At this point in my life, I’m not much of a sports fan. I usually tell people it’s because I peaked too early. As a young boy growing up in northern New Jersey, I had three favorite teams: the New York Mets, the New York Knicks and the New York Jets. On January 12, 1969, the Jets, led by Joe Namath, won the third Super Bowl. This 7 1/2 year old was thrilled. On October 16, 1969, the Miracle Mets beat the Orioles to win the World Series. At 8 1/2, I was ecstatic. Then, on May 8, 1970, the Knicks won the NBA championship. Now aged 9, I was in heaven. Several times over the next three years, my father took me to Madison Square Garden to see the Knicks play, and my uncle took me to Shea Stadium to see both the Mets and the Jets. For a pre-teen fan, these experiences were life-changing. (I have the programs to prove it.) In the next years, I had occasional bursts of sports energy: the rivalry of Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg sparked a tennis craze while I was in high school in the mid-70s, and I followed the rise of the 49ers in college in the early 1980s, culminating in a San Francisco Super Bowl party I will never forget). But as I entered adulthood, my interests slowly dwindled until my sports-watching was reduced to a few March Madness games, portions of the Summer and Winter Olympics (despite the often obnoxious network coverage), the Super Bowl, and various soccer, baseball, basketball and lacrosse games of my nieces and nephews. Despite my ‘peaked too early’ excuse, the real reason for my retreat from sports fandom was time: it takes a lot of time to follow even one team closely, and there’s usually something else I’d rather be doing (or need to be doing) than watching sports. On the other hand, I do appreciate the athleticism, strategy and competitive excitement of sporting events – basketball, football and tennis in particular – and if I sat down and watched a game right now, I’m pretty sure I would enjoy it.
All of which is prelude to my latest set of lists: The Best Athletes of All Time. When I say “all time”, I’m really talking about recent history: the oldest athletes on the list were born in the 1870s, and the youngest in the mid-1980s. Milo of Croton is not on the list, for example, nor are any other competitors from the Olympiads of Ancient Greece. The emphasis is on the most popular sports in the U.S. (baseball, football, basketball, soccer/football, tennis, track & field, boxing) and there is a distinct U.S. bias generally, which seems to be a flaw in all the lists on this blog. That being said, there is a significant amount of diversity in terms of sports (28) and countries of origin (43!). There are two lists. The first is Best Athletes of All Time – The Experts’ Picks, which tells you which athletes were ranked the highest overall. This one has lots of pictures. The second is Best Athletes – By Sport, which takes the first list and rearranges it so you can see the best athletes in a particular sport. Sorry, no pictures on this one.