World’s Greatest Athlete. Greatest athlete of all-time. It sounds like a simple enough concept. But the more you think about it the more convoluted the idea can become. How do you properly compare athletes from different eras? Can you compare across sports? It’s so subjective a topic it may seem fruitless to try. And yet we do. With our culture’s ever-increasing fascination with sport, how can you not?! ESPN has an army of full-time analysts. NBA game attendance hit an all-time record. American High School participation for both boys and girls hit records this year. Fantasy football is just bonkers (over 33 million people play a year, dissecting athlete ability and potential in detailed minutiae). Athlete salaries are higher than ever. Sport leagues and expansion teams are popping up everywhere. So, yes, let’s debate the “best” and embolden the asterisk…
If you try to look at pure natural ability you may land on Bo Jackson or Jim Thorpe. If you value the mental aspect and clutch play you’re likely to conclude “His Airness” Michael Jordan. But should you favor the best from the world’s most popular sport, ie Pele (or recent Champions League goal record holder, Cristiano Ronaldo)? What about those whose play “changed the face of the game” like a Wayne Gretsky or a Tiger Woods? How can you not emphasize long-term dominance over the competition (Aleksandr Karelin or Serena Williams)? And then do you need to factor in their team, their coaches, training methods, diet, make injury considerations? What about the greatest in sports that aren’t widely-followed like water polo?
Even within one sport it seems you can’t be really be definitive. With LeBron’s mix of power, size, speed and finesse, will he be considered better than Michael? If Dez Bryant stays healthy, will we be comparing him to Jerry Rice or Randy Moss?
Factoring in stats, records, titles and even, the oft-mentioned “eye test” this task is truly daunting.
I’m going to admit something to you now. I actually already know who it is.
I believe we do, in fact, have one best, if not perfect, method. We can never expect all athletes to be able to toe the same line, sure. But there is one gauge for comparison of athletic ability that is:
It is… Track & Field’s decathlon.
Connecting 10 events that include multiple iterations of running, jumping, and throwing (back-to-back over two days to incorporate stamina) can’t be topped as a singular measurement of overall athleticism and athletic versatility. The 100 meter dash measures speed and reaction time. The 110 hurdles adds flexibility, timing and acceleration. The 400 showcases sustained speed. The 1500 requires endurance. Then there is vertical jumping, horizontal jumping, and vaulting. Then strength comes to play with overhand throwing (javelin), rotational throwing (discus) and pushing a 16-pound ball (shot put). And each of these events have been known and contested at the international level world-wide for well over 100 years.
As far back as 1912, the decathlon gold medalist has been called the “World’s Greatest Athlete”. But not everyone is willing to say it.
The biggest argument detractors have for calling a decathlon champion “the world’s greatest athlete” is that they are not “great” in any one event. Decathlon success, by design, highlights versatility. Even though they are miles ahead of regular athletes in the cumulative of all 10, compared to their peers, they are a jack of all trades, master of none. I don’t agree with the argument but at least I understand it.
Now enter on the scene, Ashton Eaton.
The decathlon at a World Championship has been won by sprinters who can throw (Dan O’Brien), by throwers who can jump (Brian Clay), and by jumpers who can throw (Roman Šebrle).
But never before this decade have we seen a decathlete so elite in so many different events. Track fans are used to some overlapping event success in the sprints and long jump. The key aspect of success in each is acceleration and speed. Carl Lewis demonstrated this best in the 80s, adding LJ medals to his sprint medal count with regularity.
But with Eaton we are seeing this event versatility on a whole new level.
Consider that, before Eaton, rarely has a decathlete been able to compete with elite individuals in ANY single track & field event.
Eaton can compete with the best in FOUR. He has marks better than the 2016 Rio Olympic qualifying standard in each of these events:
In contrast, World champion, Olympic champion and previous world record holder, Roman Šebrle, can boast zero. None of Šebrle’s event PRs would take him to an Olympics outside of decathlon.
To add more fuel to the fire, Eaton has won track meets in the pole vault and his 100m time would rank him at or near the top of any country in the world outside the USA and Jamaica.
Early in his career Eaton was winning heptathlons and decathlons with good individual event marks but, in his relentless pursuit of improvement and excellence, he has transcended simple athletic versatility and moved into a wholesale, widespread athletic greatness un-catalogued until now.
Eaton holds World Decathlon Bests (world records for events done within a decathlon) for three of the 10 events. No other athlete has more than one. Only thrice has a decathlon performance broken the 9,000 point barrier. He has two of them.
To put his feats in even greater context, Eaton has also proven that he can beat his competition in all conditions: He holds the world record for the men’s heptathlon, held in the calm of an indoor stadium. And his two world record-setting decathlons came in the rain of Eugene, Oregon and the searing heat of Beijing in August.
He has shown he shines in high stakes competitions too, setting his two world records in an Olympic Trials and a World Championships, while many track athletes set their PRs at lower stakes invitational meets.
To top it all off, he’s beginning to log a consistent longevity in the sport as well, winning his first NCAA decathlon title in 2008 and successively adding two more NCAA titles, followed by two World Indoor Championship Heptathlon titles, two World Championship titles, and a gold in his first Olympic Games.
Nike does a nice job highlighting Eaton’s training and mindset for decathlon training with this video that poses the question “Is Ashton Eaton the world’s most versatile athlete”?
Oh he’s that and a lot more, friends.
We are witnessing a new era of Great. Overall athletic greatness is being redefined. Eaton is the all-time greatest of all-time’s greatest athletes. And he is dominating his competition in an era of unprecedented global access to sport (ie more competition than ever).
For comparison’s sake, you can’t overlook that early athletes did not have the training methods, diet, coaching and full-time dedication today’s athletes have. But at least with Eaton we are witnessing the combination of supreme natural ability and unmatched dedication to training. The result is in front of us to enjoy. We should marvel at what is taking place. LeBron should give his Witness T-shirt to this guy.
Ashton Eaton is not only winning with utter dominance but he is winning with class, fairness in the true spirit of competition.
His interviews are legendary for their “aw shucks, I don’t know” humility. But look at how he runs the 400 meters in the Beijing WC:
Every competitor is running the final turn on the very inside of their lane, their feet striking and inch or two from the lane line. Eaton, in eye-popping contrast, runs in the dead center of his lane. Pumping his arms and legs with grit but in metronome-like precision he breaks the decathlon 400 world best by a whopping .68 of a second. Not only will I beat you but I will do so in the fairest way possible.
On a personal note, I believe Ashton Eaton, just by doing what he does, makes for a fantastic story of racial equality: The greatest athlete the world has produced is a mix of races. Hitler may have disliked him more than Jesse Owens…
I count myself lucky to be a track fan in this generation, able to watch Greatness on display before my very eyes. Thank you Ashton for showing us what is possible and doing it better than anyone else. As Ashton says, “Endeavor. Always.”
So who is noticing (and truly appreciating) outside the arena of track & field? Please, world, take notice. Greatness is among us.