Greatest Athlete of All-Time? A Case For The "Babe”
It's impossible to settle the question of who was the greatest athlete of all time, though it certainly makes for a lively and interesting debate. But before we plunge into the discussion, we define the ‘greatest athlete’ as an individual, man or woman, who was able to play a variety of sports at an extremely high level.
Therefore, certain athletes who may have been the greatest in their sport, (i.e., Wilma Rudolph, Michael Jordan, Mia Hamm, Bill Russell, George Herman Ruth, Serena Williams, Jack Nicklaus) will not qualify due to this standard.
Certainly in the running for the G.O.A.T. were Jim Thorpe (football, baseball, track & field, baseball) and Jackie Robinson (baseball, football, basketball, track). Both excelled in a variety of sports and were top performers in each. However, my selection for the greatest athlete of all time - male and female - was Mildred Ella “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias.
Born in 1911 to a family of Norwegian immigrants who settled in Texas, Babe played and excelled in various ways in the following sports: baseball, basketball, billiards, bowling, boxing, cycling, diving, golf, handball, roller skating, swimming, tennis, track, and volleyball!
By the way, Babe also learned to play the harmonica, starred in a vaudeville show, and appeared in a film with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn!
After successfully participating in several high school sports (basketball, baseball, golf, swimming, tennis, and volleyball), Babe became a standout basketball player in the Amateur Athletic Union where she was recognized as the league’s best player and selected as an All-American for three years in a row from 1930 to 1932.
Also in 1932, Babe participated as the ONLY member of her team in the United States Women’s Track and Field Championships. She competed in eight different events - winning five -and claimed the overall championship by herself!
Again in 1932, Babe participated in three events in the Olympic games held in Los Angeles. She finished in first place in all three events, (world record in the hurdles, Olympic record in the javelin, and high jump), but was relegated to a silver medal in the high jump due to a questionable technicality.
Arguably, Babe’s most prolific sport was golf where she won 82 tournaments. In 1946-7, she was reported to have won 14 successive golf tournaments. In 1950, Babe helped to form the Ladies Professional Golf Association. Babe was also the first woman to appear in a PGA (normally all men) event.
Possibly her most outstanding athletic accomplishment occurred in 1954. Babe had been diagnosed with colon cancer just a year earlier which required her to have emergency surgery. While wearing a colostomy bag, she won the United States Women’s Open by 12 strokes!
By the way, over the course of her life time, Babe Didrikson was voted the ‘Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year’ a remarkable six times.
The great Babe Didrikson Zaharias unfortunately passed away in 1956 at the tender age of 45. Although Babe’s life was relatively short, her list of sports accomplishments - in my humble opinion - make Babe the greatest athlete of all-time.
Kevin L. Burke is a sport psychology professor, consultant and co-author of "Sport Psychology Library Series: Basketball" available for sale on our site. His contact information is: email@example.com Twitter: @kevinlburke (personal) or @kbsportpsyching (Sports Illuminated) iTunes podcast: Sports Illuminated (https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/sports-illuminated/id384931758?mt=2)
SOCCER August 29, 2009 Christiano Ronaldo makes his debut with Real Madrid. He stayed with the European powerhouse club until 2018, making 292 league appearances and scoring 311 goals. One of the greatest on the world soccer stage, the Portuguese striker who also captains his national team started his top flight career in 2003 with Manchester United, winning the FA Cup in just his first year.
TENNIS August 30, 1999 The 119th Edition of the US Open kicks off at the USTA National Tennis Center in New York City. 18-year old Serena Williams won her first grand slam singles title after defeating #1 ranked Martina Hingis at the final. On the men’s side, Andre Agassi claimed the singles championship after outlasting fellow American Todd Martin in 5 hard-fought sets.
BASKETBALL August 26, 1989 NBA star James Harden is born in Los Angeles, California. The future guard for the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets led his Artesia High School team to a 33-1 record and the state title. Playing at Arizona State for just two seasons, Harden joined the NBA in 2009 and was recipient of multiple awards & recognitions, including 2018 NBA Most Valuable Player.
BASEBALL August 25, 1979 The California Angels trounce the Toronto Blue Jays 24-2, scoring 8 runs in just the first inning. David Frost was the winning pitcher, hurling from the mound in all 9 innings. The Angels went on to wrap the season with a win/loss record of 88-74 and finish first in the American League West. But they would lose to the Baltimore Orioles 3-1 at the AL Championship Series.