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Is Bo Jackson Greatest Male Athlete of All Time?

According to the sports science team at ESPN, the world's greatest 'athlete' is the multi-sport champion Bo Jackson. He was found to be the greatest ATHLETE (but not necessarily the greatest PLAYER).

The decision was based on a long process, combining viewer votes and the comparison of a range of scientific metrics, with the aim to determine the greatest athlete of all time, once and for all. How did they get to that conclusion?

Follow the process below, as step by step they narrowed down the nominees until only one remained - the Greatest of All Time (GOAT)! Just to be sure, they had another vote to see if they got it right - and yes, Bo Jackson won again.

The Process

The greatest athlete from each of 16 sports or sporting categories were selected, based on online voting of five or more nominees from a selection of sport or sporting categories. The winning athletes then went head-to-head in the bracket phase until only one remained.

Round One

The first round was completed in February 2013, with the winners from each sport or category selected by popular vote. The short-list for each category was created by ESPN, but the winner determined by public voting. As with all online voting of this sort, there is potential for bias with modern players understandingly getting more votes based simply on the voting audience having a greater understanding of them. It was not surprising that there seemed to be a US bias (a majority of visitors to the ESPN website would be from the US). Out of the 16 athletes chosen, there were 12 Americans (the rest: two Brazilians, one Swiss and Canadian). Also, only sports popular in the US were looked at, there are no handball, AFL or water polo players for example. With the categories of multi-sport and game-changers, in the end there were two representatives from baseball and the NFL.

The winners of each category were:

  1. Basketball — Michael Jordan
  2. Golf — Tiger Woods
  3. Olympics — Michael Phelps
  4. Combat — Anderson Silva
  5. Boxing — Muhammad Ali
  6. Endurance — Mark Allen
  7. Multisport — Bo Jackson
  8. Tennis — Roger Federer
  9. Baseball — Willie Mays
  10. Game Changers — Jackie Robinson
  11. Soccer — Pele
  12. Action — Tony Hawk
  13. Track & Field — Carl Lewis
  14. Ice Hockey — Wayne Gretzky
  15. Football — Jim Brown
  16. Autosports — Dale Earnhardt Sr.

Bracket Phase (1st round)

The preliminary public voting selected the greatest from each sport or category. The next (bracket) phase started on February 17, 2013. There was still a public vote, but this did not count towards selecting the winner. The winners of each match up was based on a unique metric devised by the ESPN sport science team, to determine which players will advance in the bracket. One-on-one match ups continue until a single winner is left, the Greatest Athlete of All Time!

Michael Jordan v Tiger Woods

This match up was won by Michael Jordan, based on his dominance in a range of categories in their metric. An understandable result, basketball requires such a bigger range of athleticism than in golf. Public voting also had Jordan ahead.

Michael Phelps v Anderson Silva

ESPN had Phelps winning this match up, with public voting also agreeing - after 15,206 votes Phelps had 61.1% of the votes. This must have been a close one, with the all-round athleticism required by Silva making him a great athlete, but he was beaten by Phelps based on his dominance in his sport.

Muhammad Ali v Mark Allen

Endurance athlete Allen is really no match for the self-proclaimed 'Greatest'. Both sports are considered amongst the toughest out there, but for Allen it is demanding just for his mental toughness and endurance - boxing has that plus more. Public voting also agreeing - after 2,342 votes Ali had 84.7% of the votes.

Bo Jackson v Roger Federer

All rounder Bo Jackson had his work cut out in this battle with Tennis star Federer. Bo narrowly beat Federer in the power metric, while Federer easily won in durability, and Bo in difficulty of sport. Playing at the highest level in two sports put Jackson ahead, winning overall by a small margin. Public voting also agreed - after 24,614 votes Jackson was well ahead with 72.4% of the votes.

Willie Mays v Jackie Robinson

This match up of two baseball players makes comparison easier. It was not an easy pick though, but possibly the greatest all-around baseball player Mays was hard to look past. After 7,705 votes Mays was well ahead with 69% of the votes. However, Sport Science, after applying its metrics, had Jackie Robinson as the better athlete. Although Mays was definitely a better baseball player, Robinson's prowess in multiple sports put him ahead.

Pele v Tony Hawk

The greatest football (soccer) player ever against a skateboarder? Tony hawk may be a great athlete, but I can't see him beating Pele. After 1,999 votes Pele was well ahead with 69.5% of the votes.

Carl Lewis v Wayne Gretzky

One of the greatest track and field athletes of all time came up just short of legendary ice hockey player Wayne Gretzky.

Jim Brown v Dale Earnhardt Sr.

Gridiron great Jim Brown went up against Dale Earnhardt Sr. in what turned out to be a one sided contest. Although motorsports has great physical and psychological demands, with Earnhardt having the top score in our nerve category, he was no match for the all-round athlete Brown. After 2,832 votes Brown was well ahead with 85.3% of the votes.

Bracket Phase (Qr Finals)

Michael Jordan v Michael Phelps

Unfortunately, the greatest swimmer is no match for the greatest basketballer, with Jordan easily advancing past Phelps in both the online vote (after 29,153 votes Jordan was well ahead with 73.9% of the votes) and with the Sport Science metric. Jordan outranked Phelps in nearly 60 percent of the categories in the metric.

Bo Jackson v Muhammad Ali

Being 'The Greatest' was not enough for Ali to get past Bo Jackson. The be a champion for such a long period in one of the most demanding sport was no match for Jackson's superiority in two sports, achieving the surreal MLB All-Star in 1989 and NFL Pro Bowler in 1990. The voters agreed - after 19,153 votes Jackson was well ahead with 80.2% of the votes

Jackie Robinson v Pele

When it comes to speed, agility and endurance, there two are closely matched. At one stage the online voters (after 2,505 votes) had Pele just ahead with 52.9 % of the votes, though it was Robinson who prevailed and went through to the semi final.

Wayne Gretzky v Jim Brown

Brown's multisport abilities helped set him apart from the hockey great. Not only was Brown maybe the best ever football player, he also played basketball and was so dominant in lacrosse too. Although Gretzky lead in the durability sport science metric, Brown was ahead in the power and versatility metric, and overall Brown scraped past Gretzky with a combined total of less than 2% higher.

Semi-Final Rounds

Bo Jackson v Michael Jordan

Both of these players have streamed into the semis, but unfortunately only one can advance. The multiple sport abilities of the athletes in this competition have given them the edge in previous match ups, and this is no exception. Jordan's six NBA championships and dominance in his sport was not enough. Bo Jackson squeaked past Michael Jordan, due in no small part to his incredible power and lightning quick reflexes. The voters agreed with the result - after 23,765 votes Jackson was well ahead with 76.1% of the votes.

Jim Brown v Jackie Robinson

Both Brown and Robinson excelled in more than one sport before earning legendary status in football and baseball respectively. The voters agreed with the result - after 4,494 votes Brown was well ahead with 63.2% of the votes


Bo Jackson v Jackie Robinson

The Greatest Athlete of All Time title goes to Bo Jackson. This was based on the comparison of a range of sport science metrics. Even without the science, public vote had him well ahead - after 27,397 votes Jackson was well ahead with 79.5% of the votes.

The Unique ESPN Metric

ESPN Sport Science determined the Greatest Athlete of All Time (GOAT) using a unique metric that factored in attributes such as strength, power, speed, finesse, quickness, reaction time, endurance, durability, an athlete's resume, clutch performances, dominance, versatility, measurements, and the overall difficulty of their sport. Each athlete will be scored in each category, using a unique ranking metric that allows them to compare an athlete's ability to his peers and also to athletes from other fields.

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Lists Extra

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