As discussion has shown, selecting the “Greatest Of All Time” is a rather daunting task. This sport has been blessed to have a plethora of outstanding athletes – and sorting out their careers is difficult at best. As I went through the process there were four areas that I deemed as important.
1) Head to head competition against one’s peers. Especially those who were also at the top during their era of competition. 2) Major championships, because in this sport it is the only guaranteed location where one will encounter the absolute “best” athletes in competition. 3) World records - not so much in terms of “how many” but in terms of how you shaped your event, moved it forward, and/or left a lasting legacy. and 4) Longevity – were you dominant for both the majority of your career and over a lengthy period of time. Or was your glory viewed through just a small window of time.
So, using that as my guide, I came up with my Top Ten. Following are another foursome that just missed out. Obviously they had outstanding careers, but were missing a little something.
Victor Sanyev – Triple Jump
Victor was perhaps the most competitive triple jumper of all time. He won three straight Olympic titles and won silver the fourth time. He also set three world records. Two of his records, however, were set in Mexico City where three men set five records in a single competition. He just missed my list because while he won the three titles and a silver his dominance was primarily in the big meet, and he operated in a system (the old USSR) where the focus was championships and the years in between were preparation – some years simply being “rest” periods. With others like Carl Lewis and Al Oerter taking four Games in a row while competing hard in between, I felt that Victor should have won that fourth Games in order to earn a spot in the top 10. He still makes my top 14 though.
Hicham El Guerrouj – 1500 meters
Hicham was dominant over both the mile and 1500 from around 1997 through 2004. During that time he set a WR in the mile and a WR over 1500 – both of which still stand – and ran a plethora of very fast times – 7 of the top 10 all time in the 1500 (13 of the top 20) and 7 of the top 10 in the mile. He won four consecutive World titles in ‘97, ‘99, ‘01 & ‘03. But on the biggest stage, the Olympics, he had tremendous difficulty. He finished in last place in ‘96 after falling on the final lap in the final. He finished in second in ‘00 after being a heavy favorite. Finally took gold in ‘04. It is the failings in the games that causes him to slip out of my top 10. A dominant athlete, that is uninjured and healthy, must perform in the Games – especially one that was so dominant outside them. With 20 of the top 30 times ever over 1500/mile I just couldn’t put him in the top 10 given his Olympic performances. Not given that he went in with good health when so many others had to overcome adversity and still came out on top under the spotlight.
Javier Sotomayor – High Jump
Mr. Eight Feet! The only man over 8’ in the high jump and he did it twice. Three WR raisings – 7’ 11.5”, 8’ 0”, 8’ .25”. “Soto” set his first mark in 1988, but Cuba boycotted the Games possibly keeping him from gold. He lost to Charles Austin in ‘91, won gold in Barcelona (‘92) & Stuttgart (‘93), and silver in Goteborg (‘95). In ‘96 he suffered from knee problems. The gold again in ‘97. Then ‘99 saw a suspension for cocaine. Suspension was reduced and (on short training) he won silver in Sydney (‘00). More cocaine questions emerged, but he competed in Edmonton taking fourth before retiring. A great talent, who revolutionized his event – as no one else has approached his consistency – he has 17 of the top 24 jumps of all time and still holds the WR, 17 years and counting, and is the only man ever over 8’. But his up and down championships record, and the cocaine suspension, keeps him out of the top 10 – and I hesitate because of the drug use though it was not a PED.
Wilson Kipketer – 800 Meters
Wilson was brought back to the forefront this year when David Rudisha began to approach, then finally broke, his long standing WR. Three time the WR setter in the event – his final mark lasting 2 days short of 13 years! Wilson was as dominant as anyone ever but was felled by two things. One was citizenship. Born Kenyan he changed his citizenship to Denmark. So while he won World Championships in 95’, ‘97, & ‘99, he was prohibited from competing in the Olympics in ‘96 – surely costing him Olympic gold. Then Wilson started battling with bouts of Malaria, which affected his training and reduced his dominance – resulting in silver (in a slow race) in Sydney (‘00). He missed Edmonton (‘01) completely. Then only managed fourth in Paris (‘03) and bronze in Athens (‘04) before retiring. You have to rate individuals based on what actually happened – and a string of 3 World golds plus an Olympic gold is pretty impressive – which is why he lands just outside the top 10. But one can only imagine what the legacy would have been had he been allowed to compete in Atlanta and had good health throughout his career.
I’m going to mention one other athlete that some people have asked me about – Jonathan Edwards. Some have mentioned his name based on his huge record of 60’ in the triple jump. And Edwards did indeed have a “Boltian” season in 1995 – setting his THIRD WR of the year (60’) while winning World Championships gold! During the season he also set WR marks of 58’ 11.75” and 59’ 6.75”. But Edwards chased his own glory thereafter. He was upset for gold in ‘96 by Kenny Harrison’s 59’ 4” leap (Edwards 58’ 7.75). Silver in ‘97, bronze in ‘99, before gold in Sydney – but his winning leap of 58’ 1” was well off the standard he set for himself and was only average for the event. He followed up with gold in Edmonton (58’ 9.5”) to end his major championship performances. A bronze in the European championships the following season was his final appearance. So while Edwards had one of the most outstanding seasons in history to go with one of the most outstanding records the sport has ever seen, his overall career just didn’t warrant a top 10 spot. And I’m not sure just where to put him given his up and down career because he did not dominate outside of majors either. I don’t think top 20, perhaps not top 30 – I’ll have to really sit down and think about Edwards in depth. But most certainly one of the all time great records and one of the greatest seasons ever. – the career just didn’t match up.
But these athletes are why I hesitate on anointing some of our current competitors. We have no idea what will happen before a career ends. New and better competition, illness, injuries, or other issues can and have arisen. The above are all proof.
So that’s how I looked at some of the greats that some felt were left out – at least my rationale for why they didn’t make my cut. The only thing I haven’t discussed are those athletes that,, given a different set of circumstances may have made the list. I think I will talk about a few of those soon as well.