By Marc Alexander

Photo Credit: ccsabathia52.com

Later this month, the Summer Olympic Games will showcase athletes from the four corners of the world as they converge on London to compete for fame, fortune, and precious medals. Without question, the swimmers, gymnasts, volleyball players and other performers at the games are considered the best of the best in their respective sports; and the Olympics have been the setting for some of sports history’s most memorable moments. But are these athletes the greatest athletes in the world?  Will it be fair, or even accurate, for history to consider multiple gold medal-winning stars like Michael Phelps, or the fastest-man-in-the-world Usain Bolt, as some of the greatest “athletes” of all time? I say no!

Though the athletes are undoubtedly some of the best in the world, you rarely, if ever, see them crossover into another event. True, some swimmers are masterful at more than one stroke; and track and field stars have been known to excel at both sprinting and the long jump.  However, you never see a long jumper running through the Olympic Village because he is also competing in fencing. I don’t remember ever seeing a boxer climb out of the ring to jog over to the korfball court. But, athletes of this ilk – with capabilities to numerous for one sport to contain – do exist. There is an elite class of athletes who have given new meaning to the word “multitasking” by competing at the highest levels in not just one, but in two or three sports at a time.

Photo Credit: okhistory.org

The earliest example of this sort of wunderkind is Jim Thorpe – who played professional football, baseball, and played on a traveling Native American basketball team. Thorpe also won gold medals in the decathlon and pentathlon during the 1912 Olympics.

Babe Didrikson could be considered the female equivalent to Jim Thorpe.  A standout in track and field, she won two gold medals and a silver medal at the 1932 Olympics.  She also was an All-American in basketball and was adroit in softball, bowling, billiards, and diving. In addition to all of these accomplishments, Babe actually enjoyed her greatest fame later in life when she became the star of first the Women’s Professional Golf Association and then the Ladies Professional Golf Association. She is still considered, by many, to be the greatest female athlete of all time.

St. Simon Island’s own Jim Brown has to be in the conversation for G.O.A.T. multi-sport athlete. Almost fifty years after he retired, Brown is still considered by gridiron pundits and fans alike as the greatest football player of all time. He also starred in basketball, track and field, and baseball. Brown is considered to be one of if not the greatest lacrosse players of all time, which makes him potentially a double G.O.A.T.

Thorpe, Didrikson, and Brown were incredible athletes for their time and it’s hard to imagine anyone in the modern era coming anywhere close to their achievements. However, the achievements of the athletes of yesteryear must be considered in the proper context.  The playing fields of recent decades have been far more competitive than they were in earlier parts of the 20th Century. And, in my opinion, athletes who have managed to excel in multiple sports as professionals – with the demands, distractions and trappings of modern fame, exhibit the type of focus and fortitude that puts them in a class all their own.

So, who is the greatest multi-sport athlete of all time?

For me, the G.O.A.T. multi-sport athlete debate comes down to two men from the South – both of whom played professional football and baseball: Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson.

Deion Sanders is considered one of the most versatile athletes in sporting history. Not only did he plat multiple sports, but he played multiple positions within multiple sports. In the NFL, Deion played primarily at cornerback; but he also occasionally as a running back, wide receiver, kick-returner, and punt returner. In baseball, he played for the New York Yankees, the Atlanta Braves, the Cincinnati Reds, and the San Francisco Giants. He once played a World Series game for the Yankees and then flew by helicopter to play with the Atlanta Falcons in the same day.

Vincent Edward “Bo” Jackson was a world class sprinter in high school.  Bo was also drafted out of high school by New York Yankees. He ran the 40-yard dash in a blistering 4.12 seconds (hand-timed), which is still the fastest verifiable 40-yard dash time ever recorded at any NFL Combine.  During his collegiate career at Auburn University, he became the fourth greatest rusher in South Eastern Conference history. He was awarded college football’s highest honor – the Heisman Trophy – in 1985. As a pro, Bo played simultaneously for the NFL’s Los Angeles Raiders and for Major League Baseball’s Kansas City Royals. He was selected for both the NFL’s Pro Bowl and the MLB’s All-Star team – a feat that no other athlete has accomplished before or since.

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Famously nicknamed “Prime Time,” Deion Sanders enjoyed lengthier careers than Bo Jackson in both leagues – spending nine years in Major League Baseball and fourteen in the NFL. Not only was he a two-time Super Bowl winner, during his career, but he even came back to the league after retiring and played effectively for two years for the Baltimore Ravens. Deion Sanders is enshrined in both the college and pro football Hall of Fames, and has been named on the prestigious “Top 100 NFL Players of All Time” list.

While Bo Jackson could have easily been a double Hall of Famer, as well, his amazing career was cut short by a hip injury that stalled him in both leagues. Deion Sanders could probably play today and be still effective – and that’s why “Prime Time” is my choice for the Greatest Multi-sport athlete of All Time.


Agree? Disagree? Go ahead, make your argument. I dare you.

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