One athlete plays for your soul

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 07, 2012

A fun question from Joe Posnanski: if you had to choose one athlete to play on your behalf for your soul, who would you choose?

So, here's the game: The Jon Lovitz Devil has consigned you to an eternity of being stuck in traffic in a wheezing Ford Escort without air conditioning, and the only radio station plays Michael Bolton 24 hours a day. But you have one chance to escape your fate. You get to choose one athlete, at his or her peak, and one sport. Ever. And if that athlete wins, you get a whole different eternity, with chocolate-covered strawberries, DirecTV and a deck that overlooks the ocean.

Ah, but there is one catch. You get to pick the athlete and sport. But the Jon Lovitz Devil gets to pick the terms.

In other words, you might choose Tiger Woods circa 2000 and golf. That's fine. But the JLD can then choose Ben Hogan and say that the match will be played at Merion with a U.S. Open setup.

You might choose Mike Tyson in his overpowering youth. But the JLD can then choose a young and almost unhittable Ali and a big ring.

You might choose John Elway and one final football drive. But the JLD can then say he has to drive 80 yards in three minutes against the 1985 Chicago Bears defense in the Soldier Field wind.

The question Posnanski is essentially asking is: who is the most dominant athlete of all time across any sport? But not quite that question...Babe Ruth was quite the slugger in his day, but he might not fare so well against modern pitching. Same with Wilt, Jim Thorpe, Babe Didrikson, or even Gretzky. The game played is a factor as well. Aside from variants such as speed chess and Chess960, chess is chess and the board is the board...home field, wind, and teammates aren't really a factor. (Is chess a sport though? If so, I might take Kasparov against anyone.)

But the answer is probably someone not from one of the major sports and certainly not from a team sport. The comments of the article mention wrestler Aleksandr Karelin, wheelchair tennis player Esther Vergeer, and Secretariat. And I know that there are athletes in other sports who are equally as dominant. Even so, I might go with 2009 World Championships Usain Bolt in the 100 meter dash. He's the fastest ever by a wide margin, he's current, and it's an individual sport. Of course, under the current one-and-done disqualification rules, he might be in trouble. Or if you could choose Jordan specifically playing 1-on-1...he would beat anyone — Wade, Kobe, LeBron — on any crappy hoop or shitty playing surface anywhere. (via ★djacobs)

Update: I knew I'd covered some of this same territory before but just couldn't find it. From back in August:

Speaking of sports, Grantland, and Federer, Bill Simmons said of Lionel Messi earlier this year that "he's better at soccer than anyone else is at anything". That's a pretty short list but got me wondering, if you expanded the criteria slightly, who else might join Messi on the "better at their sport than almost anyone else is at anything at some point in the past 5-6 years". Off the top of my head, possible candidates include Roger Federer, Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, Lindsey Vonn, Tiger Woods, Marta, Shaun White, Jimmie Johnson, and Annika Sörenstam. I don't know much about hockey, but maybe Alex Ovechkin? No basketball, baseball, or football players on that list; Michael Jordan and Barry Bonds are the most recent candidates in basketball and baseball (please, don't give me any of that LeBron crap) and I can't think of any football player over the past 20 years who might fit the bill. Barry Sanders maybe? His team never won a lot of games and didn't win championships, but man he was a genius runner.

I received several suggestions from readers about additions to that list, among them were surfer Kelly Slater, rally driver Sébastien Loeb, motorcycle racer Valentino Rossi, and cricketer Don Bradman.