Who’s the greatest?

We occasionally ask ourselves, and each other, who is the greatest? We discuss, agree, disagree and formulate views and opinions on sporting greatness. The whole discussion can end up shrouded in vagueness and ambiguity. We talk about value, skill, conditioning, art and heart, strength of mind and body; we talk about character, loyalty, effort and even the indefinable unknown factors. Are there statistics that can measure these things specifically or are we meant to live in a world of subjective conjecture? Is it possible to quantify sporting greatness? Maybe true athletic greatness is like artistic greatness; you can’t really define it, but you certainly know it when you see it.

Viewing a Rembrandt or Van Gogh painting, listening to a Bach or Mozart symphony, reading a Longfellow or Wordsworth poem, you can see, hear and feel the beauty but you can’t quite put your finger on what makes it truly great. As author David Foster Wallace once said, “Good art is a kind of magic. It does magical things for both artist and audience. We can have long polysyllabic arguments about how to describe the way this magic works, but the plain fact is that good art is magical and precious and cool”. The same could equally be applied to sport. Statistics have their place but they are not beautiful. It is the beauty of sport that moves us. However, it all becomes subjective when statistics are taken out of the equation. Beauty, it is said, is in the eye of the beholder, as it is in art so it is in sport.

I visited The Netherlands last year to spend time with a close friend. During my stay I decided to visit a well-known museum. The Mauritshuis is home to one of the most famous paintings in the world. This famous art museum is the location of Vermeer’s painting, The Girl with a Pearl Earring. For 30 minutes the vision was mesmeric and I feel tempted to say it was one of the most wonderful pieces of art it’s been my pleasure to see. Later in the evening my friend provided a potent counter argument with the Rijksmuseum and Rembrandt. And, of course, similar to any discussion about the relative merits of Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus; we are both right.


Girl with a Pearl Earring               icanvas.com 


Every sport has its heroes and legends. We all have our favourite sports and sporting heroes. How they play, look, behave, succeed and indeed fail, can resonate though our hearts, minds and memories. Occasionally the memories continue to grip and excite us from our childhood into adulthood. Your humble correspondent recalls watching the great Rugby League player Billy Boston and was overcome by the crowd’s reaction when the ball was moving in Boston’s direction. This writer was nine years old and thrill still resonates half a century later. Some names can even stretch beyond the boundaries of their own sports and even beyond sport itself: Muhammad Ali, Jack Nicklaus, Serena Williams, Pele, Jesse Owens, Michael Phelps and Michael Jordan to name just a few. Most sports are in some way quantifiable. Statistics continue to show us that. What does it mean to be the greatest or “the best of the best”? The late Muhammad Ali was described by himself, and others, as the “greatest”. But how do we define greatness?  Ali’s greatness may not only be defined by what he did in the ring but what he did outside of it. Quantifiably and statistically speaking Ali was not the greatest. Rocky Marciano, Joe Calzaghe and Floyd Mayweather were high profile world champion boxers who retired undefeated. However, there is more to Ali’s story than just boxing and this contributed to his greatness.

Basing opinions of what constitutes the “The Best of the Best” in sport purely on statistical analysis is not what human beings do. Statistics don’t thrill us in the same way as a live event or personal experience can. How can they? Statistics give us the facts and not the passion; they give us solid arguments and not the joy; they give us the background and not the elation. They tell a story, but not the complete one. They may tell us how many yards a quarterback throws the ball, however, they don’t tell us how he threw it. There is no indication in any statistical analysis that can convey the pressure and time constraints he may have been under to complete the pass. In the sports world, as in many other aspects of life, we are driven by excitement, passion, escapism and success and not by statistics.

Edson Arantes do Nascimento, “Pele”                                  pele10.com


Charles Davis, a scientist and statistician from Australia, has formulated a statistical system for measuring talents in different sporting disciplines. Davis, in his book The Best of the Best, formulated a bell curve for each sporting discipline and he found that it assumed the same shape regardless of sport. He then comprised a “Z-score” for the greats of sport: Michael Jordan was given the score 3.4, Nicklaus 3.5 and Pele 3.7. “A Z-score of two is exceptional”, Davis says, “while a 3.0 would place an athlete at the top of the all-time greats”. Davis tried, and in this writer’s opinion, succeeded in quantifying sport down to its most basic level. It gives us the facts and it also gives us the ability, and an enjoyable exercise, to compare sportsmen and sportswomen from different eras. However, it becomes more challenging when comparing sports people from different disciplines. That’s what makes Davis’ statistical analysis so interesting.

The debate about the greatest baseball player of all time is a bar-room standard. It is a pleasing example of statistics against subjective opinion. Babe Ruth is one of the most renowned and well-known players in baseball; he is also one of the most successful home run hitters in history. With 714 home runs and a batting average of .342 he would be in the frame for the best baseball player of all time. Ty Cobb’s home run numbers, 117, on the other hand fall well short of Ruth’s. However, with a batting average of .367 it would appear Cobb is a more consistent player and he sits on top of the batting averages. In Charles Davis’ world of statistics Cobb is the better player. How about that for a bar-room discussion? The bar-tender is throwing you out before anybody can agree who’s the best. Also throw in the fact that, of the top ten players in baseball history with the best average, only Ted Williams played the game after World War 2. Maybe we should talk about how games and athletes have changed over the years.


Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb                                                   si.com


Trying to compare male and female athletes playing today against players in the past can be a topic for contentious discussion. Nine of the top 10 baseball averages pre-date the Second World War. What can be drawn from those figures? Was batting easier in those days? Was the standard of pitching much weaker than today? Were the sports fields bigger or smaller? Wonderful questions to ponder in any discussion about sport. We should also ponder how sport off the field has advanced in the recent years. The sports world has always been driven by larger-than-life personalities and that can be one of the allures that excite us. It is worth noting that today’s athletes are bigger, faster and stronger than ever before. However, the evolution of modern icons wouldn’t be possible without the specialization and personalization of sports science—which has allowed athletes to develop in ways that were not possible even a couple of decades ago.

Not only is Serena Williams one of the greatest tennis players in the modern era she could also benefit from the modern technology available in today’s game.  The first “smart” tennis racket is currently being touted; with electronics in the handle that will reveal level of spin, number of shots played and the power of each shot. It will collect data such as the power of her shots, the angle at which she strikes the ball, her technique and number of strokes. This information will provide input that may contribute to her game and help her and players like her to become more formidable.

In recent years technology has changed the face of sport; the performance of today’s athletes has, seemingly, given them an edge over athletes from the past. However, there will always be anomalies to disprove that theory. Eddy Merckx was a four- time winner of the Tour de France and arguably the greatest cyclist in history. Merckx, in 1972, set the record for the longest distance cycled in one hour. This is cycling’s equivalent of the athletic mile record. Riders view this as a “holy grail”. He cycled a mind-blowing 30 miles and 3,774 feet. The record improved with the benefit of technological advancements and in 1996 the record was over 5 miles further than Merckx rode at 35 miles and 1,531 feet.

     Eddy Merckx                                                                bbc.co.uk 


The International Cycling Union (UCI), in 2000, then decided to create a “level playing field” and came to the conclusion that anybody attempting to break the record must use the same equipment as Merckx, or at least something close. That year Britain’s Chris Boardman attempted a one hour ride using a traditional bike, similar to the one used by Merckx, and rode 30 miles 3,769 feet. Boardman beat Merckx by only 32 feet and that 28years later. Technology will always improve performance; however, world class will always be world class. Merckx and Boardman are truly “the best of the best” in their field.

Should we compare players within team sports against people whose performances are based on individual talent? In the world of American football, Bret Favre may hold some enviable records; however, his success is dependent on the abilities of the players in front of him. If a player fails to catch Favre’s pass; what then? Based on that argument should we exclude players whose success is based on the ability of their teammates? In baseball or softball a player “at bat” may have his or her teammates to support them; however, at that moment they are on their own. A cricket batter on strike is placed in the same situation. Should we differentiate certain team players in certain sports whose success is not based on teammates, but on singular abilities?

The Pakistani squash player Jahangir Khan is widely accepted as the greatest player in the history of squash. During a very illustrious career he won the World Open six times and the British open 10 times. His most famous streak of success was in 1981 to 1986. During that time he was unbeaten in competitive matches and won 555 games consecutively. That, by any measure of success, is extraordinary. According to the Guinness Book of World Records this was the longest winning streak by any athlete in top-level sports. He is certainly “the best of the best” in his discipline.

Jahangir Khan                                                    cnmsports.com


There is a powerful argument for stating that Sir Donald Bradman is the greatest player of any sport in history. No one has dominated his sport (with the possible exception of Jahangir Khan) as Bradman dominated cricket while he was playing it; he continues to dominate cricket after his retirement in 1948 and his death in 2001. Bradman’s legacy not only includes impossible statistics, but also a curious conundrum of sporting greatness. It can be said that all sports contrive to have a pyramid system. The base of the pyramid consists of social sports players, amateurs and other people who enjoy sport at its most basic level. The pyramid climbs higher and narrower; participants become more proficient, skilled and professional until the peak is reached by the most elite. Bradman not only reached the peak but kept on striving for higher and loftier goals.

It is a well know cliché in sport that all records can be broken. It is possibly safe to say that Bradman’s will not. During international cricket matches batsmen strive to score 100 runs in an innings. A century is a great personal achievement and Bradman scored one every three innings. He made 29 centuries in 80 innings; he converted 12 of those into double centuries and subsequently converted two of those into triples. Only 24 players have scored more than 300 runs in an innings in the history of the game.

Donald Bradman “the greatest”                                                theaustralian.com.au 


It is the sign of an international class batsman in cricket if he averages 50 runs or more in an innings at the end of a career. Only six players have reached an average over 60 during their careers. The Australian Adam Voges sits second in the averages at 61.87; another Australian, Steve Smith, sits in third with 60.98; and the South African batsman Graeme Pollock sits in fourth place with 60.97. All are seriously great batsmen. It’s worth noting that Voges played 50 less innings than Bradman. Donald Bradman’s final batting average was a mind blowing 99.94. In his final innings he needed 4 runs for an average of 100. He was dismissed without scoring. In 1999, at the turn of the last century, Wisden Cricket Almanac, the bible of world cricket, polled 100 of the most influential names in the game, asking each to name the five greatest cricketers of the departing century. Only one name got 100 votes. At this point it’s superfluous to name him. In Charles Davis’s statistical world Donald Bradman’s Z-score was 4.

People have asked this writer over the years for his choice of the greatest sportsman in the world. And yes! That question has been asked over many a pint. After careful thought and reflecting on this small article and believing that statistics are a good indication, but not all, of sporting success; this writer believes that a British Rugby League player by the name of Ellery Hanley, above, was the greatest player of sport in the world with Michael Jordan a close second. Australian friends have provided a powerful counter argument that another player from the world of Rugby League was the greatest. Wally Lewis, “the emperor”, was a wonderful player and deserves to sit at the pinnacle of his sport. Irish mates will espouse the greatness of Rugby Union’s Brian O’Driscoll and call him the “the best of the best”. And of course, nobody is wrong. The conversation just never ends and long may it remain so. In the above examples individual success did rely on the ability of their teammates; however, they displayed great personal drive and a tremendous will to win. It’s worth noting that the final word rests upon the fingertips of your humble writer; after all he is the one pressing the keys and is therefore correct in his opinion. However, that’s just a subjective view.






Leave a reply

Translate »