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Who are the all-time top athletic athletes? The answers are not so simple

There are cases that can be made for sports figures from the past and the present.

August 10, 2011|By Matt Stevens
  • Among legendary all-around athletes are (from left) basketball center Wilt Chamberlain, football and track star Jim Thorpe and NFL tight end Tony Gonzalez, a former college basketball player.
Among legendary all-around athletes are (from left) basketball center… (Photos by Associated Press…)

Athletes today seem bigger, faster and stronger than their predecessors, but they might not be as athletic, or at least not nearly as multitalented.

The Times talked to several sports historians and many of them had more difficulty naming contemporary athletic athletes than figures from the past. Because kids today are groomed to be great at a single scholarship-earning sport, historian Richard Crepeau said that questions of athleticism are harder to answer.

"At one time this would have been a fairly simple matter," Crepeau said. "Just go to those who had, or who were capable of playing at the elite level in several sports.

"[But] in modern elite sport across the board there is such attention to training and conditioning that being athletic is nearly a given."

Which helps explain why the list of "Most Athletic Athletes" is back loaded with old players. In ranked order:

Contemporary

1. Tony Gonzalez

Tony Gonzalez has essentially trademarked his signature slam dunk — a dunk over a goalpost instead of over a basketball rim. He's the NFL's most talented tight end who might have also been able to make it as a basketball player.

At Huntington Beach High, he lettered in football, basketball and baseball. Then at California he played football and basketball despite overlapping seasons. He was clearly better at football, but he helped lead Cal to a Sweet 16 appearance. Once in the NFL, he used skills from both sports, blending his size and leaping ability to become the most prolific pass-catching tight end.

2. LeBron James

Many experts labeled basketball as the sport with the most athletic athletes, and LeBron James is the most athletic of all. Bill Mallon is an Olympic historian, but even he couldn't resist listing James at the top. "He's pretty amazing," Mallon said. "I'm not a personal fan of all of his maneuvers, but his athletic ability is off the charts."

3. Sidney Crosby

Sidney Crosby was one prodigy that ended up panning out. According to Dan Diamond, publisher of the NHL Official Guide & Record Book, Crosby worked with trainer Andy O'Brien who "created intense workouts that stressed the skills and muscle groups needed for hockey success." As a result, Crosby is virtually impossible to knock off the puck and is so strong that he can hold off an opponent with one arm while he races toward the net. Only Alexander Ovechkin competes with Crosby for the title of best player in the game.

4. Jose Reyes

Those who think baseball is boring just need one look at Jose Reyes to change their mind. The New York Mets shortstop is simply electrifying, and MLB historian John Thorn calls him "the most fun player to watch … of all current major leaguers." In only 105 games this season, Reyes has 34 stolen bases, which would be a lot for anyone but him. During a four-year stretch, he averaged 80 stolen bases per season, a pace he is well shy of this year. But he's also hitting a career-best .339, so no one is complaining.

Past

1. Jim Thorpe

The one athletic athlete that just about every expert mentioned first is also the first (and potentially last) athlete of his kind. Jim Thorpe won the 1912 Olympic gold medal in the pentathlon and the decathlon, played baseball, basketball, and most notably football. He began his amateur career under Pop Warner, and eventually helped found the American Professional Football Assn., now the NFL.

But playing so many sports ended up costing him. In 1913, Thorpe was stripped of his gold medals because he had accepted pay to play minor league baseball in 1909 and 1910. The medals were eventually restored in 1982, decades after Thorpe's death.

2. Wilt Chamberlain

No one has been more dominant at a sport than Wilt Chamberlain was at basketball. He scored at will as proven by his 100-point game against the New York Knicks in 1962. Ray LeBov, director of the Assn. for Professional Basketball Research, called Chamberlain "probably the most remarkable physical specimen ever," which might explain why Chamberlain was able to win the Big Eight Conference high jump championship without practicing, and how he managed to play volleyball when he wasn't on the basketball court.

3. Jim Brown

One historian called Jim Brown "just a physical freak for his era," and that really sums it up. Brown ran over people of inferior size and strength on his way to more than 12,000 yards rushing, good enough for ninth on the NFL's all-time list. Perhaps for that reason, Brown can only linger as a candidate for the title of greatest football player of all time.

But probably few people know that he might have been the greatest lacrosse player. He helped build Syracuse into the perennial power it currently is, and while he was there, he also played basketball and ran track.

4. Mildred Ella "Babe" Didrikson Zaharias

The consensus greatest female athlete of all time competed in the 1932 Olympics and won the javelin throw and the high hurdles, and finished second in the high jump.

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