Why are we obsessed by who is the greatest of all time?

More of a philosophical post this time…

It is a question that is asked on an annual basis after the Wimbledon tennis finals. Where do they rank amongst the all time greats? Is Roger Federer the greatest male tennis player ever? Will Novak Djokovic eclipse him?  Is Serena the best female tennis player we’ve ever seen?

This phenomena is not merely confined to tennis, far from it. Any major sport you care to think of has the same ongoing debate. Is Messi the best footballer that ever lived? Is Tiger Woods better than Jack Nicklaus? LeBron James or Michael Jordan? Senna or Schumacher? O’Sullivan or Hendry? Bradman or Richards? Ali or Sugar Ray? Brady or Montana? The list is endless.

People/the media seem fixated by the issue – to use the most common example: Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are constantly compared and contrasted with each other. Can’t we simply enjoy the fact that we are lucky enough to witness these two supremely talented players who have very different and individual strengths and weaknesses at the peak of their powers at the same time? They are two incredible footballers that usually come round once in a lifetime/generation. They have both set standards of consistent brilliance that may never be matched again. (For those wondering, having been fortunate enough to see both live in action on a few occasions, I’m very much in Team Messi).

I suppose part of the interest and debate stems from the intrinsically competitive nature of sport (human beings in general) and those that follow it with a passion want to know/put forward their case for who is best.  There also appears to be a desire for us to say we witnessed greatness. So we can talk to our children and our grandchildren about how good Usain Bolt was. Like our parents and grandparents would regale stories about the genius of Pele, Moore, Greaves, Maradona, Borg, McEnroe and so on.

One of the major problems is that comparing people from different eras is very difficult/nigh on impossible. As equipment, technology, nutrition, sports science and so on move on so quickly.

The truth about all such arguments is that it is all very subjective. Everyone gauges who is the best by very personal criteria. Some do it in black and white terms – he/she is the most successful in terms of records, victories etc therefore they are clearly the greatest, while others do it in terms of natural talent and ability or how hard they have worked to get to the top. Some do it purely based on personality or how he/she conducted themselves and what they have done to promote/raise the profile of their particular sport.

It is a debate that has raged for decades and shows no sign of letting up anytime soon. It’s certainly an interesting topic of discussion that is for sure.

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