Michael Phelps's unprecedented haul of gold has reignited that old barroom classic: Who is the Greatest Athlete of All Time? (Boston.com conducted its own online poll, in which Jim Thorpe -- a standout in track, football, and baseball -- won handily, with Michael Jordan a distant second. Phelps came in sixth.)
Discussions like these usually focus on relative merits of hand-eye coordination, endurance, range of accomplishment, and so on. All important stuff. But in comparing participants in different athletic endeavors, I'm a proponent of what could be called the Pyramid Theory of Sports. It's an useful framework, too, for thinking about sports further down the food chain than baseball or basketball -- those sports you only see at the Winter or Summer Olympics.
The pyramid in question is demographic. The base represents the number of people who have ever tried the sport, usually as children, while at the peak, naturally, stand the top achievers. The broader the pyramid base, the greater the athletes at the top, all other things being equal. The vetting process is simply far more severe.
Under this theory, the Boston.com poll overrates Phelps, because, as a result of geography, the scarcity of pools, and cultural preference, relatively few children worldwide get a taste of serious swimming, let alone competitive swimming. So the base of the swimming pyramid is only of middling breadth. On the other hand, LeBron James, basketball god, and Usain Bolt, the 100-meter gold medalist, stand atop pyramids whose bases are simply massive. It's hard for gym teachers not to notice someone who just runs fast. And in the U.S. (and more countries each year), what boy doesn't give basketball a try?
That means it's statistically more likely that there's some athlete out there who, given a taste of swimming as a child and rigorous training -- this is counterfactual history, of course -- could beat Phelps than that there's an undiscovered basketball genius better than James. I leave it to the sabermetricians to crunch the actual numbers. (All of this puts to one side the observation that swimming, with its medleys, offers an unusual number of shots at medals.)
And as for sports like luge, curling, archery, and (a new one on me) the human steeplechase? Their pyramid bases are quite small -- which is why something like 1 in 1,000 of the people who have so much as dabbled in these sports (and, yes, I've confirmed that figure) are there at the Olympics.
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