Identifying a Great Athlete


                What qualities (and to what degree) constitute a great athlete, and should these features be equally important at all levels of competition from infancy through professional ranks? Is there a distinction between talent and performance? Should factors such as intelligence, teamwork, sportsmanship, effort, leadership, awards earned, championships won, etc. be considered when judging who is a great athlete? How are all of these elements to be defined and ranked?

                I believe that the ultimate aim of all athletes should be always to play fairly and smartly with full effort. It has been said that “the true test of an athlete is in the struggle and not the outcome.” If this is correct, everyone can be superior and happy because we all have our limits of greatness, and how can anyone possibly exceed his ultimate abilities? By adopting the aforementioned goal of an athlete, winning will have a maximum opportunity to occur without even being contemplated because it will be a logical by-product of proper dedication. If winning does not transpire from supreme effort, what more can be done? Legal manipulations could be undertaken, such as that of LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh arranging a scenario which they believed and proved would increase their chances of capturing a basketball championship. However, does this deal diminish them as athletes?

                I can understand the paramount importance that winning assumes in collegiate and professional sports – even in some high school athletics. Players, who are employees, are used and obligated to believe that winning is the prime objective at high levels because championships maximize profits in various ways, and athletes must serve their company to justify their salaries. After a certain stage, nothing is truer than “sports is a business.”

                Is an athlete truly a better one or is it artificial validation if he “wins championships?” Is it possible for someone to lack favorable statistics, be on losing teams, and still be the world’s greatest athlete in his sport? Would Tom Brady be exactly as good as he is now or acknowledged to be if his entire career were spent with some inferior teams and their many deficiencies? The same can be asked if Sidney Crosby played with the current Edmonton Oilers or if Kobe Bryant played exclusively with the Philadelphia 76ers, and so on with other athletes who would not receive help from more talented teammates and coaches.  

                Perhaps individual sports (tennis, golf, bowling, skiing, track and field, etc.) are the only ones in which an athlete can be properly rated – but only against his contemporaries. Was Troy Aikman a better quarterback than Dan Marino? Should the former’s several Super Bowl championships be emphasized over the latter’s more favorable career statistics? Should each of the players who were members of all four Buffalo Bills teams which lost consecutive Super Bowls from 1991-1994 be considered as “losers” and labeled inferior to all athletes who played on just one Super Bowl winning team?

                Usain Bolt has posted the fastest time ever precisely scientifically determined for the 100 meter dash. Does this mean that he is the greatest sprinter ever? Is it not possible that at least one record holder from the 20th century track world could have posted a faster time if he had enjoyed the current advances in nutrition, equipment, coaching, etc.? How valid are statistics in utterly determining the best athlete?

                If the truest virtue and objective of an athlete is to win, at the end of every season only one team and its players are “winners.” Athletics would indeed rank as the realm in which the overwhelming majority of participants fail. Have you not often heard professionals and some others at different levels state that, unless their team wins a championship, the season would be a failure? Things are so complicated and debatable in the field of sports, which is often not very “sporting.”

                What indeed is the correct way for a coach or a player to address any situation at any level in any sport? I say to all athletes, “Always play hard, smartly, and fairly or get off the rink, court, field, course, etc.!” Even then, who will do the defining and whose view will prevail in so many different situations at so many different levels with so many different individuals and variables?

                 Let me pose a test question. If you were an elite Olympic athlete, would you prefer to win a gold medal (which translates to wealth and opportunity) by demonstrating your worst effort and performance which was only less pathetic than everyone else’s OR would you prefer heroically to overcome huge obstacles, display your best effort and performance ever – only to lose to otherwise superior natural talent? There simply are so very many conflicts with which the field of athletics is imbued, and there will forever be so very many clashes of opinion.