Many a heated debate has raged over who is the greatest athlete of all time. Is it Michael Jordan? Muhammad Ali? Wayne Gretzky? Perhaps soccer great Pelé? Skateboarding legend Tony Hawk? The question goes from the barroom to the laboratory on Sunday with ESPN Sport Science: Greatest Athlete of All Time (March 10 at 3:30/2:30c on ESPN).
"Previously, people would identify the best player or the person who had the biggest impact on their sport," says host John Brenkus, whose Sport Science segments air on SportsCenter and in periodic specials on the network. "What we're analyzing are categories like quickness, agility, speed, strength, power, endurance, durability, performance under pressure. We're looking for the real athlete, not just the player."
(Oddly, the "winner" was already announced last week during a SportsCenter segment that concluded two weeks of a bracket-style tournament paring down the finalists. We won't spoil it here — you can see for yourself at espn.com/greatest.)
Though Sport Science's methods may seem unconventional, they recently gained significant validation thanks to the breakthrough of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Two years ago, Brenkus & Co. called him the top quarterback in an NFL Draft class that included No. 1 overall pick Cam Newton. Kaepernick went 36th overall (fifth quarterback) in that draft, but proved his worth by leading the 49ers to this year's Super Bowl. "In all of our tests he excelled so much that I felt really confident predicting that this guy is going to be a total force in the NFL," Brenkus says. "He flew under the radar until he got his chance."
A public online vote at helped determine the Greatest Athlete nominees, and icons tended to fare better than current phenoms. Michael Jordan was selected basketball's nominee over LeBron James, track and field star Carl Lewis earned more votes than Usain Bolt, and Tony Hawk landed ahead of snowboarding wonder boy Shaun White.
And even though Brenkus' goal was to objectively choose the greatest, he thinks popular opinion does factor into the equation. "All of these athletes are amazing and have tested very high on our metrics," he says, "but having a lasting impact on the public is also important in terms of being an athlete."