Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympian in history. Usain Bolt might be the greatest Olympian in history. Simone Biles might be the most dominant Olympian in history. Aston Eaton might be the greatest all-around athlete ever. If there is an argument to be made for who the greatest Olympian of all time is there are a lot of factors to consider.
There are great moments in Olympic history that are iconic, making the athletes associated with them iconic. There are record-breaking performances and triumphs over impossible odds but do they factor into what makes the best Olympic athlete ever? There’s too much data to consider, too many athletes, too many events and too much subjective reasoning to make an agreed upon judgment. What if we could determine whom the best Olympian is today, regardless of event, age, gender or country? Could we create a contest to determine the best athlete in the world?
First of all let’s define athlete. According to Nike, “If you have a body, you’re an athlete.” If we take that approach every one of us is an athlete in some form or fashion. However Websters says an athlete is, “a person who is proficient in sports and other forms of physical exercise.” We can generally agree that although we can all be athletes not all of us are athletes in the truest sense. Olympic athletes are arguably the most proficient individuals in the sports they participate in. There are hundreds of “sports” so it wouldn’t be fair to try and compare a Boxer to a Gymnast. So let’s take away specialization and look at some generally accepted forms of athleticism.
Blast has created a list of what they refer to as “true metrics”, a simple set of the most general ways to measure athleticism. Blast identifies Acceleration, Vertical Leap, Speed and Efficiency as the best ways to measure athleticism.
How fast can you get from point A to point B. Acceleration is important in nearly every sport. If we compared Usain Bolt’s 100m dash of 9.81 seconds with Michael Phelps’ 100m butterfly swim of 51.58 seconds logically we would agree that Bolt has more speed than Phelps. The average top speed of a sprinter is about 22 mph, which would be the average speed of the game. Michael Phelps is arguably the best swimmer in the world, his top speed in the pool is only 6 mph but we have to take in consideration the resistance of the water. Michael Phelps arguably accelerates faster off his block than Bolt, who’s known to start off slow. However if we’re basing the argument merely on the distance required from point A to point B, Usain Bolt is probably the fastest human on the planet.
Reigning NBA dunk champion Zach Levine has a vertical leap of 46”. That’s hops my friend. The average Volleyball player has a vertical leap of about 36”. Gerald Sensabaugh had the highest vertical, 46”; at the NFL’s combine in 2016. Canadian high jumper Derek Drouin cleared a 93” bar at the 2016 Olympics to win gold. Simone Biles standing at 4’9” can reach an astounding 48” at the peak of her jump during her routine. MLB superstar Mike Trout has can jump onto a box reportedly 52” high. Jumping has always been a great measurement of athletic ability but what about sports that don’t require jumping? A sport like rowing requires the movement of a vertical leap. Weightlifting also requires vertical leap movement. Most sports involve some version of vertical leap.
Speed is “game-play” based i.e. the actual speed of the game or contest. Track, swimming, golf, bowling and other non-contact sports rarely require reactionary movements. Lebron James’ top sprint speed on a fast break is about 20 mph whereas soccer star Antonio Valencia has been clocked at 22mph on the pitch. A defender guarding Lebron James in the open court has to be able to react faster than 20 mph. Aroldis Chapman throws a fastball pitch consistently at 100 mph and Giancarlo Stanton has been able to swing a bat at 102 mph. Floyd Mayweather has twice the reaction time of the average human and can throw a punch at 30 mph. Serena William's serve speed tops out at 128 mph and her forehand return at about 100 mph. Each sport requires and has it’s own “speed of the game” but games that require reaction might have an edge over those that don’t.
Efficiency is a broad term. Steph Curry might be the most efficient shooter in the NBA. Carmelo Anthony is arguably the most efficient scorer in the NBA, mastering the art of the triple threat. Both of these players are efficient in different dynamics of the same game. U.S. Olympian Sandi Morris is one of the world’s most efficient at the pole vault. Is her efficiency in performing something that appears more technical than shooting a basketball or throwing a football actually more efficient? Take Jordan Speith, arguably the world’s best golfer, is his efficiency driving the ball off the tee any better or worse than Brianna Rollins running the 100m hurdles? What factors are involved when measuring efficiency? Is it merely mechanics? Usain Bolt by mechanical standards has one of the least efficient running styles but it works for him. Philip Rivers has a less than ideal throwing motion for an NFL quarterback but has been efficient as a passer for most of his career.
What We Do Know
What we can determine is that because sports are often specialized it’s extremely difficult to compare athletes. A sport like basketball employs each of the four “true metrics” but if Lebron James’ top speed is 20 mph, he’s still 7mph slower than Usain Bolt. Simone Biles may reach a peak height of 48” during her routine but Zach Levine at 6’5” can probably do more with his 46” vertical. Floyd Mayweather may have an incredible reaction time but it won’t help him react to a Serena Williams serve. Aston Eaton, a two time gold medal winning decathlete; is arguably the best athlete in the world.
However, his times in the ten events required to complete the decathlon are average by Olympic standards. Would you trust Eaton to throw a Hail Mary at the end of the Super Bowl or Aaron Rodgers? Brady Ellison is one of the most elite archers in the world, would his accuracy translate onto the pitching mound? The amazing thing about competitive sports is how it has evolved into pushing the limitations of how humans can move, react, and decide in real time. Maybe Nike is correct in their philosophy of, “If you have body, you’re an athlete”.