly and make up the time at the end” or the ability to really play mind games with your opponents.

    I don’t think there is a clear winner across all sports, so having a negative score in one category would not necessarily kill your chances.

  4. How does length of ‘prime career time’ factor into the weighting? So for example: The career of a gymnast is generally shorter than that of a swimmer (using olympic terms). Would a gymnast who wins gold at 2 olympics get a higher ‘best athlete score’ than a swimmer that medals at 4? In other words, are you penalized on the best athlete scale if the window of dominance is smaller than someone in another sport?

    note: I’m trying to find my ‘enough of the dang swimmers and their trophys!!’ post from years back, but discovered google search has disappeared from my blog. if you give me the code to put the google search back up, i’ll gladly share!

  5. Have you ever played soccer before? Every part of your body needs to be under complete control, including your arms. Ask any experienced soccer player and they will say that your arms are a big factor. No, not as big as your legs, of course, but they still play a vital role. You need to be able to get your arm in your opponents ribs and to be able to push away from them. And there are throw-ins as well. Also, how you hold your arms are a big part of your stability. Yes, I am a soccer player and so I am a little more passionent about this subject. When I play, I play defense which requires you to be very physical with your opponents, especially with your arms. Girls and guys get mean out there so you elbow them and push them. And besides, any PROFESSIONAL sport is going to tougher and harder than any ‘decent’ player can imagine.

  6. Michael phelps is really the best athelete in the world many guys mentioned are part of teams. That plays a big part in someones success. Someone mentioned Bo Jackson he couldnt have made it as far as he did without the help of his teamates. So im my mind Phelps is by far the best athelete. Swimming fifty miles a week for training, geting sponsered before he was sixteen, winning eight gold medels at a time, let alone breaking world records nearly every race. Hes doing this by himself sure he has a coach but he swims on his own

  7. Two words…. Bo Jackson. Pro bowl in football, all star in baseball. He got hurt, of course, but if he would have played full time in either sport, with the average number of carries for a running back, or at-bats as a hitter for a career, records would have been broken!

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