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?
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.
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: