When you title a blog post, you’re supposed to make it as specific as possible – unlike necessarily a print headline – to draw attention to it. But I figure few titles are more intriguing than “the greatest.” Who is “the greatest”? The title is associated with Muhammad Ali, but really fans in every sport like to argue over who is the GOAT (greatest of all time) in their discipline.
You could say Michael Phelps is the greatest swimmer of all time and the greatest Olympian of all time with 28 medals, 23 gold – six of them (five gold, one silver) in Rio alone. You could say the New York Yankees are the greatest baseball team of all time with 18 division titles, 40 American League pennants and 27 World Series titles. Both Phelps and the Yankees are so far ahead of their competitors that it’s hard to imagine anyone catching up.
But elsewhere the greatest title is troublesome. Why is Roger Federer – who is off the tour, recovering from injuries the rest of the year – the greatest male tennis player of all time? Has time ended? Did someone die and anoint his fans judge and jury? His 17 Slam titles – the standard on which his GOAT status rests – can certainly be transcended. Rafael Nadal has 14; Novak Djokovic, 12. Neither is done at ages 30 and 29 respectively.
Similarly, I thought it was in poor taste for NBC to ask American gymnast Simone Biles what it’s like to be the greatest of all time in the presence of teammate Gabby Douglas, who like Biles, won gold in the all-around (Douglas in London four years ago, Biles in Rio). Nothing against Biles. All praise to her for a dominating performance in Rio. But there is a particular cruelty in the way fans and the media discard yesterday’s – sometimes literally yesterday’s – stars as if they were the rag dolls of some capricious child. Douglas is even getting internet hate for her hair (again, really?) and not putting her hand over her heart on the medal stand as “The Star-Spangled Banner” played. Seriously? You know what? Enough.
Who knows what gymnastics will look like in four years? Biles might find herself eclipsed by someone younger, stronger, faster, better. “Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace” is a mediocre movie, but it contains one of the truest lines: “Well, there’s always a bigger fish.”
Remember Russian gymnast Olga Korbut? She was the pixied darling until Nadia Comenici – she of the perfect 10s – came along at the Montreal Olympics in 1976. Forty years later, Comaneci is taking the long view.
“Simone is an amazing Olympic champion and I am a big fan,” she told USA TODAY Sports. “However, only time will tell if she will become the greatest of all time.”
Yes, time, the greatest competitor.
In the meantime, anything wrong with the title “the greatest to date”?