Who is the Best Athlete in The World?

I have heard many arguments about who is the world’s best athlete. To be honest, most of them are completely idiotic. But let’s face it, if you ask a stupid question you get a stupid answer. And that’s what I have done here, because I enjoy the occasional bar room debate.

So I am putting forth a detailed analysis of this issue in a multi part series. If you read to the end of it, you will probably experience moments of agreement, moments of disagreement, moments of violent disagreement, and maybe even startling insight. Maybe you will curse yourself for having wasted time on a pointless exercise. So read at your own risk. Here is part one of my case for the greatest athlete in the world.

Best athlete defined

So how do we choose who is the best athlete? First of all, I’m not even sure that “athlete” is the word I’m looking for. What I really want is the person with the most impressive movement. In other words, if this blog is about “better movement”, then I’m looking for the person with the best movement.

But there is no definition in the dictionary for “best movement”, so let’s go back to “athlete.” Athlete is generally defined as someone who excels at sports because they are possessed of four major “S” qualities: Strength, Speed, Stamina, and Skill. All athletes have some combination of these qualities, but in different mixes and proportions. How do we weigh them to determine who is the most athletic?

Skill rules  

Here’s a rough way to look at our four “S” qualities in relation to each other: Strength is how much force you can produce, speed is how fast you can produce it, stamina is how long you can produce it, and skill is how intelligently you can direct the forces into the environment to do useful work, solve motor problems and achieve goals.

From this perspective, it seems to me that the fourth quality, skill, is the most interesting, and I will therefore give it special consideration over the other three.

That is not to say that I am unimpressed by people who are strong, fast and fit. My idea of a top athlete certainly involves all these qualities in abundance. However, these are only the crude building blocks of athleticism. The intelligent expression of these qualities is what I find truly admirable about an athlete. Strength or fitness without the skill to use it intelligently is no more impressive than great height or size. So for me the greatest athlete must be one with supreme movement intelligence, someone who can legitimately be called a genius of their sport.

Now that I have decided that skill or movement intelligence is the most important quality of a great athlete, let’s look in more detail at what that means. To do this I will rely on an excellent book by Nikolai Bernstein called Dexterity and its Development.

Movement Intelligence

Bernstein looks at the control of movement from an evolutionary perspective. Survival of the fittest is often a question of who eats and who gets eaten, which is often determined by who has the best movement. The contest is not always won by strength and speed, although that helps. Brains or dexterity often win out over brute force. Bernstein defines dexterity as the ability to correctly solve motor problems as they arise, including unexpected problems. For example, insects have excellent power but poor dexterity. They can jump many times their height, or carry objects many times their weight. But if they roll onto their back they might not have the movement resourcefulness to recover. They are lacking in “motor wits.”

Part of what makes animals more dexterous is their ability to control more degrees of freedom in movement. Insects have very constrained and stereotyped movements that can be controlled by very simple robotic algorithms. Mammals have far more degrees of freedom in their movement, which takes far more brain power to control, but offers huge advantages in the ability to respond to unexpected motor challenges.

Imagine riding a tricycle compared to a bicycle. The bicycle has more degrees of freedom and is therefore harder to control. But once you gain control, the movement possibilities make it a far more potent tool than the tricycle. As we evolved from reptiles to mammals to primates and humans, each step involved gaining more degrees of freedom in movement, more brain power to control them, and more potential mastery of the environment as a result. You can easily visualize the difference by comparing the stereotyped robotic movements of a reptile to the graceful intelligence of a chimp’s hand.

Humans are at the top of the evolutionary heap, owning the best brains and the best movement. We tend to think of ourselves as inferior movers in the animal kingdom, but in terms of dexterity we are the most accomplished. Although many animals can run faster, jump higher, move with more beauty, none can solve as many motor problems as a human. The famous biologist J.B.S. Haldane noted that: “No other animal can swim a mile, walk twenty miles, and then climb forty feet up a tree. Many civilized men can do this without much difficulty.”

And Haldane left out a hundred thousand other amazing human physical accomplishments in sport, dance, music and art. Just browse through Youtube for a while and discover a million human physical skills that you never would have believed until you saw them in action. By contrast, the movements of animals have far less variety. Sure many of their movements are beautiful and perfect in their own way, but compared to humans, they are lacking in the “motor wits” that Bernstein called dexterity, and that I call the most important quality for my world’s best athlete.

And that’s it for part one of this series. Stay tuned for more in part two. Any guesses on who will win?

Oh, and before we get to the winner, here’s a good example of mastering the degrees of freedom available on a bike:

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52 Responses to Who is the Best Athlete in The World?

  1. Strength, Speed, Stamina, and Skill: Decathletes come to mind, but I hope tennis players get some love as having a good balance of all 4.

    • Hi John,

      I will discuss both tennis players and decathletes in the next post. Preview – Decathletes don’t need much “dexterity” under Bernstein’s definition. Tennis players need more.

  2. There are definitely some candidates from the world of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu: Marcelo Garcia, Andre Galvao, Caio Terra. In their matches, they all display an incredible movement intelligence.

  3. If older/retired athletes are included, I’ll say Barry Sanders. Current athlete is a tougher choice: maybe someone like Darrelle Revis. They fit well into your definition: ridiculous agility, quick adaptation to unexpected physical situations, nice top speed and strength.

    “…how fast you can produce it [force],” sounds *closer* to quickness or power. A jerk for instance requires lots of force in short time, but the angular speed around the joints isn’t *that* high because the force is applied against so much weight.

    I personally see stamina as a non-athletic, but related quality–good stamina helps keep up one’s athleticism. With that in mind, there are many famous “athletes” from weightlifting, but the sport doesn’t normally require dealing with unexpected physical situations. I have to say that watching Kakhi Kakhiashvili snatch is amazing though.

  4. I read an article years ago, using a similar argument, “proving” Danny Ainge was a better athlete than Michael Jordan.

  5. …One thing to add: strength is tricky because of its specificity and its relation to body weight, while the other qualities intrinsically factor in body weight. Quickness and dexterity are probably more “general.”

  6. Very excited to see your follow-up posts on this Todd. I have no guesses on what you’ll propose, but I am partial to unchoreographed improvisational work between two or more human beings.

    You defined skill as “how intelligently you can direct the forces into the environment to do useful work, solve motor problems and achieve goals.”

    I think martial arts fits into this category quite nicely, particularly those that emphasize creative and unconstrained movement, work against multiple opponents, and no competition (they tend to focus on more practical application and therefore increase the number of uncontrolled variables such as clothing, terrain, changes in distance and leverage due to weapons etc.).

  7. Some of the greatest athletes out there are the extreme sport endurance people who you never hear about unless they have a marketing machine behind them. An example would be people involved at the cutting edge of alpinism.

  8. Thanks for the comments everyone. I can’t respond to most without giving away part two, but I will say this. If you make a specific suggestion I may address it in the next post. And many of you are making suggestions that are completely at odds with the criteria I have set forth so far!

  9. How about crossfit games champions? I know everyone hates crossfit, but I think the crossfit games is a great test.

      • As an ex crossfitter I have to agree. Crossfit requires minimal dexterity and only very basic skills. It also requires no improvisation. As I got better at Crossfit, I watched my fine motor control and agility decrease because there were no such elements in training.

  10. Camooonn… Football (Soccerr) players, please, Lionel Messi, best playerr in the world today, watch him on the field, he is just unbelieveble the skills, stamina, speed and strength he has. Hard to match. Solving situations constantly with a ball in his feet. Staamina to finish 90 minutes matches as if nothing happened, and to play again 4 days after. Speed too run and understand each situation, Skill to drible with the ball the whole defense without beein touched, strength to hit the ball as he does.

    No question for me!! Football players

  11. I feel like a lot of great athletes come from the field of capoeira.
    I feel like a great athlete also needs to work well under pressure (as in a fight or in a competition). Coordination, proprioception and kinesthetics, the ability to adapt other sports plus being able to move in a constant physical dialogue is a few things that come to mind when I think about good capoeiristas.

  12. I would have to agree with Austin. Soccer players have to have the stamina to run up and down a soccer field for 90 mins and the speed to run past defenders and the skill to dribble a ball with their feet avoiding players. Also the skills to find a teammate or the stength and skill to kick a ball past the goaltender. But as far as best in the world I’d have to say either Cristian Ronaldo or Wayne Rooney

  13. I vote ice hockey players. Strength/power, skill (stick handling/shooting), agility, stamina and have to try and still not get your head knocked off.

    I’m biased btw.

  14. I second Mike OD with the hockey vote. Strength, speed, power, agility. Your balancing on 1/2inch thick blades while skating backwards-forwards-cross stepping in traffic for 90 second bursts. While doing this with the lower half of your body you have to control a puck with your head up so you don’t get it knocked off your shoulders by another player trying to seperate you from the puck.

  15. Have you considered the Irish Sport Hurling. Plenty of videos on YouTube have a look and see what you think. There could be a very strong argument that it requires more skill, speed, stamina and strength than many of the other sports considered. Would be interesting to hear people’s thoughts. Cheers Ste

    • Thanks Stephen I will take a look! Sound every interesting and I’m sure its a greta game. (But my next major exclusionary criteria will eliminate it sight unseen.)

  16. I have to say soccer players!! They have to run for 90 minutes a game and other cases 120 minutes!! Watch Lionel messi i think he is the best athlete in the world!! He has an increible speed!!! skill!! dribble!! And he is a genius playing soccer!! Im a soccer player and let me tell you is not easy to run 90 minutes a game two times a week!!! if we include practice!! i’ll say we live running all times!!

  17. I’m sorry but the best athlete must not only be strong and hard working but must also have the correct mind-set and be able to be a great role model. For me I’d have to say Micheal Phelps is the best athlete in the world, think about it swimmers work all the muscles in their body at once, Phelps has given each and every young swimmer at the natatorium I go to someone to look up to, he’s never done stupid stuff(drugs, steroids). Plus, he has 18 gold medals, 2 silver, and 2 bronze. I don’t think we’ll ever see that happen again, if it were anyone else it would be Micheal Jordan.

    • Also, I’m in the top level I can be in at my age and I practice 9hours and 45minutes a week that’s only one practice a day while when I get to high school I’ll have 2 to 3 practices a day plus Saturdays! We have no social life, but if you meet one you’ll think he/she is the craziest person alive. Try to steer clear.

  18. how about donald bradmanfrom australia, who was, on a measure of 0 to 100 scored at batting at 100 compared to the other all-time cricket batters who were grouped near 60? died in 2001 at 94. hasn’t ever been matched.

    i’m excerpting from “linchpin”, by seth gordon,published in 2010.

    • Hi Bonnie,

      I will admit I don’t know much about cricket. But I’m guessing batting is pretty much standing in place and hitting a ball like in baseball. By my criteria, that is not using all of your motor intelligence, because it does not involve much of what Bernstein called level B – locomotive skills are not tested much. And there are not major elements of field vision, team work, improv or creativity. Plus, cricket is a small pond. And, forgive my Americanness, but is cricket actually a sport? :)

      (Sorry about that.)

  19. hitting a baseball is the hardest skill in sport. for greatest athletes decathletes triathletes, biathletes,pole vaulters,cross country skiers, road cyclists

    • Hi Leo,

      Hitting a baseball is obviously tough and takes a lot of practice, but so does many other sporting skills. The idea that hitting a baseball is the hardest skill in sport is pure cliche and doesn’t hold up to any scrutiny. Pro players put the ball in play at more than half their at bats and get hits almost three times out of ten. There are an unlimited number of sporting accomplishments that are statistically less likely, like hitting a half court shot in basketball, running a kick back in football, getting a hole in one in golf, or scoring a hatrick in a soccer game.

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