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Halftime Thoughts: Does the Greatest Athlete of All Time exist?

Over the years, many have been lucky enough to witness the beauty of sports. It is an avenue wherein people can be brought together, whether it is in supporting a specific team, country, city or in moments where fans show disappointment toward an ideal that people should not stand for, a sport has a huge platform that allows many people to debate their opinion regarding games, the abilities of players, and events that show injustice within the community—generally, anything within the spectrum of the sport itself. And a constant debate that is part of every sport would be: Who is the Greatest Athlete of All Time (GOAT)? 

Greatness beyond talent

Amid all the discussions, headlines, promotional material, and history lies the face of the sport—someone who represents the sport because of his or her greatness alone, who has taken over the stage of its respective community. The first thing that comes to mind when fans think of a GOAT-worthy athlete would be success in general. Whether it is historical records, games won, championships, or moments that are ingrained in every fan’s memory forever, these major factors are what athletes should have in order to reach the highly touted status. Fans that lived through the era of these athletes are lucky enough to have been able to witness their greatness.

Whenever there is a young and emerging athlete, fans of the sport often critique the athlete’s raw ability, whether it is athleticism, an elite swing, elite shotmaking, or passing. Basically, the ability to perform these fundamentals of the sport are enough for an individual to be classified as a talented athlete. It is fair to say that every professional athlete can be considered talented, mainly because of their capability of playing in the big leagues and earning money through the sport. Yet, what is the difference between talent and greatness?

What really proves that an athlete can be considered as the greatest would be their legacy. People can only see the full extent of an athlete’s greatness during the tail end of their career. This is when we have the luxury to assess questions like: How good of a leader was this athlete? How did the sport change? How did they achieve glory? Why do people want to be like them? These athletes are deemed worthy if they maintain an influence on players and fans of the sport, an influence that reaches well after their time of playing—something that truly cements the athlete’s legacy as an all-time great. Factors like hard work, competitiveness, leadership, influence—these are outside an athlete’s skill and ability. It is safe to say that greatness is well beyond talent; it is something that an athlete summons within.

Unique on their own

Recently, Tom Brady won his seventh Super Bowl, more than any other player in the league’s history, while also eclipsing total championships won by any team in the NFL. Once again, this sparked the debate on the greatest athlete of all time. Not just in one sport, but above all sports. Determining the greatest athlete of a sport is a debate not yet resolved for many. There isHamilton vs Schumacher, Lebron vs MJ, Nadal vs Federer, Messi vs Ronaldo, and many more. Deciding on who the greatest athlete is highly subjective and complicated. Every sport has different mechanics, fundamentals, and impact, thus there are sports that require an athlete to excel on its own or with a team. Each sport has its own community, and a debate like this would result in clashes among backgrounds of different sports. Championships are also won differently, either from a local or international stage. The makeup of tournaments across different sports varies as well.

Sports are highly involved with culture. For example, basketball is one of the most popular sports in the Philippines—making it a topic of discussion every day in the country, as many Filipinos are fans of the sport. The United States has its major sports like baseball, basketball, American Football. Europe on the other hand, just like South America and Africa are avid fans of football. Different parts of the world differ in their sport of interest. 

To answer the question, ‘Who is the greatest athlete of all time?’ No one is. Aside from the factor of influence, an all-time great of a particular sport surely cannot do the same thing in other sports. It is impossible to compare Tiger Woods’ golf swing to Michael Jordan’s gravity-defying ability. For instance, Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps are labeled as the greatest because of world records that defy time—a determinant that is highly different from greats of other sports. Others would argue that championship success is the major and primary reason why an athlete could rise above all sports. However, various championships from different tournaments weigh differently. Surely, Serena Williams’ Grand Slam titles are won differently from Tom Brady’s Super Bowls. This discussion could be different if there is solely one athlete whose greatness is influential above all athletes around the world.

It is as if determining the greatest athlete of all time would merit a comparison on which sport is better or best, comparing on how difficult or demanding a sport would be. This is unfair knowing that each sport is unique on its own, and that these all-time great athletes excel differently. Healthy discussions on who the greatest athlete of a sport fuels the community—allowing the fans to create a bond with one another. But a debate that puts an individual above all sports is not possible. All we can do is appreciate the sports that we love—knowing that above all else, a sport has the ability to positively impact and bring people together.

By Miguel Robles

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