Think you're an athlete? Meet me on the playground   

Updated: December 8, 2008, 12:23 PM ET

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    You know his name by now: Michael Fred Phelps. You also know his accomplishments: more gold medals in Olympic competition than anyone has ever won before. And to the distinction of being the greatest Olympic athlete ever, we can add the ultimate: World's Greatest Athlete. Ever.
    -- Mike Celizic,

    Forget your previous notions. Forget other things you've seen from the other world's best athletes. What Phelps has done is as remarkably different as God giving us the sun one day and the seas the next. ... Phelps has redefined athletics and athleticism.
    -- Jemele Hill,

    In all of that history, more than a century's worth, isn't Phelps now the greatest of all the great American athletes? He would never say so. He would say that's for others to debate. But there is no debate.
    -- Alan Abrahamson,

OK, I know things were really exciting during the Summer Olympics, but aren't we getting a little ahead of ourselves here?

Michael Phelps

AP Photo/Rob Carr

Michael Phelps has basked in a lot of adulation since his amazing performance in Beijing.

I have a great level of respect for anyone who masters his or her craft and who can do things athletically that I can't -- which, given my limited athletic talents, allows for a wide berth. In my book "Andy Roddick Beat Me with a Frying Pan," I was defeated by a blindfolded darts champion, a pool player playing one-handed and an Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer doing the doggie paddle. In each case, I came away not so much humiliated (all right, maybe a little humiliated), but impressed and amazed by their talents. I gained a greater appreciation for the difficulty of mastering any skill.

That being said …

When the "Greatest Athlete of All Time" label starts getting thrown around about a swimmer, I get the same feeling I had when Ryan Seacrest received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Many in the media have been quick to anoint Phelps as the ultimate American uberathlete, lest they be seen as unpatriotic, or worse, understated. After seeing Phelps on "60 Minutes" last weekend and with his being named Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year, it's clear the hype isn't going away. But the only reason this story line has legs is because so many non-sports fans watch the Olympics.

Can a swimmer really be considered the greatest athlete of all time? I guess it all depends on your definition of athleticism.

When some people hear "world's greatest athlete," they equate that label with a dominant competitor who has mastered a single sport, leaving everyone else vying for second place. They're more focused on the word "greatest" than the word "athlete." Certainly, guys like Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong and Phelps fit that definition -- but to me, those guys are supreme specialists with a limited talent. (Click here to give us your definition of a great athlete.)

When I hear "world's greatest athlete," I picture the holy trinity of our youth: the school yard, the backyard and P.E. class. A truly great athlete would be the first pick in any game there. Think about your pickup basketball game, your Thanksgiving football game, your tennis match on a Saturday in the park or your five-on-five soccer match. An "athlete" would stand out in all of them.

Great athletes should show a variety of skills, and a degree of coordination that translates to almost any athletic endeavor. Watch a great athlete play basketball, football, tennis, soccer, hockey or even certain positions on a baseball diamond, and you can see athletic abilities that would translate to other sports. To be a great wide receiver, you can't just run in a straight line; you also have to be able to cut, take a hit, catch a ball, remember your pattern, process audibles, read a defense and do a number of other things extremely well. To be a great point guard, you have to be able to shoot, move with lightning quickness, make good decisions and have passing skills.

Phelps? Well, we know he can swim really fast in a straight line.

Brian Jordan

AP Photo/Curtis Compton

Brian Jordan knows what it's like to chase down a great athlete like Jerry Rice.

"To call someone who is just swimming the best athlete who ever lived just because they have eight gold medals is totally unfair and unrighteous," says Brian Jordan, a standout high school football, basketball and baseball star who went on to become the starting safety for the NFL's Atlanta Falcons and a baseball All-Star for the Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals. "Guys who are just great at one specialty, they can't be the greatest athlete of all time."

We're not just arguing about semantics here. People like Jordan know that when sportswriters call someone the "world's greatest athlete," it opens the door to endorsement dollars, not to mention having the opportunity to embarrass yourself hosting "Saturday Night Live."

To be fair, Phelps isn't the first phenom from a fringe sport to take us down this road. It happens virtually every Summer Olympics. Similar arguments also get made for Tiger and Lance all the time. That's not to say these accomplishments aren't impressive and shouldn't be celebrated -- but a distinction must be made between specialists who have mastered narrow skills and great all-around athletes who could succeed in any sport they choose.

"Tiger Woods is a great golfer, but does he have the ability to play other sports or can he just golf?" Jordan asked. "Can he run, catch, jump, do other things? That remains to be seen.

"It's offensive. When I look at the rankings of the top 50 athletes to ever live and you see golfers and these kinds of people ahead of Bo [Jackson] and some of us, it's like, 'Wow.' They definitely don't understand how sports work. I don't think there's a cyclist or golfer in the entire world who could even play Division I football."

Is Jordan right? Well, Page 2 wants to find out.

Todd Gallagher

Courtesy of Todd Gallagher

Todd Gallagher thinks all athletes should be able to excel at dodgeball.

In 2004, Page 2 did a series ranking the degree of difficulty of individual sports (boxing was ranked as the toughest) and also asked its readers to crown the world's best athletes (Armstrong and Mia Hamm took home the titles).

Now, we want to find the rulers of the school yard. We've seen what specialists can do with years of training at a specific task -- now let's find out if they possess the sort of broader physical skills expected from a great athlete. Would a great specialist, such as a skater, swimmer or golfer, dominate the average P.E. class? Would an average schlub stand any chance against a guy like Jordan in the backyard Olympics?

Most of us haven't swum the butterfly against one another, thrown a javelin or ridden a bicycle for hundreds of miles. But most of us have played dodgeball, tag, floor hockey, four square and one-on-one basketball.

In the months ahead, I will compete against top athletes from a variety of sports in playground activities such as wiffle ball, H-O-R-S-E, backyard football, four square, soccer penalty kicks, the 50-yard dash, arm-wrestling and badminton. I'll take on elite competitors such as Brian Jordan, Olympic gold-medal decathlete Bryan Clay and gold-medal swimmer Janet Evans, and you'll see the results on Page 2.

In 2008, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) conducted a study of how many students participated in each sport. Here are the numbers for boys:

11-player football: 1,108,286

Basketball: 552,935

Outdoor track and field: 548,821

Baseball: 478,029

Soccer: 383,561

Wrestling: 259,688

Cross-country: 221,109

Golf: 159,958

Tennis: 156,285

Swimming and diving: 111,896

Wondering how it might turn out? Well, listen to a gifted athlete named Mark Rubin, who had his choice of sports in his youth. He opted to drop swimming despite showing a great degree of ability. A high school phenom in both baseball and football, Rubin was once a hopeful for the U.S. Olympic swim team, and he reportedly even beat Phelps multiple times in races, between the ages of 12 and 14. But Rubin gave up swimming to play football at Penn State, where he's now the starting strong safety. Although it's rare for a football player to have swum competitively, this kind of decision is not uncommon. Many great football, basketball and baseball players showed Olympic-level ability on the track before dropping it to focus on their respective sports. You don't have to be a genius to figure out why.

"Notoriety," Rubin said. "I would be lying if I didn't say one of the reasons I choose football over swimming was the publicity and recognition that it receives. If it's not the Olympics, you don't hear about it at all. I mean, you can break a world record, and it may get a sub-headline in the paper."

Even in an Olympic year, think about how many swimmers you can name versus football players. Against lowly Syracuse, Rubin probably had more people watching him than had been to all of his swim meets combined.

"Right, and if you don't win a gold medal, you have about zero chance of getting known."

Everyone talks about how freakish Phelps' physical characteristics are, but a 6-foot-4 guy with a 6-7 wingspan and size-14 feet isn't that unique. (Although his double-jointed ankles and other unique dimensions are pretty rare.)

"I have a size 13½ foot myself," Rubin said. "It's not like he's the only person in the world who's built like that. … If [Denver Broncos wide receiver] Brandon Marshall, let's say, really wanted to dedicate himself to swimming, he'd be very good. There's nothing to prevent a great athlete from becoming a great swimmer if they're willing to train hard and push through the pain barrier. There's a lot of kinds of body builds that would work."

In the book "Michael Phelps: The Untold Story of a Champion," Bob Bowman, Phelps' longtime coach, said as much: "The Michael Phelpses are out there. The problem swimming has is we have those kind of athletes out there, but we lose them to other sports."

But how would great swimmers do in those other sports?

For all of the talk about Phelps dominating swimming, much of that has to do with the number of events he could enter.

A total of 28 Olympians have 10 or more medals. Are these sports home to the world's greatest athletes?

Gymnastics: 13

Swimming: 7

Cross-country skiing: 2

Fencing: 2

Track and field: 2

Shooting: 1

Canoe: 1

"Swimmers aren't very good on land. They're clumsy," Rubin said of the swimmers he knew growing up. "I don't think they excelled in other sports. Certainly no one was good enough to get a scholarship offer in anything else."

Lest you think Rubin is being too harsh, here's what Phelps has said about his own coordination level: "I'm a fish out of water. I'm a clumsy person."

And it's just not swimmers who might struggle on the playground. Even Armstrong, champion of Page 2's greatest athlete competition, admitted his talents wane in other sports.

"I tried to play football, but I had no coordination," Armstrong wrote in his book, "It's Not About the Bike." "When it came to anything that involved moving from side to side or hand-eye coordination -- when it came to anything involving a ball in fact -- I was no good. I was determined to find something I could succeed at."

It doesn't exactly sound like Lance is the first pick at the Y or dominated his PE class. So, is it possible that an "everyman" would have a chance on the schoolyard against some of the all-time great specialists?

Before you assume I must have inhaled too much secondhand chlorine during the Olympics, consider the opinions of someone who, if anything, would be biased against me. Someone like Phelps' fellow swimmer Natalie Coughlin, who won six medals in Beijing and has 11 Olympic medals overall. When told by Page 2 podcast host Dave Dameshek about my school-yard challenge, she hardly thought it would be a blowout if I went up against Phelps.

"In general, swimmers are very much like mermaids where we're very, very good on water, not so good on land. So I have no idea. … Some people happen to be very good swimmers and still can do some land sports, but usually there's a lot of twisted ankles when you play basketball. It's not the prettiest. So, I'm interested to see how it turns out."

Keep in mind, the question wasn't, "Could a great swimmer play in the NBA?" or "How long would it take for a great swimmer to become an NFL safety?" but "Can one of the supposedly greatest athletes of all time beat Todd Gallagher in most playground sports?"

Rubin wasn't so sure I'm facing sure annihilation, either.

Todd Gallagher

Courtesy of Todd Gallagher

Todd says he isn't a great athlete, and based on this evidence, we believe him.

"I would say you stand a chance," he said.

With such bombastic rhetoric, you might think I am a great athlete myself. Lo, I am far from it. I'm an everyman, a schlub from Pittsburgh, the average American male. Out of shape, average height and weight, 32 years old. No one has ever recruited me, and I'm not particularly good at anything. I would never dream of putting myself in a discussion that involved great athletes unless the conversation was "Todd is not a great athlete." I've spent a lot of time in the backyard through the years, but I know I wouldn't be the school-yard peer of collegiate athletes in football, soccer or basketball.

And this isn't about me. It's about a quest to determine the boundaries of athleticism and whether domination of one discipline equates with true greatness. It's about a quest to find the true rulers of the school yard. Over the next few months, we'll find out.

Todd Gallagher is a TV producer, former professional basketball coach and author of "Andy Roddick Beat Me With a Frying Pan." You can reach him at


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