Can you calculate the world's greatest sportsperson?

Sachin Tendulkar and Tiger Woods Fans of Sachin Tendulkar and Tiger Woods could argue that either has the most impressive record

Is it possible to work out which living athlete is the best? Mathematician Rob Eastaway, co-author of The Hidden Mathematics of Sport, investigates.

The case for Indian batsman Sachin Tendulkar is certainly strong. His international career has spanned an astonishing 22 years, during which time he has never been dropped from the Indian Test side.

The "Little Master" has scored more runs and notched up more international hundreds than anyone else in the history of the game, although cricket fans will always be compelled by Donald Bradman's famous 99.94 batting average. And it's not just that he has scored more, it's the huge margin by which he tops the table.

Longevity and the accumulation of trophies is certainly an important factor in making greatness, but it is surely not the only one. After all, if you're only looking at durability at the top, then Tendulkar is outstripped by US golfer Tom Watson, who has been a serious challenger in the Open since 1975.

The trouble is, there are so many statistical ways to measure greatness.

One is to pick out those sportsmen and women who for a period of time are in a different class from their peers. The goal-scoring feats of Lionel Messi make him a candidate, but statistical measurements of footballers are always tricky, not least because it can be hard to disentangle one player's performance from the contributions of his team mates.

The feats within individual sports are easier to assess, and in terms of quantum leaps, can anyone rival Usain Bolt?

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More or Less is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Friday 26 August 2011 at 13:30 BST

The 100 metre sprint is the pinnacle of athletics where the world records normally mean shaving 1/100th of a second off the previous best time. Yet Bolt has broken that record not just once but three times, and in his most recent, mathematicians reckoned he could have knocked more than a tenth of a second off the record time had he not slowed up at the finish because his shoelace was undone.

Great sportsmen are head and shoulders ahead of the competition. In Bolt's case it's head, shoulders and a couple of strides too.

Or you can take a look at a sport's world rankings. Every sport uses a different system for rankings its members, but all of them are based on some form of objective, mathematical model.

To identify the world's greatest, why not look at which sportsman has managed to spend the longest amount of time as world number one. Tiger Woods managed to be top of the golf rankings for over 10 years, before his recent fall from grace. By this measure, though, there's a British sportsman who pips Tiger for the title.

Phil "The Power" Taylor has had an almost unbroken position as world number one in darts since 1998. And yes, darts is now officially a sport.

Champion of champions?

  • Sachin Tendulkar - achieved 99 centuries in international cricket
  • Usain Bolt - world record and Olympic record holder in the 100m, the 200m and the 4×100m relay
  • Tom Watson - five-time Open winner, challenged at the top level since 1975
  • Phil "The Power" Taylor - won a record 15 world darts championships
  • Jenny Thompson - won more swimming medals and gold medals than any woman in Olympic history

We can of course let the market decide. If a sportsman earns a lot of money, it must reflect his global appeal and success.

David Beckham, surely a great, has earned tens of millions over his career.

Yet on this score, the world's greatest sportsmen at the moment could be Alex Rodriguez. He's paid around $30m (£18m) per year, and that's before all the product endorsements. He plays baseball.

But can he really be called the world's greatest when his name barely registers in public consciousness outside his own country?

Of course greatness also depends on many things that are hard to measure - charisma, style and an ability to hit the headlines, for example.

With all this complex and sometimes conflicting data, perhaps we should put our trust in the wisdom of crowds.

Despite the diverse and often ill-informed opinion of the public, put enough people together and they often manage to come up with the right answer.

And if we ask the crowd who is the greatest sportsman, I think I know who'll come out top. Sachin Tendulkar.

Why? He would win by sheer weight of population. There are over a billion people in India who have little sporting interest other than cricket. And a billion people can't be wrong - can they?


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  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    how bout the man who freezes the world for 12 rounds? Since Boxing was one of the first competitive sports known to man... Manny Paquiao is best for the title. just sharing!

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    Some who have excelled in their niche sports could never be called worlds greatest simply because their sport has less coverage; eg Ole Einar Bjorndaelen, Laird Hamilton,Waisale Serevi
    A few head to heads
    Martina bts Fed, Bradman bts Sachin, Mercx bts Lance, Clarke bts Schumacher (who I'd disqualify anyway for poor sportsmanship), football -too many candidates but Becks wouldn't make the top 50.

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    "Greatest" ought to be someone involved in a globally popular sport, to ensure widest potential pool of talent. This precludes sports needing expensive eqpmt Some sports don't lend themselves to longevity (strength/fitness/skill balance required often strongly dependent on sport rather than the individual). No. of sd's from the mean seems a good start point to reduce inter-sport arguments.

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    Anyone remembers Jahangir Khan? Squash? 10 consecutive British Open Titles, 7 World Open titles and No. 1 ranking for more than 6 straight years. During his rein, the interest in the game was always around who ELSE would qualify for the final, not who would win it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    Re #103
    Somewhat rose tinted spectacles there.
    How about Usain Bolt, Sachin Tendulkar, Roger Federer, Michael Schumacher, The Williams sisters, Lionel Messi etc etc, plenty of hardworking, decent, professional stars of today.
    Today's athletes are far more professional and lead much more healthy lives than in the past. Sure there's a few bad apples, but always have been, always will be.

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    Calculating the greatest sportsman/woman is easy. Just look for hour upon hour of grinding hard work, relentless practice and dedication, a certain amount of natural ability and a little HUMILITY. I give you
    Jack Nicklaus--Henry Cooper--Cliff Morgan--Bert Trautman
    Bobby Charlton--Martina Navratilova--Mary Peters.

    There are obviously more but not many from todays bunch of wannabee's is there.

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    "David Beckham, surely a great"

    At what exactly? PR, making money, certainly not at football!

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    No,you can't calculate who is the greatest. You can enjoy the greatness though!

    When I have this debate I ask "who looks most at one with their sport" or "who makes it look the easiest". For that reason I always say Ronnie O'Sullivan.

    Nobody looks more at one with their chosen sport and he makes more decorated opponents look like they are fighting against the table and balls.

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    Does it matter?

    No, this isn't a 'sports does not matter' comment but the more serious one that such cross-sport comparisons are basically meaningless. If I want to watch American Football, the accomplishments of all the swimmers and gymnasts and golfers are irrelevant.

    Just enjoy excellence when you are lucky enough to encounter it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    "What about Lance Armstrong? Somebody like Schumacher (who just drives a car) wouldn't last even one etape of the Tour; Armstrong won it 7 times."

    I really admire Lance Armstrong, but your comments shows that you have NO knowledge of Formula 1 at all, especially not of the training F1 drivers have to do. F1 drivers regularly undertake serious cross-country cycling over long distances!

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    Interesting that comments regarding Senna, Schumacher and Rossi are getting low ratings when it is fact that these sports (and especially Formula 1) require those who partake in them to be at the absolute peak of human fitness. Put an F1 driver into another sport and they'd have a good go at it (many excel in other sports already) but put a golfer or footballer into an F1 car? They'd get nowhere.

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    Strange that Michael Schumacher isn't mentioned when he busted every record going within his sport! I wouldn't even think to put Tiger Woods anywhere near Schumacher.

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    Another sport that isn't popular in large numbers, but Aussie Rugby League player Darren Lockyer is the Messi of league. Streets ahead of the rest in the best team in the world, and he's been doing it for years. Club titles, world cup, state of origin. The man is genius. no Union player has his ball skills, yet they are far more likely to end up on this list.

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    As far as the Michael Jordan comments, I think the author meant Greatest current athlete, not Greatest living. Certainly judging by the big name omissions. . .

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    Seems flawed. On one hand it argues how Alex Rodriguez can't be the greatest when his name barely registers outside his own country, and then almost immediately after, talks about how Tendulkar is the best, since over a billion people can't be wrong.

    But outisde of India, who would say Tendulkar? As a worldwide figure, perhaps LeBron James, Messi, or Tiger Woods might get more popular support

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    I dont even rate Tendulkar as the greatest cricketer of his era. Kallis has scored over 10,000 runs and taken over 250 wickets in both test and one day arenas. His batting average is higher than Tendulkar's also. In my opinion he ranks as the greatest player in the history of cricket.

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    Other factors include hype. Boxing was very popular on TV in Ali's time, but now you rarely see it, so no current performer would have a chance. Had this question been asked in 1972, no doubt a show jumper or a wrestler may have been nominated, as both were on TV all the time. Top performance in 2 or 3 different sports would seal it for me, and I think genuine charisma is important.

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    Someone mentioned Peter Nicol from squash. I am not sure if that was meant to be a joke or not. Peter Nicol is not even in the top 2 of the greatest players in squash history. Let me illustrate:

    Peter Nicol: 52 titles 1 World Opens 2 British Opens
    Jansher Khan: 99 titles, 8 World Opens 6 British Opens
    Jahangir Khan: 6 World Opens 10 British Opens, and a 555 game (5 year, 8 month) winning streak.

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    I'm not sure if you can calculate it. Can you make a scietific comparison between Lionel Messi and Phil Taylor or Usain Bolt and Valentino Rossi?
    I've been watching sport for over 30 years, and seen quite a few incredible sportsmen and women. But the best I've seen, combining athleticism, skill and grace more than any other, was Roger Federer at his peak

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    Some of the comments here are unfair - Rob made no claim to a definitive list, merely citing some examples, neither did he claim an elusive formula. Peter Nicol's influence beat out a transition to the modern game as well as being a dominant player for many years .. you've probably never heard of him!
    So what about 'greatest sport'? Of course, it's SQUASH - and I retreat before the masses ....


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