I have spent many hours developing analyses with the quixotic goal of providing conclusive answers to subjective questions. It’s not enough for me to opine on which professional athletes had bustworthy careers. I feel the need to come up with a definitive list of Top 10 Busts. As detailed in a previous post, my son and I developed an algorithm to rank the top 100 players in NBA/ABA history because the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team didn’t go far enough. Based purely on quantitative measures, my Top 10 ranking of all-time NBA greats consisted of:
- Michael Jordan
- Kareem Abdul Jabbar
- LeBron James (now ranked #2 after surpassing Kareem in career points)
- Bill Russell
- Wilt Chamberlain
- Tim Duncan
- Magic Johnson
- Kobe Bryant
- Shaquille O’Neal
- Larry Bird
While I consider MJ to be the NBA GOAT, there’s enough quantitative and qualitative support to argue for any of the top 5 from the above list. With respect to football, Tom Brady has separated himself from all other QBs to become the most logical choice as the NFL GOAT. At the same time, one could argue for legendary RB Jim Brown without sounding crazy. While Babe Ruth seems to be the most popular choice for MLB GOAT, there are too many other candidates (e.g. Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, etc.) to narrow the list. On the other side of the spectrum, hockey legend Wayne Gretzky has lapped the field with so many single season and career records to end any NHL GOAT debate.
It’s tough enough to distinguish between great athletes from the same generation, much less between athletes who never faced each other. For that reason, I contend that all-time greatness should be evaluated relative to the eras during which the athletes competed. One reasonably could suggest that Babe Ruth, George Mikan, Otto Graham or Ben Hogan wouldn’t have the same success if transported in a time machine to a current game or tournament. Still, they rank as all-time greats with unimpeachable credentials due to what they did relative to their competition.
For me, Jesse Owens is the Track & Field GOAT. Owens established his all-time greatness at the Big Ten Track & Field Championships in May 1935 during which he set four world records in a 45-minute span. Those records included:
- 9.4 seconds in the 100-yard dash.
- 8.13 meters in the long jump.
- 20.3 seconds in the 200-yard dash.
- 22.6 seconds in the 200-yard low hurdles.
His legendary status grew when he won 4 gold medals (100m, 200m, 4x100m, and Long Jump) at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. More impressive than these accomplishments, Owens transcended the athletic competition by winning in front of racist dictator (and arguable WOAT) Adolph Hitler. The American’s track star’s world record time of 10.2 seconds in the 100m dash at those Olympics stood for two decades. If transported to a modern day competition, he wouldn’t even get past a preliminary heat with his best time. Should that change anyone’s impression of his GOAT credentials? Of course not!
During her illustrious career, Simone Biles has done things previously though unimaginable. Like other sports, gymnastics has evolved and can’t be evaluated in a vacuum. Much has been said about the impact of technology across sports (e.g. better golf clubs/balls, “juiced” baseballs, more aerodynamic footballs, non-wooden tennis rackets, etc.). I have watched gymnastics long enough to realize that it has evolved as well (e.g., bouncy floors, different apparatuses, and better training). Importantly, I’m not trying to minimize Simone’s achievements. Instead, I’m trying to put them in perspective.
Relative to the GOAT conversation, there are 3 deserving female gymnasts: Larisa Latynina of Russia; Nadia Comăneci of Romania; and Simone Biles of the USA. In order to remove the recency and American bias, I’ll start with an anonymous evaluation. Specifically, the following table shows the number of Olympic and World Championship medals won by the three athletes.
OLD MAN DIGRESSION
Going back to my nature as a crotchety old man, the Olympics were much better before professional athletes started competing in them. In this case, I’m not defining a professional athlete as someone who gets paid to play a sport. Instead, I’m defining it as someone whose ambition for an Olympic gold is a side pursuit during a hiatus from a very lucrative “day job.” I don’t mind if an Olympic ice skater, skier, swimmer, gymnast, or track & field athlete makes a living from their sport. However, I have little to no interest watching Olympic events involving the following athletes.
- NBA players who measure success with jewelry on their fingers, not around their necks.
- NHL players who’d rather hoist the Stanley Cup than see their nation’s flag hoisted into the rafters.
- PGA golfers who want majors, not medals.
- I’m undecided about LIV golfers because an Olympic gold might be more prestigious than any victory on their tour.
To be fair, I enjoyed following the Dream Team at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and NHL players at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. However, the novelty of having these professional athletes in the Olympics wore off a long time ago. Unlike the NHL, MLB fortunately never embraced the idea of taking a break to allow its top players participate in the Olympics. Therefore, I didn’t have to pretend to care about another event ill-suited for megamillionaires who pretend to care about bringing home the gold. To the extent the IOC wants to include sports such as basketball, hockey, baseball, golf, soccer, or tennis, it should consider limiting participation to “amateurs” who may have made money from their NIL but haven’t yet earned income from a professional team or league.
THE VALUE OF AN OLYMPIC GOLD
The “thrill of victory” or “agony of defeat” is elevated at the Olympics due to their infrequency. I can only imagine the pressure felt by athletes who wait four years to compete for their sport’s ultimate prize. Despite all the hard work and preparation, Olympic athletes also need some luck because their dreams can be impacted by things outside their control (e.g. boycott, global pandemic, etc.).
Physically and mentally prepared at the time, Simone Biles was very unlucky when COVID-19 caused a one-year delay in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. In an interview on Sixty Minutes that aired several months before the rescheduled 2021 games, Biles acknowledged that the biggest setback involved her mental state because she pushed herself expecting the end to be so close. Her words proved to be prophetic given her mental collapse leading up to and in Tokyo.
Regardless of their sport, all-time greats are defined by what they do on the biggest stages. Despite being the most dominant player in NBA history, Wilt Chamberlain often gets overlooked as the NBA GOAT because he only won two championship rings (versus 11 for Russell, 6 for Jordan, 6 for Kareem, and 4 for LeBron). Tom Brady has virtually every important NFL passing record, but he’s the GOAT because of his 7 Super Bowl victories. For this reason, each T10B algorithm used to rank players applies the most weight to winning titles. Based on that logic, it’s important to apply a higher weight to Olympics results for athletes whose highest achievement is winning Olympic gold.
While not nearly as sophisticated as the algorithms I developed for ranking football or basketball players, the following multipliers can be used to rank Olympic athletes within their specific sport.
OLYMPICS-ADJUSTED MEDAL WEIGHTING
In case you’re wondering, I designed this table specifically to evaluate gymnasts. At some point, I’d like to create medal multipliers for other sports as well as an algorithm to enable a comparison across sports. For instance, I would apply weightings based on the prominence of the sport (e.g. ice skating > ski jumping > curling) and medal winning opportunities (e.g. swimmers can win multiple medals while boxers can’t). For now, however, this is all I have.
As a reminder, here’s the total medal count for the three female gymnasts in the running for the title of GOAT.
 Gold Adjusted (Gold=5x, Silver=3x, Bronze=1x) – because gold is better than silver and silver is better than bronze.
 Worlds Adjusted – eliminates benefit from more frequent occurrence of contest after 1978.
 Olympics Adjusted – variable medal waiting based on: type (gold > silver > bronze); event (all-around > individual or team event); and venue (Olympics > Worlds).
Even though I calculated an average for all three methodologies, the Olympics Adjusted formula provides the best overall comparison. As such, I argue that Gymnast 3 is the GOAT. Relative to the three gymnasts, however, she’s probably the least well-known to most Americans. Enough suspense? OK, it’s time for the reveal.
- Gymnast 1 is American Simone Biles.
- No surprise there.
- Gymnast 2 is Romanian Nadia Comăneci.
- Perhaps, the best known foreign gymnast to most Americans.
- Gained worldwide fame as the first gymnast to get a perfect 10 in an international competition as a 14-year-old at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
- Cemented legacy by winning 3 gold medals (all-around, uneven bars, balance beam) and earning seven 10s during the ’76 Games.
- Gymnast 3 is former Soviet Larisa Latynina.
- Who? Don’t worry, you can blame your ignorance on the American media.
- Despite what you usually see, hear or read, an American isn’t always the greatest at doing something.
IF IFS AND BUTS WERE CANDY AND NUTS . . .
GOATS ARE NOT SELF-APPOINTED
When questioned about the emblem, Biles claimed that she started wearing it as a joke and then to annoy her haters. For an article in People, she said:
I don’t think of myself as the GOAT and that’s not why I wear the goat on my leo. It was kind of a joke in the beginning. I wore one in 2019 and it was just funny because the haters were so upset. What we did is to kind of tick them off even more. So I was happy because it’s like good, now you guys are annoyed because you’re annoying me.
Everybody can say you’re good, but once you acknowledge it, it’s not cool anymore. And I want kids to learn that, yes, it’s okay to acknowledge that you’re good or even great at something.
I had a few observations after reading these quotes. First, I don’t get the joke when the potential GOAT wears a goat emblem. For literally any other gymnast in the world, wearing the emblem would be a joke. For her, it arguably served a dual purpose of inciting her detractors and creating a psychological advantage over her competition. Second, she used the pronoun “we” as if a team made the decision and not just her. Third, there’s a difference taking pride in being good or great at something versus promoting yourself as the greatest.
When I first saw the goat emblem on Biles’ leotard in 2021, I thought, “Wow, that’s bold!” I had seen Biles deliver for so long that I didn’t view it as a potential jinx. However, I started to get worried over time that she might have bought into all the hype from numerous media members calling her the GOAT. Specifically, I recalled a Sixty Minutes segment from earlier in the year which seemed premature. During the interview, Sharon Alfonsi effused:
Talk to anybody in the sport, nobody agrees on anything. But they all agree you’re the greatest. The greatest that’s ever been. The greatest that will be.
As someone who would rather underpromise and overdeliver, I wouldn’t have suggested going that route. Then again, Biles had no reason to think she would not deliver on her “promise” to do well enough at the Olympics to be considered the greatest female gymnast of all-time. I believe Biles when she said that she didn’t think of herself as the GOAT. Unfortunately, I fear her advisors thought differently and made recommendations based on their desire to promote a post-Olympic, all-female exhibition being marketing as the “Gold Over America Tour.” I’ll let you figure out the acronym used to advertise the tour. After hearing about the name of the tour, I realized her team may have failed her by setting her up to overpromise and underdeliver.
Prior to the rescheduled Olympics, I noticed an increased social media presence by Biles that could have negatively impacted her preparedness. Specifically, I came across a lot of promoted stories (aka click bait) highlighting her outfits or public outings with her boyfriend. I understood she deserved downtime whether shared privately or with the world. At the same time, the specific type of publicity seemed more suited for a Kardashian than an Olympic athlete getting ready for the big event.
WEIGHT OF PERFECTION
As a huge Simone Biles fan, I wanted her to succeed in Tokyo. At the same time, I was worried about the excessive praise and hype as if the results were a foregone conclusion. In a New York Times article published shortly before the start of the Olympics, Juliet Macur wrote:
For her dominance, individuality and longevity in the sport, Biles, 24, has been compared to Serena Williams, Tom Brady and Tiger Woods. But the analogy minimizes her athletic brilliance because those competitors lose from time to time — and she doesn’t. Biles hasn’t lost an all-around title since 2013, when her smile glinted silver because she still wore braces.
In the article, Mancur also described Biles’ move from Nike to Athleta because the upstart women’s clothing company agreed to sponsor the post-Olympic, all-women Gold Over America Tour. Interestingly, the creation of that tour led to the cancelation of the post-Olympic tour that USA Gymnastics typically held for the top male and female gymnasts to earn some income and generate interest in the sport. When approached by some of the male athletes about their exclusion from her tour, Biles said,
Yes, I’m sorry. It’s not up to me for you to find or make money. That’s up to you and your agent.
I fully support and agree with that stance. However, I wonder how the media would react if the opposite were true with a dominant man requesting an all-male victory tour. That was rhetorical because I know the athlete would be blasted and a lawsuit would follow.
While not her usual dominant self in the qualifying round, Biles would have won two golds (all-around and vault) and two silvers (team and floor exercise) if everything stayed the same in the medal round. However, the “weight of perfection” presumably took over because she withdrew from all but one event (balance beam) as she lost confidence in her ability to perform certain moves without hurting herself. Biles won an individual bronze on the balance beam and won a silver in the team competition given her participation in the qualification round. Still, it was a major disappointment for the presumed GOAT.
No one could (or did) argue with Biles withdrawing from numerous events to focus on her mental health. However, there were differing views about the impact it would have on her legacy. The prevailing view was that Biles already was the GOAT and her ability to withdraw despite all the pressure put on her to perform added to her legacy. In contrast, I found myself agreeing with Dylan Hernandez who wrote the following in a Los Angles Times article.
Pressure is a fundamental part of sports. The ability to perform under duress is what sometimes separate the great from the good and professionals from amateurs.
To be clear, Biles can choose to not do that job. That’s her prerogative. It doesn’t make her any less of a person. But don’t pretend it doesn’t make her less of a gymnast.
The refusal to acknowledge this reality sends her the wrong message, that her worth is directly linked to her achievements. So accept her failure as a gymnast and embrace her athletic shortcomings, few as they may be. Let her know her value as a human being won’t be measured by her scores on the vault or floor.
Like many gymnastics fans, I am excited by Simone’s return to the sport she has dominated for so long. Even if she hasn’t earned it (yet), I believe she will qualify for and do well enough in the 2024 Paris Olympics to become the unqualified GOAT. Furthermore, it’s hard to argue that the future Disney movie won’t be even better. After all, I contend the modern-day American success story involves the initial rise (e.g., rags to riches, beating all odds), downfall (e.g. fall from grace, sense of human frailty), and resurrection. For now, I wish her the best no matter how it turns out.