So who’s the top athlete of the century? |

So who’s the top athlete of the century?

by Steve Yingling

Who would be foolish enough to rank the top 100 North American athletes over the past century? There’s no way to get it right, right? Surely some sports would be overemphasized and the fringe sports would be de-emphasized.

Although ESPN has been around for only 20 of those 100 years, the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network took on the thankless project with 18 months of preparation. Since January, ESPN has been counting down the top 50 since January, highlighting those athletes with a special 30-minute program every Friday. A 48-member panel submitted its votes for the top 50 athletes based on athletic ability alone.

Sept. 17, the sports channel began unveiling its debatable top 20 athletes.

Don’t read on if you prefer the suspense of ESPN revealing the top 20 countdown over the next three months. The remaining top-20 athletes will be featured by ESPN each Friday into December until only two remain. Then ABC will take over for the top two positions with an hour-long special Dec. 26.

But before we take a look at the top 20, let’s examine some of the superstars who have been left off the list. Some athletes that didn’t even garner enough votes to crack the top 100 are John Elway, Steffi Graf, Eric Dickerson, Pete Maravich and Mark McGwire. But the biggest omission is Nolan Ryan.

How can the Ryan Express be overlooked for the top 100, let alone the top 20? His freakish longevity for a power pitcher, 3,000-plus wins, seven no-hitters and all-time strikeouts leader should make him a topic of discussion in bars forever. There’s no disputing what Jackie Robinson did to break the barrier for other races in pro sports, but Ryan definitely is a better fit for the top 20.

Understandably, seven stars from the top 20 list played baseball. Until recently, baseball has been America’s favorite sport and the public has identified more easily with the game’s stars. They are Hank Aaron, Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Jim Thorpe (football and track and field, too), Willie Mays, Robinson and Ted Williams. Obviously, Ryan and Pete Rose belong here, too. Does Rose, the all-time hits leader, who is ranked 56th, deserve to be banned from the top 20 because he’s banished from baseball and the Hall of Fame? Also interesting is the fact that ESPN’s top 20 includes no pitchers, only hitters.

Four of the top 20 ruled the hardwood in the NBA, including eventual No. 1 or No. 2 Michael Jordan, top-five candidate Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson and Bill Russell. Was Magic really that good? Was he better in his sport than Ryan was in his? I don’t think so. Perhaps Oscar Robertson, No. 36, would have been a better choice here if a basketball player had to take Magic’s place.

Although the sport seems to receive notoriety only in four-year intervals, track and field also peppered the list with four athletes. They are Carl Lewis, Jesse Owens, Thorpe and Babe Didrikson (also a golfer).

For some reason, football only scratched the top-20 surface with two representatives: Thorpe and Jim Brown. Brown doesn’t even own the career rushing title – 39th-rated Walter Payton does – yet he’s one of the elite 20.

Boxing deservedly received two top-20 choices, and may prove to have No. 1 or No. 2 in Muhammad Ali. Joe Louis also joined Ali in the ring of fame. The burgeoning sport of golf also received two top 20 spots for the “Golden Bear” Jack Nicklaus and the multi-talented Didrikson. Tennis and hockey filled out the list with one token choice each in Martina Navratilova and Wayne Gretzky, respectively.

It will be interesting to see where the “Great One” is ranked, but few athletes have meant more to their sport than Gretzky. On my list, he’s in the top five.

Interestingly, only two women – Navratilova and Didrikson – made the top 20. And only five other females received top-100 recognition, including No. 23 Jackie Joyner-Kersee, No. 41 Wilma Rudolph, No. 59 Billie Jean King, No. 65 Althea Gibson and No. 69 Bonnie Blair. Obviously, when the votes are tabulated for the next century, more women will be included since more females are competing than ever before.

Horse racing – sorry No. 35 Secretariat – auto racing, speed skating and swimming were shut out of the top 20.

There you have it, an unranked list of the top 20. Who should be No. 1? Should it be Jordan, Ali or what about Chamberlain? There’s still a debate on whether Jordan was the best basketball player ever.

Unless you have an ESPN executive as a relative, I guess you’ll have to wait until the day after Christmas to find out. I can hardly wait. The No. 1 disclosure will definitely stir up some more debate.

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