I am certain that this column will spark debates during dinner, provide conversation fodder for those long fall walks to class and perhaps even cut into time normally reserved for academic pursuits. My topic – which sport has the best athletes?
Now, the question isn’t really about individual athletes as much as it is about the nature of the sports in which they compete. Take Roger Federer. Obviously an incredible tennis player, he is wickedly fast, a genius on the court and regularly cracks forehands at over 100 miles per hour. But the sport of tennis just doesn’t have the sheer physicality of a game like rugby. Federer, precisely because he plays tennis, doesn’t require the same strength or high pain threshold that rugby players require. It is just the nature of the game.
There are what I call the “extra-athletic factors” of certain sports to take into account. Some sports are simply harder to succeed in than others. In other words, the popularity of any given sport essentially determines difficulty. For example, more people play soccer than the Mongolian equestrian sport buzkashi in which the possession of a headless goat is disputed…seriously. Therefore, the best soccer player has to be the biggest fish in a much larger pond than the best buzkashi athlete.
Furthermore, in my mind, the best athletes must overcome mental as well as physical challenges while competing. Again, popularity determines this “extra-athletic factor.” With popularity comes fame, with fame comes reputation and with reputation comes expectations. All those factors create extreme pressure for athletes. The best athletes come from sports which have, at the very least, pockets of dedicated fans around the world. So athletes from sports uniquely popular in America – like football and NASCAR – cannot be considered the best athletes.
Starting from there, I have added my own metrics in an attempt to answer my original question. First, an athlete cannot feasibly smoke or drink during competition sorry golfers, bowlers, professional eaters…. Second, there needs to be a ball, puck or shuttlecock involved. It, along with the pressure of knowing opponents will contest your possession of aforementioned item, adds another layer of a sport an athlete must master. Third, time spent on the bench must be kept to a minimum. All these lead up to my final decision. In my own humble opinion, boxing produces the best athletes.
“But wait, Andy! Doesn’t that choice go against your second qualification that you made just four sentences ago?”
There’s no way around it. Yes it does. But, in boxing, possession of consciousness is just as important as possession of a ball. The pressure that possession of a ball poses remains, amplified by the risk of physical harm. Boxers require great strength, endurance, hand-eye coordination, toughness, reflexes and flexibility. Additionally, combat sports are extremely popular around the globe. The weight of your physical condition, mental stresses and possibility of harm all make boxers the very best athletes on the planet.
So, there’s my two cents. The question which haunts all sporting minds has finally been laid to rest. Then again, soccer players do swim in the biggest sport’s pond, and it has a proper ball to contest.
Maybe the question won’t rest after all.
Graphic credit: ALLI LIVINGSTON/MANITOU MESSENGER