January 31, 2008

Greatest athlete of all time?

While discussing the historic dominance of golf and tennis by Tiger Woods and Roger Federer, I mentioned that the greatest statistics in any sport appear to be held by the mid-century Australian cricket player Donald Bradman. Other commenters suggested Wayne Gretzky, but one mentioned English darts champion Phil Taylor.

Yet, if we're going to talk about darts, how about Marion Tinsley, who won every single one of the thousands of checkers tournaments he competed in from 1950 to 1995? Indeed, over that stretch, he only lost seven games.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

Sorry, but I have a VERY hard time calling a checkers player an athlete!

Mark said...

Eddy Merckx!

Anonymous said...

Roman Šebrle

At the end of the 2007 season, Šebrle has completed 17 years in the sport and is nearing 90 combined official decathlons and heptathlons. While his numbers remain second to Janvrin in these categories, Šebrle has performed at a significantly higher level during his career. Consider that Janvrin’s personal best is a wind-aided 8,462 points, while Šebrle has legally exceeded that high 21 times, with 20 decathlons over 8,500 points, 13 over 8,600, 8 over 8,700, and 6 over 8,800.

Clearly, the stellar names in the sport fall far short of Šebrle’s tenure. Bob Mathias completed 10 decathlons over 4 seasons, Rafer Johnson 11 over 5 seasons, Daley Thompson 36 over 16 seasons, and Dan O’Brien 30 over 12 seasons. As he turns 33 on November 26, 2007, Šebrle can claim to have spent more than half his life competing as a decathlete. No one else comes close to putting up his numbers over so many years. After winning in the world championship in Osaka this year for the first time in his stellar career, Šebrle said that he saw no reason why he should not be able to continue in the sport through the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and beyond.

Anonymous said...

I agree, skill at checkers is not based on athletic ability. Unless you are moving around some very heavy checkers.

Anonymous said...

Paavo Nurmi flying finn

Anonymous said...

In the words of Paul Morphy, legendary American chess player, 'Checkers is for tramps.'

In the rest of the civilised world, it's properly called draughts.

Anonymous said...

Don Bradman was by far the greatest batsman in cricket, but he was only quite good as a fielder, nothing as a bowler (pitcher for you Yanks) and his captaincy of Australia was rated mediocre.

However, when a university ran a computer analysis of lifetime histories for champions of major sports, it concluded that Bradman was superior to others in his chosen field by a wider margin, by far, than any sportsman in any other activity.

His lifetime batting average in Test (international) cricket was a shade short of 100, whereas the next best are in the 60s. Spooky.

If the Don had not been out second ball in his last Test innings in England, he would have broken the three-figure average. God's way of telling us we're none of us infallible.

BTW, Steve, you should pay more attention to cricket. (I know Americans find it incomprehensible). It is rapidly becoming the world's most genuinely global sport, at least in temperate and hot countries: those otherwise notorious sporting non-achievers of the Indian subcontinent (India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh) are becoming world class, joining England, Australia, South Africa and the West Indies.

Cricket is one of the world's most multiracial sports, and the suite of traits it requires-- rendering the game fiendishly complicated and often soporific to Americans-- makes this a more universal pastime even than soccer. Little and big guys, thin and fat, young pace bowlers and slow middle aged spin bowlers, all have a place.

There are matches that take five days and may end up as a draw, and other formats that can be finished in an evening under floodlights.

Dutch Boy said...

Jim Thorpe (darts and checkers ain't sports, they're pastimes!)

Jim O said...

Why isn't checkers a sport? Here's the difference between a sport and a game. In a game, there is no distinction between deciding to do something and being able to do it. If I want to castle my king, or lead with the 4 of spades, I just do it. If I want to make an end run for a first down on third and three, I can't be sure I can do it just because I want to do it.
Darts qualifies. Checkers doesn't.

Anonymous said...

If you want to talk about a real athlete how about Babe Ruth? He was known to drink a quart of bourbon and ginger ale at breakfast, before eating a porterhouse steak, a half dozen fried eggs and potatoes on the side. One time he was on a train that pulled into a station. He saw a vendor selling hot dogs on the platform and he rushed off and ate around 18 hot dogs before blacking out. He later needed surgery for an intesinal abscess. A recently demolished bar in Chicago accross from the site of old Comiskey Park was known for the fact that the Babe would run over to it for a quick beer between his times up to bat. A sportswriter at the time, H.G. Salsinger noted, “He could eat more, drink more, smoke more, swear more, and enjoy himself more than any contemporary.” In spite of all of this he still holds records in baseball today. He was the first player ever to hit 30, 40, 50 and 60 home runs in a season and he held the all time home run record until Hank Aaron broke it in the 70's.

Anonymous said...

Well you should write the short fat 'arrers' player off. I saw on Sky Sports News this morning that "The Power" has just been defeated for the first time in a Premier League match and it was by some newcomer making his first appearance.

"Sorry, but I have a VERY hard time calling a checkers player an athlete!"

Well you could call him a sportsman?

Anonymous said...

No, Steve, not cricket player, just cricketer. And it's Sir Donald Bradman aka The Don.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Well you should write the short fat 'arrers' player off. I saw on Sky Sports News this morning that "The Power" has just been defeated for the first time in a Premier League match and it was by some newcomer making his first appearance.

That newcomer, as you put it, is currently the number 3 rated player in the world (according to the PDC rankings).

Anonymous said...

Almost everyone is going to be aware of dual-sports stars like Charlie Ward*, Bo Jackson, Danny Ainge, Deon Sanders, Jim Thorpe, etc, but most people probably don't know that Kiki Vandeweghe set national age group records in swimming [and would have had a serious shot at 20,000+ points in the NBA were it not for injuries]:

Kiki Vandeweghe Statistics

40 Years of Swimming World

...In age group competition around the nation: future NBA star Kiki Vandeweghe swam to six 9-10 victories in Long Beach, Calif., setting NAG records in the 50 yard back (30.9) and 50 fly (29.0)...

*PS: What Charlie Ward accomplished is pretty staggering - Heisman trophy winner at quarterback in football, and starting point guard on a team that went to the NBA finals.

Anonymous said...

Since I mentioned Phil "The Power" Taylor I should've provided you Americans a photo of the man himself.

How many of your Yank athletes enjoy fags and Guinness on weekends?

Anonymous said...

darts takes a physical skill, checkers is purely mental. just because its doesn't take big biceps doesn't rule out darts- heck, golf has senior leagues but you consider it a sport clearly.

Black Sea said...

It's an interesting topic, but of course, there's no such thing as "the greatest athlete of all time." Simply too many variables, and we'll never agree on criteria Still, it makes for a good pub debate.

I'll mention Deion sanders as one of the greatest athletes of the contemporary era. He was phenomenal at baiting the quarterback into throwing an interception, and he terrified on kick off returns. He also played some wide out (not very successfully). Oh, and he played professional baseball too.

I will also say that what Roger Federer is doing in tennis is of world historical importance. He's further proof that the Swiss are the true Ubermenchen.

Steve Sailer said...

Jackie Robinson would rank very high as a multi-sport athlete. Baseball ranked fairly far down on his list of favorite sports, but his baseball career from age 28 to 37 is tremendous, probably ranking with Joe Morgan and Eddie Collins as the best second baseman from age 28 on, although he didn't play 2nd base all the time.

He was the favorite for the long jump gold medal at the 1940 Olympics, which were canceled.

He was a star running back at UCLA, and a fine basketball player. Plus, he also did very well on UCLA's golf and swimming teams. In his personal time he made the semifinals of the black national tennis championship.

Anonymous said...

Steve Sailer: He was the favorite for the long jump gold medal at the 1940 Olympics, which were canceled. He was a star running back at UCLA, and a fine basketball player. Plus, he also did very well on UCLA's golf and swimming teams. In his personal time he made the semifinals of the black national tennis championship.

Across town, before he got into the murderin' bidness, ol' OJ Simpson was quite the dandy.

Heisman trophy winner, first man to rush for more than 2000 yards in a single NFL season, and a member of the UCLA relay team which set a world record in the 4X100m relay [a mark which stood for more than a year]:


Anonymous said...

Of Course Danny Ainge is the greatest Athlete of all time.

Scrutineer said...

Bjorn Borg was the greatest tennis player ever if you put aside his difficulty playing U.S. Open matches under artificial lights (is that too great a qualifier?). No other modern player ever dominated opponents on both the fastest surface (5 Wimbledons) and the slowest surface (6 French Opens).

To borrow from Wikipedia: "During a nine-year career, he won 41 percent of the Grand Slam singles tournaments he entered (11 of 27) and 89.8 percent of the Grand Slam singles matches he played. Both are male open era records."

Too bad the U.S. Open has night matches. Borg would probably have won that tournament around a half dozen times if he could have played all his late-round matches under sunlight, and then no one would even think to compare Federer or Sampras to the peerless Swede.

Anonymous said...

With all this tak of Bradman, I clean forgot to mention the outstanding figure of CB Fry. Champion cricketer, world record holder in the long jump, footballer and rugger player. Not to mention, teacher, writer, broadcaster and politician ('In 1934, he met Adolf Hitler and was mesmerised by him. He failed to persuade von Ribbentrop that Nazi Germany should take up cricket to Test level...')

Anonymous said...

Rocky Marciano went 49-0 and knocked out some of the best heavyweights of all time (Joe Louis, Joe Walcott, Ezzard Charles).

It is not easy to go undefeated in any sport. In fact, it is undeard of in boxing at the top levels. Ali, Dempsey, Tyson, Duran, Robinson ... all had at least a few losses.

Truth said...

He was not the greatest, but people seem to have forgotten about Rusty LaRue, who played all three major sports concurrently, a few years ago at Wake Forrest. He started on all three teams made all ACC in all three sports and graduated on time. In addition he had a cup of coffee with the Chicago Bulls.

Anonymous said...

Another fellow who needs to be mentioned is Bob Hayes - multiple world records [and Olympic golds] in track & field [at all sorts of distances], twice exceeded 1000 yards receiving in the NFL, and, towards the end of his career, was still a significant factor in the 1971 Cowboys' championship season.

Sadly, though, like OJ, he had his share of problems with the law.

Bob Hayes

Bob Hayes

The Greatest 100m Runner of All Time

shade said...

Then there's Jim Brown. Arguably the greatest football player ever. Likely the greatest lacrosse player ever. Multiple year starter on the basketball team at Syracuse, where he also lettered in track. And a star high school baseball player as well. He'd be my pick.