There is No True Athlete

The question of the best athlete in the world is more complicated than medal counts.

A few weeks back when the Olympics were in the news, I wrote a piece comparing two great Olympians: Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps. Both had won multiple medals over a number of (slightly) different disciplines. One comment on that article reminded me that I should be looking at another event in order to determine the best Olympian in history.

That event is the decathlon. Here an athlete must compete in three different running events, three different throwing events, three different jumping events, and a combination running and jumping event. Each event within those categories is significantly different from the others. To excel at the decathlon requires an athlete to be very accomplished all-around.

The performances achieved by decathletes in each individual event are never as impressive as those who specialize in each event. Nevertheless, the standards are still quite high; high enough that the winner of the decathlon is generally cited as the best all-around athlete of each Olympic Games. It is even more difficult to win decathlon gold in two Olympics. That has only been done three times, whereas the swimming and sprinting metals won by Bolt and Phelps were done over three and four Olympiads.

All of this brings up the question over which is the greatest feat: setting a record in a single specialized event, or being very competent (but not the best) over many events. This question is difficult to answer, not only due to different physical abilities, but also due to the prejudices of any person who takes on the question.

The Relative Merits of Generalists and Specialists

The core of the question is generalists versus specialists. This debate is not limited to athletic endeavors, of course; it is the subject of endless debate in business and academia, among others. Talk to the head of any HR department, and they will tell you that while specialists can command a high salary if their talents are needed, they often have periods of downtime where work is hard to find. Conversely, the generalist may not be able to command the same salary as the specialist, but they are more flexible in where they can work, and so are less likely to have periods of unemployment. It is the old trade-off between risk and reward. Specialization can offer high rewards, but generalists usually face lower risks.

One advantage of being a generalist is the enjoyment and satisfaction of being able to partake in a wide variety of activities, each with a reasonable degree of competence. The downside is that when skill levels are not highly developed in any one activity, the individual is deprived of the peak experiences that can only come from demonstrating excellence.

Even Ashton Eaton, the best generalist in the world, couldn’t compete with a world-class specialist in a single event. [Photo credit: Filip Bossuyt | CC BY 2.0]

Specialists devote themselves to excellence in a single sport, or at least a narrow range of similar activities. The young pool or track athlete with Olympic aspirations must commit themselves to nearly full-time training. He or she is unlikely to be found enjoying a casual game of tennis, golf, or soccer. There is very little time for anything extracurricular, and it would put our elite athlete at risk of unnecessary injury, to boot.

But what the specialist loses in breadth, they gain in depth. They have the pride and satisfaction that comes from being able to do one activity or a small number of activities at a level far above that of nearly anyone else. They do miss out on opportunities to enjoy a wider number of different activities, but that is the cost of Olympic success.

The type of satisfaction one seeks from sport depends heavily upon the inherent values they hold before training begins. Some aim for the high peaks, while others prefer life in the wide valley. Neither one is superior to the other; both are valuable.

How Do We Identify the Best?

This lesson was brought home to me recently while watching a soccer game on TV. Someone sitting to my right opined that “those soccer players are the real athletes,” insinuating that those playing some other sport simply do not match up. Sure enough, someone on my left mentioned that those soccer players would get killed if they got hit in a football game. Chatting with both, it came as no surprise that the first one was a soccer fan and the second a football fan. I asked them, “how is it that one is a ‘true athlete’ because he hits hard, and the other is a ‘true athlete’ because he can play full-tilt for 90 minutes while kicking with great accuracy?” Their prejudices were what determined a true athlete, not any real objective set of criteria. Just because each of them liked a certain sport did not mean that it was superior to all others.

Each sport caters to a different body type, nervous system, and mindset, which in turn requires a different set of physical (and mental) skills in order to be successful. Why can’t people simply appreciate the fact that the human body is capable of such a variety of skills and performance standards, and just leave it at that? 

There Is No “True Athlete”

Neither of my friends seemed to be able to appreciate the fact that, whether one is a football player or a soccer player, neither of those athletes are world-beaters, even at the skills that they employ in their game. The soccer player does indeed run for 90 minutes straight, but even the best of them could not stay with a world class marathoner. The football lineman is indeed big and strong. The weights that they can lift are very impressive, not only to the layman but even to us long-term gym habitués. Still, strong though they are, they could not touch the level of an elite weightlifter.

Now let’s reverse engineer this a little bit. Say we have a weightlifter and a marathon runner, both of whom compete for Olympic medals. Both specialize in a very narrow area; much narrower than our team sport athletes. None is better than the other in an all-round, moral sense. Neither would be very good at the other sport, and neither be very good as elite level football or soccer players, since they would know nothing about the game. And so on. Why not learn to appreciate the skills of all, then cheer them all on?

An Unwinnable Debate

No one can settle this debate to everyone’s satisfaction. I will not try to pick who was best. Instead, I’m going to bifurcate the debate. One part will be about who the greatest Olympian is, i.e. the greatest competitor that the Games have ever seen. The other part will be who the greatest all-around athlete in Olympic history is. It has been suggested that both could be subsumed into a single question, I have decided that it cannot.

For the first part, I will stick with my original choice of Usain Bolt, since nothing has changed my opinion in the last three months. He is the greatest performer, based on the deeds and longevity of an athletic specialist.

For the second part, the sport chosen is easy enough. The decathlon has a wide range of events, and in order to win the decathlon you have to be quite proficient in all of them. There is no question that excellence over ten events best showcases the generalist.

Picking the best decathlete is more difficult. Only three decathletes have won two gold medals, and none have won more. Bob Mathias was the first to do so in 1948 and 1952. Daley Thompson finally duplicated that in 1980 and 1984. After another long wait, Ashton Eaton achieved his double in 2012 and 2016.

There is little to choose from among these three men. Between the dearth of multiple champions in the sport and the fact that I am not an expert in the decathlon, I am not able to choose the greatest Olympic generalist of all time. Maybe that’s a cop-out, but I prefer to think that the significance and charisma of the decathlon competition itself must carry the day. It is very difficult to win it once, and rare to do so twice. No one can rule the event for long enough to earn immortality. The nature of the event ensures that. Because of that, I am content to hail each Olympic decathlon champion as the planet’s greatest athletic generalist for the next quadrennial, and leave it at that.

Specialists are not better than generalists, and there is equal truth to the obverse.

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