Sports’ Great GOAT Debate
by JA Allen
As mere mortals we are often humbled and humiliated by our own inertia—our inability to rise up off the couch and take matters into our own hands. This may explain why the sports arena appeals so broadly and so intensely to the masses—we wretched souls interred in stained t-shirts with drive-through convictions.
Those we watch and revere move forward, act bravely and overcome stiff resistance. We admire the sheer will that propels them to the finish line—a place that often eludes us.
A very few of these athletes whose lives we covet inspire us, take away our collective breath and bend us toward worship.
These gifted athletes create a vivid visual work of art—a kinetic canvas in motion. In perfect rhythm they flow effortlessly from one posture to another. They exude a luscious liquidity beneath potent power—all with perfect poise and purpose.
Often they may appear to defy natural laws like gravity and dimensional depth. Watching them, your senses beg for the action to slow because the human eye is incapable of recording the speed of their reaction time.
In that case you may be left wondering…what did I just see?
Sometimes it takes a slow motion replay to document the subtle details of their perfect timing.
They possess an innate ability to see more—their vision extending beyond obvious focal points to the larger field of play…the big picture is in focus at all times.
Exhibiting early prowess, these rare specimens absorb the fine points and recognized boundaries of their respective sports. Ultimately they will explode these limits and alter the landscape of the sport they play.
There are four athletes who exemplify these rare characteristics and more. During my lifetime I have been allowed to witness their brilliance.
Carl Lewis sprinting or Carl Lewis leaping was a true miracle of precision, power, and speed. He won 10 Olympic Medals, nine of them gold. His career spanned from 1979 through 1996. He still holds a world record for the indoor long jump set in 1984, 8.79 meters.
I admit that I am enamored of track athletes. Is there anything more aesthetically pleasing than a perfect baton pass in a sprint relay as the next runner explodes into the lead at mind-numbing speed, leaning into the curve, every part of his body in motion except his head which remains perfectly steady, eyes fixed on the next exchange or the finish line.
Carl Lewis did it better than anyone and he made it look so easy, by far the greatest track athlete of the twentieth century.
I have never been a true fan of professional football. I have watched a great many games without really caring who won. But there was a team I did follow closely—the Chicago Bears in the mid 80s. Mike Ditka’s 1985 Super Bowl Team was also the best pro football team of all time, all because of Walter Payton and a vaunted Bear defense!
His nickname was “Sweetness” and I think it was a reflection of his moves—so sweet it made your mouth water. Watching Walter Payton run was also a thing of beauty. His power and determination in contrast to his off-field demeanor may have lulled his competition into a sense of containment.
But Sweetness could sidestep, kick step, stop and start on a dime, twist and turn, making the defense miss tackles as he turned up field and out ran the competition…and he made it look effortless. He is the forerunner of all great running backs…and certainly the best I’ve ever seen.
The windy city also served as a welcome mat to another pro athlete who played basketball. Well, we mortals play basketball and Michael Jordan played something else. His court presence required a bigger stage than anyone could build.
Jordan could suspend himself mid-air on the way to the basket. Hanging, he could alter his shot and even switch hands, often leaving his opponent awestruck and flat-footed. He could fly from the free throw line to the hoop and slam dunk the ball…and for him it was as simple as breathing.
Michael Jordan was the Chicago Bulls—the greatest pro-basketball franchise in the history of the game.
With a forehand that David Foster Wallace described as a “liquid whip,” Roger Federer has impressed the sporting world with his immense talent on the tennis court. His impeccable timing, incredible foot speed and versatile shot arsenal give him immense power while his elegant movement along the baseline and smooth net coverage elevate his play to artistry.
Like Jordan he appears to fly, to skim the surface and soar. He dances as Payton did always balanced and ready to move in any direction, stopping and starting, changing directions as the need arises.
Like Lewis, Federer has explosive speed and reaction time. He does it all with such ease and grace that it appears like he is hardly moving.
The debate here has ended for me—Federer is the greatest athlete ever to play the game of tennis.
There are taboo topics you should avoid discussing with people you like as well as those who control your economic destiny. The most compelling of these is the great GOAT debate—Greatest of All-Time, for the uninitiated.
If you elect to enter into one of these mind-numbing discussions it is possible to subdivide your suicide into specific sports, eras and personalities.
Disagreements on this verboten issue will surely marginalize marriages, frazzle friendships, and indeed may cast you down amongst the sodden caste of those on the brink of bankruptcy.
I tell you with all honesty that it is a pointless debate—but then most are. I will put up my four fantasy guys against yours any day and we will rail until the end of time. In the end you will walk away with your entourage intact and I’ll tuck mine away for another day or until I die—whichever comes first!