Last week I met a dead man. His name is Cornelius Warmerdam and I had never heard of him till I started reading up on pole-vaulting. Armand Duplantis, the current world record holder, told me at the Tokyo Olympics that he had a pit in his backyard. Warmerdam started jumping in the late 1920s while using a branch from a peach tree.
How do you compare them?
One man lands on a plush landing pad, the other fell on to sawdust. Duplantis has Olympic gold, Warmerdam had none because his best coincided with World War II.
How do you separate such people?
Duplantis, who makes the vault feel like athletic poetry, breaks world records with impunity now; Warmerdam jumped 43 times over 15ft when no other man could and his outdoor record lasted 15 years.
So who’s better? Can you even tell?
But don’t worry because someone will casually slap the most overused acronym in sport next to one name.
There are apparently one billion goats across the planet and apparently almost that many two-legged ones in sport. There is no more trite, overused four-letter word to be found these days. We—yes, me too—have taken the beast that drives Thor’s chariots, capitalised it into G.O.A.T., squashed the sweeping beauty of talent into ugly shorthand, and stuck it on to every passing athlete and coach we can find.
In just the past week, I found references to Neeraj Chopra, Tom Brady, Bill Russell, Tiger Woods, Serena Williams, Babe Ruth, Amanda Nunes and Bill Belichick as the Greatest Of All Time. There are also Would-Be GOATS and the Goatiest of GOATS and I am terrified of looking further in case I find Alex Honnold referred to as the Mountain GOAT.
Debating skill is a joyous activity and ranking athletes is essential to the conversation of sport. But mostly we understood that this was just idle boasting between pals about something no one could be sure of. But now, in a time of overstated labels, GOAT is like an edict, as serious a compliment as a statue, one athlete often elevated by effectively diminishing another.
Ah, we say, but Federer didn’t win ...
We used to bring anticipation to the arena, now we bring measuring tapes. We put on TVs and pull out a slide rule. We throw statistics as unthinkingly as we do confetti. These days we insist Rafael Nadal is the GOAT in June and by January we claim it is Novak Djokovic. The Greatest Of All Time changes by the season.
The need to be immediately wise is erasing wonder. How athletes play is overshadowed by who won. Separating them seems more urgent than what they are fashioning. Is winning all we get from sport?
As my remaining hair greys, I guess I am just more crotchety, a scowling defender of older athletes who tend to get shouldered aside in the GOAT debate. The dead have few defenders. The retired always look slower. Rod Laver had two Grand Slams. Two. And he’s shrugged off with an Oh, Three Of The Slams Were On Grass Those Days and The Competition Was Thin.
This debate has been good for me because it has made me read a little deeper. Last week I started Unforgivable Blackness, Jack Johnson’s biography by Geoffrey C. Ward, and also discovered Betty Robinson. The first Olympic 100m champion in 1928, Robinson was grievously wounded in a plane crash in 1931 and was reportedly first taken to a mortician. It took over a year for her to walk properly again and she could no longer bend for the start. So she won gold in the 4x100m relay in 1936. You think she should figure in any Greatest Sprinter conversation?
The more I know the less sure I am. Not just about who the Greatest Of All Time is in anything, or if there is indeed such a thing, or on what basis. Is it just medals? What about eras and environment? In Ward’s book, he quotes Charles A. Dana, editor of The New York Sun, who warned in 1895 as Johnson started emerging: “We are in the midst of a growing menace. The black man is rapidly forging to the front ranks in athletics, especially in the field of fisticuffs. We are in the midst of a black rise against white supremacy.”
An athlete’s contribution surely is more than cup and certificate and size of trophy room. It is where they come from and what they said and the autographs they gave and injustices they fought and styles they owned and occasions they rose to. Their stories are original, their contributions different, their motivations contrasting, their rise unique. When we throw them into one vast GOAT bucket, we judge them through the same dull lens.
Are all runs the same? Slams, wickets, baskets, gymnastic vaults? Is a 100m butterfly Olympic gold and a mixed doubles tennis gold equal in weight? Modern athletes face greater depth, harder tours, tougher scrutiny. Older athletes had little money, used primitive equipment and were told not to drink water because it would bloat them. Emil Zátopek trained in heavy army boots and Jim Thorpe rewrote decathlon records at the 1912 Olympics while wearing mismatched shoes. If you don’t factor history into it, sport just looks hollow.
Great athletes deserve from us what they bring to sport. Nuance and curiosity. Let’s keep arguing about them but go easy with our rubber stamps. GOAT is something athletes rarely say about themselves, especially since their body of work is unfinished.
Unless they are Muhammad Ali, for whom every exception can be made. But even he, after dismantling Sonny Liston in 1964, only used one letter of the GOAT. He came to the press conference and asked the sportswriters, most of whom had thought he had no chance, “Who’s the Greatest?”
It was a line for all time.
Rohit Brijnath is an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, and a co-author of Abhinav Bindra’s book A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold.