An old perplexity has raised its head again.
In his column for the (Salem, Oregon) Statesman Journal, Timm Collins raised the question, "Is Ashton Eaton the best overall athlete ever?" as the focal point of his story Saturday.
Eaton is, of course, the reigning Olympic champion and world record holder in the decathlon and men's heptathlon.
The suggestion of Eaton holding such a lofty honor is an obvious and highly defensible one. Eaton's accomplishments (listed in Collins' column) are very impressive for such a young man. And the 10-event decathlon is arguably the surest test of an athlete's versatility and endurance.
But, to his credit, Collins backed off from the premise of his headline, citing the relative brevity of the 25-year-old's career and then conceded that to argue on Eaton's behalf would produce no clear winner.
Still, is there any sport which does not generate an interest in determining who is the greatest of all time (G.O.A.T.) ?
It's a needling itch in the soul of every sports fan. But the quest to identify an individual as the consensus "ultimate athlete" is an itch that might never be scratched.
There are reasons for this.
First, it is human nature to judge all history against the events of our own lifetime. When we must rely solely on recorded accounts, the great athletic feats of the past can rarely match the luster of those exploits we have witnessed firsthand—either in person or live, via audio or visual technology.
It is a subtle bias against the past and its ever-shrinking (yet still vocal) body of defenders.
Second, to anoint a present or past athlete as "best ever" automatically disqualifies any future contenders. This is a prejudice even more unrestrained. There are zero voices to defend what might someday be.
Neither do statistics provide solid grounds for argument. The famous quote, "...lies, damned lies, and statistics..." is perfectly applied here. There are way too many variables across eras, geography, politics and economics to rely on stats as a basis for G.O.A.T.
To muddy the waters further, we must inject the gender factor, pondering such great athletes as Babe Didrikson Zaharias and Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
Then, it naturally follows that species must be considered. Should racing icons such as Man O' War or Secretariat be eligible?
The best we can hope for is to simply settle the quandary in our own mind. It must end there.
In spite of our futile attempts to satisfy our craving to know, there will never be—and should never be—a ceremony to crown the "Greatest Athlete of All Time".