How do you measure an athlete's greatness? In most sports the conventional measures of greatness are victories, medals, special awards, and trophies. The more hardware and wins an athlete has, the better he or she is.
But greatness is not just measured in medals. A great athlete may not only have a lot of wins and medals but can be considered great for other reasons. That person may be someone who makes his or her sport look easy or have good sportsmanship. Great athletes are not only excellent on the playing field, they are also good people off the field. They are not only respected for how well they do their sport; they are respected for being someone who is a good role model for a child or junior athlete in that particular sport. They are also respected by their fellow athletes. I will list some athletes who I think are great both on and off the playing field at the end because I want to finish this entry on a positive note.
There are many superb athletes whose greatness is nullified by their attitudes. While I respect their athletic achievements, their attitudes or personalities prevent them from becoming true greats in my eyes. Here are a couple of examples of stellar athletes who will never become truly great:
Bode Miller. He has the most World Cup wins of any US skier. But his attitude toward the sport makes me have close to zero respect for him. He prefers to train alone and not be part of the US ski team unless it's convenient (he had to be part of the team for the last Olympics). Miller has stated that he has raced while hung over and feels that performance enhancing drugs should be legal in professional skiing. At the 2006 Olympics he was more interested in partying than skiing. In a TV interview he also said that he's not a role model and doesn't want to be one. Sorry Bode, part of being a top athlete is also being a role model.
Lance Armstrong. His record of 7 Tour de France victories may stand forever. I actually had a lot of respect for Lance and his achievements on the bike until last year's Tour de France. In that Tour he did everything he could possibly do to sabotage his teammate, and eventual race victor, Alberto Contador. Armstrong finished 3rd in that race, but his behavior on the podium was boorish. He acknowledged second place finisher Andy Schleck but looked away when he had to shake Contador's hand. He also pouted the whole time on the awards podium.
Now for some terrific athletes who are also great off the field:
Kurt Warner. His American football team, the St. Louis Rams, won the Super Bowl in 2000 with Warner as quarterback. He has accumulated many pro football awards and accolades over his career. But what sets Warner apart from most of the other great quarterbacks is that he spends a great deal of his off time working with disadvantaged children. Warner doesn't just put in an appearance; he spends a lot of time with kids mentoring them and serving as a role model. He is a Christian and lives his religious principles by helping those less fortunate than himself.
Hermann Maier. The Herminator has the second most Alping skiing World Cup wins and a total of 14 Crystal Globes (4 overall and 10 for individual disciplines). His determination to succeed when he was told that he would never make it helped to make him a legend. When he was a junior skier, he was dismissed from the Austrian team for being too small. He went home, apprenticed as a bricklayer to build his upper body, and raced in local ski competitions during the winter. After finally catching the attention of the Austrian coaches, he won 2 Olympic gold medals in 1998 and three overall World Cup titles. In the summer of 2001 he almost lost a leg in a motorcycle accident and was told that his racing career was over. But he worked hard to rehabilitate his leg and came back to win a 4th World Cup title. In the 2006 Olympics he was told that he was too old and washed up to win any medals, yet came away with a silver and bronze medal. Maier was always the first to check out the course and one of the last to leave. Even when he was past his prime, his hard work and determination rubbed off on his Austrian teammates.
Diego Forlan. Forlan captured the world's attention in last summer's football (soccer) World Cup, where he won the Golden Ball for being the tournament's best player. Forlan led his Uruguayan team to a 4th place finish in the World Cup finals, its best finish since 1970. With his club, Athletico Madrid, he won the European Golden Boot twice for being the top goal scorer. His team also won the Europa League Championship and the European Super Cup. But there is another side to Forlan besides being a goal scorer. When his sister was a teenager, she was in a car accident and became paralyzed as a result. Forlan, who is close to his sister, promised that he would always take care of her. A lot of the money that he makes goes to his sister for her medical expenses and care. His football career is for more than individual accolades; he also plays so that his sister may have a good quality of life.
Aksel Lund Svindal. The Norwegian skier is the answer to the trivia question, "Who was the other man to win 3 skiing medals at the 2010 Olympics?" With his 3 Olympic medals, 5 World Championship medals, 2 overall World Cup titles, and 4 World Cup individual discipline titles, he is one of the skiing greats. After winning the overall World Cup title in 2007, Svindal had a severe injury that kept him out for the 2007-08 season. But he came back from that injury to win the overall World Cup title in 2009. What makes Svindal special is his sportsmanship. When he won the bronze medal in the Olympic giant slalom his teammate, Kjetil Jansrud, won the silver. Svindal said that that medal was extra special because his teammate was on the podium with him. He was just as happy for Jansrud as he was for himself. At the World Cup finals last winter Svindal had a DNF in the giant slalom. Most racers leave the area when they have a DNF. Not Svindal. He stayed by the finish area and cheered as each racer crossed the finish line. Both children and adults can learn about sportsmanship from Svindal's example.
Coming soon: Greatness Part Two, or what makes a runner great.