The Sporting Don?

Is it possible to determine the single greatest sportsperson of all time?

As discussed in my first column – Why does sport matter – ‘we (humans) always try to simplify, quantify and break down life.’ Sports largely satisfies this in its winner versus loser nature, but nothing quite exemplifies this human instinct as much as our love for lists. Type ‘Top 10’ followed by any category into google somebody has probably made a list for it. The questions we most like to ask, and the lists we most like to compile, are the ones without obvious answers. The big questions, ‘Is there a god?’, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ occupy the biggest proportion of time as there is the most scope for debate, there is no single objective answer and therefore never a knockout blow.

Returning to the sporting sphere, while perhaps never reaching the levels of questioning the purpose of existence, there is no shortage of big debates – the largest potentially being, who is the greatest sportsperson of all time?

Many different people make a case for many different sportsmen and women alike to be heralded as the greatest of all time, the GOAT. Posing the question to a few people last week was met by a multitude of differing answers; Federer, Woods, Ali, Jordan and Pele all got numerous mentions, yet there was no one stand out overriding winner. The reason behind this is, clearly, that it is a subjective question.

People qualify greatness in different ways. Probably the most commonly cited man when discussing the award, Muhammad Ali, did not own a perfect boxing record like many others, but is known as ‘The Greatest’ for wider reasons – his role in the Civil Rights movement, his refusing to serve in Vietnam, as well as winning two of the greatest boxing fights of all time, the Rumble in the Jungle and the Thriller in Manila. Roger Federer, another of the most popular people in this debate, is not only valued so highly as having won more tennis slams than anyone else, but also for his style and grace, both on and off the court. Perhaps the most interesting answer a received when posing the GOAT question was Don Haskins, not simply a college basketball coach, but a man who is largely credited with the desegregation of the sport in southern USA. It is easy to see how his greatness can be valued over someone who could simply could run fast or scored a lot of goals.

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A statistician at heart, when pondering the GOAT conundrum myself, numbers are my first port of call. While I do not believe you can ever crown one individual as the greatest, the figures can help paint a decent portrait, and despite the issues of comparing across generations and sports, one man stands out as the greatest statistical anomaly of all time.

2,827 people have batted in the history of Test cricket. Of those who have played over 20 matches the man with the second highest batting average (runs per dismissal) is Graeme Pollock, who averages 60.97; number one – Don Bradman, averages 99.94. The histogram of individuals test batting averages is one of the most remarkable graphs in sport. Bradman is arguably the only sportsperson whose inclusion or exclusion in a data set can alter an axis to such an extent. He is nearly 64% better than his closest rival in test cricket.

Some may argue, Michael Phelps’ 23 Olympic gold medals (more than twice the amount of anyone else) is as statistically impressive, but what people typically fail to recognise is that winning an Olympic gold medal is a binary event, the person who comes first gets infinitely more accreditation than the person in second. In Bradman’s case we are staggeringly dealing with averages.

Sport is a game of fine margins; little differentiates the great from the good. When Phelps won the 400m Individual Medley at the 2008 Olympics breaking the World Record, he did so by 2.32 seconds, swimming less than 1% faster than his closest opponent. At Tiger Woods’ peak in 2000 he achieved the lowest ever scoring average on the PGA tour with 68.17, Phil Mickelson in 2nd place averaged only 1.7% more with 69.35. Michael Jordan holds the record for most points per game in the NBA but his record (30.12 PPG) is only marginally greater than Wilt Chamberlain (30.07 PPG). While Pele’s goal scoring record is truly frightening, it is now being matched by Messi and Ronaldo. Even, Wayne Gretzky, owner of 61 NHL records upon retirement in 1999 only averaged around 2% more points per game than his closest competitor.

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We have to be careful comparing different statistics, but even so Bradman’s 64% seems truly unrivalled. Even if you dock him a third of his career runs he would still possess the highest batting average of all time by a distance. It is impossible to objectively determine who is the greatest, but in terms of determining an individual who has statistically dominated a sport by the greatest amount we have a pretty good idea. The greatest statistical anomaly of all time, the GSAOAT, the Don.