Column by John Lohn
CRANBURY, New Jersey, August 31. THERE is no undisputed answer to the question, for there isn't one way to assess the query. Yet, it's a topic frequently tossed about, usually against the backdrop of a major performance or accomplishment. Who is the most dominant athlete in the world?
A major distinction must be immediately made. When broaching this topic, there is often confusion about what is actually meant. We're not here to determine the greatest athlete in the world. Making that determination is nearly impossible and would bring forth too many suggestions to successfully present a final argument.
Rather, we're discussing which athlete is the most dominant in his sport, an individual who has more power and control over his competition than anyone else. We're discussing an individual whose impact in his sport is greater than the rest. We're discussing an individual whose talent is so overwhelming that he has changed his sport.
Because Usain Bolt was downright amazing at the recent World Track and Field Championships, this topic came to mind. Like he did at the Beijing Olympics, Bolt obliterated his rivals in the 100- and 200-meter dashes on the blue track in Berlin. Actually, he was better in Berlin than he was in Beijing, as he broke each of his world records with times that are almost hard to comprehend. Sound like someone in the pool?
The truth is, there are probably only four individuals who deserve to be considered for the Most Dominant Athlete title: Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. All reign at the top of their sports, their careers defined by never-before-seen achievements or bodies of work. But which one dominates with a little more gusto than the other members of this illustrious group. We're not expecting a consensus in any way, but here's one man's opinion.
Of our four nominees, we have to place Roger Federer in the No. 4 slot. That's not a shot at the tennis great, a man who has won the career grand slam and has more major titles than any male who has picked up a racket. That's just where we think he belongs in this group of excellence.
The argument on Federer's behalf is that he has shown unique versatility en route to his standing as, perhaps, the finest male tennis player in history. When he captured the French Open earlier this year, Federer completed the career slam and had proven his worth on each of the surfaces on which a major is played. That's something the legendary Pete Sampras could not do.
However, the detracting point for Federer is the fact that, even if for a short while, he was surpassed by Rafael Nadal as the best player in the world. While the rivalry is great for the sport, and will continue to be, someone vying for Most Dominant Athlete must have 100 percent ownership of his specific sport.
Falling into the No. 3 position is the man who is probably the best known athlete on the planet, a guy who manipulates a golf ball like no one ever has. Before he's done his golfing career, Tiger Woods will be regarded as the finest player in his sport's history. He might already own that moniker, although Jack Nicklaus still has plenty of support for his record 18 major championships.
The argument on Woods' behalf is that in this age of depth on the PGA Tour, he maintains a scary aura and prevails at a rate (roughly 33 percent) that is ridiculous for a sport like golf. One day, he'll be the all-time leader in grand slam crowns and will have more victories than any other player. Fair or not, however, Woods goes through stretches where he doesn't win. A little harsh? Yes, and especially because a man can't win every tournament he plays, no matter how much flair he brings to the table. But to be considered the most dominant, a player needs to win at least a major each year, and Woods failed in that quest for 2009.
Moving on, Jamaica's Bolt occupies the No. 2 hole in this analysis, which means you know who sits on top. No sprinter in history has produced anything close to what Bolt has over the past two years. Before Bolt came along, the world record in the 100 was 9.74. It is now 9.58, almost unfathomable. More, Bolt has run 19.19 in the 200, and in Beijing last year took down the previously untouchable record of Michael Johnson.
Bolt almost assuredly will continue to dazzle the track world, but the reason he is ranked second here is because his prowess on the international stage is only two years old. Sure, he was a world junior champ before emerging on the big platform, but there's more room in terms of longevity. Meanwhile, Bolt's success in Olympic and World Champs competition has centered around the sprints. If there is a positive in his pursuit of greater things, it's his recent declaration that he will begin to dabble in the long jump.
So, that leaves us with Michael Phelps at the top, regarded here as the Most Dominant Athlete in the world. Not really surprising, huh? To measure Phelps against the aforementioned stars is somewhat comparing apples and oranges. Then again, some comparisons are legitimate. For one, like Federer, Phelps has proven the ability to win in different events. While Federer has won on hardcourt, grass and clay, Phelps has been magical in the freestyle, butterfly, backstroke and individual medley, the medley proving his talent in breaststroke as well.
Like Woods, Phelps rises to the occasion, loving the pressure that comes with big-meet atmospheres. Look no further than his head-to-head showdown with Milorad Cavic at the recent World Champs in Rome. It was a defining moment for Phelps, who answered the bell. True, Phelps does drop a race here and there, like Woods loses a tournament. The frequency, however, is far less and it typically involves Phelps either racing in a tuneup meet and not in peak form, in an event that is still a world in progress (i.e. 100 free) or when he's wearing an inferior piece of equipment. (Note: To make it clear, I do believe Paul Biedermann is one heck of a swimmer).
Finally, there's the comparison to Bolt. For now, Phelps gets the nod because of his range, which is wider than that of Bolt. Put it all together and Phelps is the Most Dominant Athlete in the world. He has the total package – versatility, flair, longevity. It's tough to argue, though there's no doubt some will have another opinion.