September 22, 2010

Could Kelly Slater be the best athlete ever? No seriously?: Nine-time world surfing champion Kelly Slater won the Hurley Pro Saturday at Lower Trestles, the same San Clemente, Calif. venue where he won his maiden victory as a pro nearly 20 years ago to the day.

Of course, if and when any mention of his win makes the mainstream sporting press in the U.S. it's likely to be shoehorned between coverage of the latest hot dog-eating contest and a brawl between college mascots.

posted by BornIcon to other at 02:35 PM - 6 comments


posted by geekyguy at 06:51 PM on September 22, 2010

When he won his ninth, I posted on here a very similar story/opinion. Given that most athletes have a professional career of less than ten years, being World Champion nine times is remarkable. Layne Beachley's tally of seven titles is also pretty good.

posted by owlhouse at 07:51 PM on September 22, 2010

Hell No

posted by rumple at 09:59 PM on September 22, 2010

As a side note-in today's day and age of specialized, elite athletes, how many events would Jim Thorpe have excelled in? I could see maybe football, basketball, and baseball; I can't see pentathlon, decathlon, and jumping events.

posted by Bonkers at 10:53 PM on September 22, 2010

I think the math you have to go through is (level of achievement) x (breadth of competition). Being the best at something only a small percentage of people even try is much easier than being "arguably" the best at something most everyone does. For example, most every young boy in this country has a few years of playing- either formally or informally- some sport such as basketball, football, baseball or soccer. The ones with a certain aptitude take it more and more seriously as their talent and training continue, and eventually at the top tier you get people whose ability compared to our own is immeasurable. For all I know there's a bowler or an archer or a bar-room darts player who is utterly dominate in a way no other athlete has approached- but that's not as impressive as say the run Michael Jordan had in the 90's against much more competition on a larger stage.

In other words, if I picked a niche enough sport, I could in ten years' time become an expert at *something*- but it takes that commitment plus an incredible natural ability to become the best at a major sport, where tens or even hundreds of millions compete. It's the same reason I discount Babe Ruth's accomplishments, for example; the talent pool and training in which he excelled was much much smaller than today. Likewise, Thorpe would not have been what he was then if he were alive today; he might have been a Bo Jackson type- but it's not even that rare for athletes to be drafted in more than one sport- those strapping young athletic men with great physiques and coordination can hit and throw a baseball or football or whatever with equal ease. It's just that they rarely play more than one because the level of time and effort to excel at one leaves almost nothing for the other, and they make a choice based on personal preference, greater financial rewards or chance of success, or slight edge in aptitude.

All that said, it is very very impressive to have that sustained excellence over twenty years; but as for being the best athlete ever I don't think you could grant that to anyone from more than 30-40 years ago, or to anyone in a niche sport. If by "best athlete ever" you mean most decorated or accomplished in his or her field then the math I mentioned above takes effect; the small footprint of surfers takes Kelly Slater out of the running. If by "best athlete ever" you mean most gifted physical in the all-around sense, then it's probably an unanswerable question where if we were omniscient, then it was some decathlete of who we've barely heard whose respiratory capacity, reflexes, muscle strength and speed, and coordination all pegged off the charts in a way no one else has. But like I said- that's unanswerable.

posted by hincandenza at 12:26 PM on September 23, 2010

Being a surfer myself I can certainly make a good argument for just how great an athlete he is. Surfing is one of the most difficult sports in the world. While it is an impossible argument to make whether or not one athlete is a greater athlete than another great athlete in a different sport, I can only say anybody that tries to downplay the greatness of Kelly Slater's achievements most likely has zero knowledge of surfing and has never even tried surfing let alone experienced the power of the ocean in large surf.

hincandenza - your theory does not really make sense to me. The number of surfers in the world probably is much larger than you think, but it is certainly limited by the demands of the sport similar to something like a decathalon. Just because fewer athletes compete in a sport like decathalon, or rowing or wrestling, or high hurdles, than say baseball or basketball does not mean that a greater athlete should not be considered just because their sport is not as popular. I would say frankly some of the best athletes that ever lived were surfers like Duke Kahanamoku who also was an olympic swimming champion, or Laird Hamilton, or Kelly Slater . Of course if you have never surfed (which takes years to even attain any level of competency) you couldn't possibly have a clue of what surfing like Kelly Slater requires. Any athlete that can dominate a incredibly physical and demanding sport like professional surfing for two decades, and become world champion (not US but worldwide champion) nine times surely has to at least be considered to be one of the most elite athletes on the planet. Surfing requires the balance, flexibility and skill of gymnastics, the strength and stamina of swimming, the nerve, fearlessness and composure in the face of possible death of say motorcycle racing. I hate to pop a bubble but it entirely possible the greatest athlete does not come from one of the American mainstream sports like basketball or football or baseball. When someone like Tiger Woods can be named Athlete of the Decade in a non athletic sport like golf, it would seem to be a joke compared to what is required to dominate surfing for two decades and not be considered in a discussion of greatest athletes.

posted by Atheist at 09:40 PM on September 23, 2010

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