Editor's Opinion

Thursday, June 26, 2003

Best athlete in the world

Who is the greatest athlete in the world? Asking that question is a good way to end up in a brawl at the local pub, and it's unlikely you'll ever get a clear answer. Is a runner more athletic that a swimmer, is the power of a weight-lifter more impressive than the agility of a basketball player?

The magazine Men's Journal set out to name the definitive Top 10 Best Athletes in the World, turning to a panel that included ex-Olympians, TV sports anchors, orthopedic and sports physiology experts, writers and statisticians.

According to the experts then, the best athlete in the world today is...

Michael Vick. A football player. There's an accompanying revealing photo, complete with tattoos and protruding belly-button. Indeed, he's quick, strong, and can throw a football 80 yards. But is he the best athlete in the world?

The Top 10 list is bristling with Guys You Never Heard Of - a downhill skier at number 2, a Brazil soccer player at number 3, a skateboarder at number 4, a gymnast at number 5.

There are no baseball players on the list, no boxers, no tennis players or track athletes. No triathletes! Just one basketball player, Kevin Garnett, at 6, followed by a water polo guy, a biathlete (skiing and shooting) and a swimmer.

Not a single woman on the list, or even among 10 honorable mentions. No Venus and Serena Williams, no Anika Sorenson.

You might wonder where Barry Bonds is - by recognition and pay, he's near the top of any list. On such criteria, you might also expect Michael Jordan, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Shaquille O'Neal.

How are you going to define "athlete?"

I wonder how anyone could make a list and leave off Lance Armstrong, the top cyclist ever, with his speed, strength, incredible endurance and ability to outrun even cancer. He's near the top of my list.

How about Andre Agassi, who at an advanced age has reclaimed the number one ranking in world tennis this month? Try playing a four-hour tennis match and see if it takes an athlete.

Why not Tiger Woods - who has dominated his sport as none other?

And where is Khalid Khannounchi, America's new world record holder in the marathon at two hours and five seconds? That's 26 consecutive 4:46 miles, folks.

Roman Seberle, the world record holder in the 10-event track and field decathlon, only made number 8 on the list, beaten out by a friggin' skateboard rider.

You could make a great case for ISU's own Cale Sanderson, the best college wrestler ever, with a win streak that may never be matched. He didn't even get a mention.

Or how about the U of I's Tim Dwight, an NFL standout, track champion and competitive surfer all in one?

Edwin Roth, a German who ran in the Marathon to Marathon here last weekend, has run a 26.2 mile race in each of the 50 states, and once ran a 100-mile race in 20 hours. Tom Briggs, age 70, finished the local marathon as well, and is a hero for all of us aging weekend warriors.

You might try going out to watch the local Latino soccer league players at the Field of Dreams, who combine agility with the stamina to run non-stop for an entire game. I love the orchestrated mayhem of The Albatross, the local rugby club with impressive speed, bone-jarring violence and occasional ballet-like innovation - all without time-outs.

My list would be a little different than Men's Journal. But honestly, I don't think any of the famous sports jock deserves the title of Best Athlete in the World.

I'm giving it to the moms.

That's right, you heard me.

Try getting two kids to soccer games at the same time in different towns, two more to Little League practice, which of course takes place on different fields on opposite sides of town, and somehow also being there to cheer on the littlest at swim team.

The stress would reduce a Michael Vick or a Kevin Garnett to a quivering, sobbing mound.

Of course, she simultaneously is expected to work church bingo night, get the grass stains out of all those kid uniforms, treat any bruises and cuts, cook a gourmet meal at exactly 5 o'clock, paint the bedroom, stop at the library, clean out the cat box, drop off the husband's forgotten briefcase, wash the minivan, bake cookies for a sleep-over, keep her abs tight, balance the checkbook, mow the lawn, have her hair looking perfect and her nails polished. That's just before noon.

She must have the power to carry a T-baller with a sprained ankle all the way across the dusty parking lot of the Field of Dreams. The agility to climb the stands next to the pool while wearing a skirt and heels for work. The eye-hand coordination to lace a youth-size soccer cleat in 10 seconds while the coach paces back and forth. The speed to go from playing a round of golf at the muni with the husband's business associates to delivering a mop-head to the Hawkeye Hoops camp at BVU in under 10 minutes flat. And the all-day endurance to make a triathlon look like a piece of cake, and still have enough left over to deliver a backrub because he's tired.

And she does it every day, without trophies, endorsement checks, halls of fame, or Men's Journal.

We don't often think of our moms as athletes, but I would venture to guess that every athlete on the Top 10 list got there because a Mom got him to the games, kept his uniform clean, and was there to comfort and cheer, win or lose.

- Dana Larsen is the editor of the Storm Lake Pilot-Tribune.