By Simon Jolly
One of the many pub debates designed solely to inflame the ire of all participants without ever reaching a definitive conclusion concerns that of the greatest all-round athlete of all time.
Was it Bo Jackson? The Nike ‘Bo Knows’ advertising campaign of the 1980’s would certainly suggest so, but so do the simultaneous all-star careers in the NFL and major league baseball, coupled to those many urban legends about his athletic prowess, such as the 4.12 40-yard dash.
Or maybe it was the Englishman C.B. Fry, who won England caps in football and cricket, played rugby for the Barbarians and equalled the world long jump record along the way.
Perhaps the person with the most legitimate claim to be the greatest sportsman of all time was the Native American Sac and Fox star Jim Thorpe who had simultaneous professional careers in American football and baseball, along with a sideline in professional basketball, to go along with the 1912 Olympic titles in both the pentathlon and decathlon. Not many have been anointed the greatest of all time by a king.
His modern equivalent is probably the American decathlete Ashton Eaton, who has been imperious since winning Olympic gold in 2012.
One can argue about whether one needs to be an exceptional all-round athlete or merely good enough at a variety of disciplines to stand out amongst a crowd of non-specialists in the decathlon, but Eaton is clearly the former: his personal best in the long jump of 8.23m, set in 2012, would have won him a silver medal behind Britain’s Greg Rutherford at the London Olympics the same year.
What such comparisons do demonstrate, however, is the increasing rarity of sportsmen who excel at multiple disciplines.
Fry, like Thorpe, competed at the beginning of the 20th Century. As the rewards for professional sportsmen have increased exponentially, so the competition has become more fierce, requiring even multi-talented sportsmen to concentrate their efforts on a single sport.
It is not beyond the realms of possibility to suggest that basketballer Lebron James is currently the greatest natural athlete on Earth, such is his prodigious combination of size, strength and speed.
Would a man who, at 6’8″ and 250lbs, is already built like a Tight End, ever try his hand in the NFL?
It seems highly unlikely, if for no other reason than it would border on the reckless to sacrifice a multi-million dollar salary for the hazards of a “collision sport” over one he has excelled at since he was barely out of short trousers.
In amongst the usual specialists, there was a smattering of athletes crossing sporting boundaries at the 2016 Rio Olympics and it is interesting that these non-specialists are perhaps the exceptions that prove the rule.
The most obvious example of this code-hopping was in the rugby sevens.
To the casual observer, there is very little difference between the 7-a-side and 15-a-side games. The rules are virtually identical, with the most obvious difference being that conversions are drop-kicked rather than kicked from a tee. And yet, of the stars of the 15-a-side game who tried to make their Olympic squads, very few made the transition, the most well-known being New Zealand’s Sonny Bill Williams, South Africa’s Francois Hougaard and Cheslin Kolbe, Juan Imhoff of Argentina, Scotland’s Mark Bennett and Chris Wyles of the United States (New Zealand’s Ioane brothers probably have as much international sevens experience as fifteens).
All the others, for one reason or another, fell by the wayside: Nick Cummins, Quade Cooper and Henry Speight for Australia; Bryan Habana for South Africa; Liam Messam for New Zealand; and Jarryd Hayne for Fiji – all household names and established internationals, yet none were able to make their Olympic rugby teams.
Hayne had perhaps the hardest task of all: despite having extravagant natural gifts, his rugby experience has been limited to league, with a detour via the NFL, all lengthening the odds of making arguably the best rugby sevens team on the planet. Fiji of course had a team full of players with 15-man experience, but given the primacy of rugby sevens in Fiji virtually all could be said to be sevens veterans who also play 15-a-side rugby, bringing their sevens skills to bear in the larger game rather than the other way around.
Sonny Bill Williams spent virtually an entire year with the highly successful New Zealand rugby sevens team in order to make the Olympics, only to have his time in Rio cut short when he ruptured his achilles tendon in the first game. Williams had perhaps the best chance of making the conversion, having already managed to transition successfully between rugby league and rugby union, appearing in world cup finals in both sports. And yet it took him at least a year to adapt to union after moving to Toulon from league in 2008.
Is it through lack of the relevant skills or simply lack of practice that players successful at both fifteens and sevens are so rare?
Perhaps it’s the latter, but this merely emphasises the point that no matter how athletically gifted a player may be — and who can argue that Jarryd Hayne is not such a gifted athlete — such is the refinement of the game at the highest level that they cannot simply swap one game for another, even when they appear to be superficially identical.
An interesting anomaly in such a theory is that of Nate Ebner, the New England Patriots safety, who took a five-month sabbatical from the NFL to return to the sport he played almost exclusively as a teenager. Perhaps it was that rugby muscle memory that enabled Ebner to make the US squad, or perhaps — with all due respect to US rugby — those years of NFL training were enough to see him selected from amongst a limited pool of playing talent. The US, of course, have two more famous (and successful) rugby sevens converts in the sprinters Perry Baker and Carlin Isles, but both of them have spent several years playing sevens.
Another Olympian attempting a similar type of transition was the cyclist Peter Sagan, who rode for Slovakia in the mountain biking. Sagan, a junior mountain biking world champion, has spent his entire professional career as a road rider, specialising in…well, being Peter Sagan.
In road cycling terms, ‘all-rounder’ is perhaps too limited a term for someone who has won myriad Grand Tour stages and one-day races to sit alongside his five Tour de France points classification winner’s green jerseys and the 2015 world road-racing championship.
Yes, he’s not the greatest climber in the world, which sounds sarcastic but is actually meant literally: he’s just a very, very good climber who isn’t quite up there with the Chris Froomes and Nairo Quintanas. He also doesn’t set the world on fire in time trials, except that he’s a former Slovakian national time trial champion.
But by any measure, Sagan is an absolute boss on a road bike. While not exactly in Robert Forstermann territory, Sagan’s physique is eye-catching when compared to his Grand Tour contemporaries like Froome.
His bike-handling skills are also astonishing. Casting aside his habit of pulling one-handed wheelies in the middle of races — as well as when crossing the finish line of particularly fiendish mountain stages of the Tour de France — myriad clips are available online of Sagan displaying supernatural bike control. Footage of Sagan managing to avoid a falling Fabian Cancellara by essentially pulling an old-school ‘endo’ on the cobbles of the 2016 Paris Roubaix is breathtaking.
A good deal of discussion in advance of the Rio Olympic mountain biking was whether Sagan could translate this skill and strength to a discipline he had only returned to a few months before after more than seven years on the road.
Would his undoubted power and bike-handling ability prove too much for seasoned mountain bikers? Sadly, we never got to find out: despite advancing from last to third within minutes of the start, a series of punctures on the second and third laps forced him to retire.
Or maybe we did find our answer, albeit not the one we were expecting. The sneaking suspicion is that those punctures might have been a result of Sagan’s unfamiliarity with mountain biking. One of the key skills in learning to ride a mountain bike is how to weight and unweight the bike over difficult terrain.
As one becomes more experienced and skilful, one becomes ‘lighter’ on the bike as one learns how to let the bike flow over obstacles, reducing the chances of flat tyres and rim damage from heavy impacts on sharp rocks. It is impossible to tell without a more scientific examination, but just maybe it was a reason why Sagan suffered two significant punctures in quick succession whereas his rivals did not.
There is also the question of whether Sagan’s physique really was all that outlandish when compared with professional mountain bikers rather than road cyclists. Something that was apparent from watching the 2012 London Olympics road cycling and mountain biking with only a few days between was not only how much more muscular the mountain bikers’ upper bodies were in comparison to their road counterparts but also how much more of the race they spent producing sustained maximal physical efforts.
Mountain bikers must gain some kind of sadomasochistic pleasure from the inflicting of pain: not a single climb on the London course passed without one of the leaders trying to break his colleagues with repeated, sustained exertions out of the saddle.
Road riders of course need to be able to sustain periods of significantly increased power output, but rarely to the same degree as is common in high level cross country mountain biking, nor with the immediate danger from the accompanying oxygen debt of falling face first down a rocky descent.
So maybe, after all the expectation, it really was too much to expect Peter Sagan to be able to compete with Nino Schurter and Jaroslav Kulhavy, the top two mountain bikers from the last two Olympics.
Similarly, it would be interesting to see how Bo Jackson would cope in today’s NFL and MLB.
While the chances of success for anyone attempting such a feat are extremely slim — particularly a man with a replacement hip well into his sixth decade — with Jackson there’s always that lingering thought of ‘maybe’.
Photo: Getty Images via SportingNews.com