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July 25, 2005

One last (I hope) clueless sportswriter post for the year

ESPN.com | Page 2 : Lance finally comes up short

Armstrong @ TdG
Armstrong @ Tour de Georgia
Photo by Frank Steele
I really considered "just saying no" to the bait, but the ESPN.com Page 2 column for today is so clueless, I couldn't resist.

I honestly suspect this guy's just looking for mail, like the columnist I used to work with who once referred to the homeless as "rotting hunks of flesh." Today, we've evolved the word "Troll" to encompass these people.

In short, Bayless says Armstrong isn't the greatest athlete of all time (which I'm okay with), but he says it's because cycling just isn't, well, athletic enough.

Bayless is happy to anoint Armstrong the greatest cyclist of all time, which, of course, most fans of the sport do not (I'm still in the Merckx camp), but that's not the source of my disagreement.

This may just be one of those arguments where you're doomed from the get-go, like discussing Bush's bicycle crash, or the Palestinian question. Maybe you can't compare Jim Thorpe and Lance Armstrong, or Bjorn Dahlie and Dave Mirra. But I'm not going to let that stop me, since we're just looking at Bayless's column.

Here's Skip's nut graf:

Armstrong doesn't qualify as the greatest all-around athlete because cycling doesn't test enough athletic talent or skill. And he doesn't qualify for greatest performer because his sport doesn't have the equivalent of last-second shots or throws or catches, of two-outs-in-the-ninth swings or of final-hole putts. The pressure through 21 Tour stages is constant, but rarely if ever acute.

But his argument in favor of the ball-sports boys seems a little weak. "When has Armstrong ever been tested under huge-moment fire?" he asks. Maybe this guy has never even seen the Tour? When your opponent motors up the road on a finishing climb, that strikes me as, well, a crucial moment. More so than in the ball sports, where you can respond on a later hole, possession, or down to what your opponent does now. If a Tour winner doesn't have the wheels at that moment, he's toast. And there may be 10 of those moments on any given climb.

"Armstrong doesn't have the rare reflexes required to connect with 95-mph fastballs, or to throw baseballs or footballs, or to catch 60-yard passes on the dead run, or to make 25-foot jumpers or spinning, hanging circus shots over leaping giants," says Bayless. Did you see him off-road in the 2003 Tour to avoid Beloki's fall? It was like dancing, but no, it's not as big a part of the sport.

But do any of the ball sports require the physical recovery of cycling? No way. Do any of them require athletes to go anaerobic for more than an instant? Nope. Do any of them require the balance necessary to competitively descend from the mountains? No. And there are only a few other situations that require strategy and tactics on a par with cycling (the batter-pitcher duel, possibly quarterbacks reading defenses).

The ultimate irony in Bayless' piece (and I leave it to the reader to determine exactly what it's a piece of) is this:

Which leads to another key question: While just about every kid in America rides a bike at some age, how many dedicate themselves to winning the Tour de France? Not many. Far more want to be baseball, basketball or football players. Competitive cycling is more popular among kids in other countries, but not in this one.

Yet Armstrong hasn't had to battle the quality or depth of competition in his sport that baseball, basketball or football greats have risen above in theirs.

So Armstrong's achievements are lessened because more people play ball sports than race bikes?

If Bayless had ever left the United States, he might have discovered that baseball and football are not exactly the number 1 sports worldwide. Basketball is more widespread, but as Bayless himself says, just about every kid rides a bike at some age. Bike racing worldwide draws from a huge pool of recreational and transportation cyclists.

So who does Bayless say is the greatest athlete of all time? None other than "Neon" Deion "Prime Time" Sanders, the man for whom one nickname wasn't enough. I saw Deion play for the Falcons, the Braves, and the Reds, and as ball-sports guys go, he was good, but he was two things: fast (no, FAST) and agile. Little power (as a hitter or a tackler), and not great game smarts: He was best as a man-to-man cover man, where he could take any single receiver out of a ballgame.

So anyway, who WAS the greatest athlete of all time? Nominations in the comments, please.

Posted by Frank Steele on July 25, 2005 in Lance Armstrong, Links | Permalink


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Tracked on Jul 26, 2005 11:52:37 AM


I saw that article this morning and found it equally absurd. Since when did riding 3,000+km in a month not qualify as an intense athletic endeavour? Sheesh. Just because these world-class athletes riding the TdF (or any other race for that mater!) makes it look easy doesn't mean that it is!

Lack of depth and quality of the rest of the field... just wait 'til next year's Armstrong-less TdF :)

Posted by: Jennie at Jul 25, 2005 4:50:37 PM

I find it amusing that he doesn't include Armstrong on the list of great athletes, but he does include Nicklaus!

And yet includes flash-in-the-pans Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders in the mix. They aren't even tops in their sports! How can they be tops of all time?

I like to look at dominance. How much more did the greatest dominate their sport than their peers?

LA has dominated the Tour since his comeback. He has 40% more Tour victories than his next best competitors. That says a lot. Nicklaus has 63% more major victories than his closest competitor. How did Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders dominate their sports?

Posted by: Out4Blood at Jul 25, 2005 5:08:14 PM

I read that article. If Armstrong isn't one of the greatest athletes of all time, I don't know who qualifies anymore. He states that bicycling isn't a skill sport. Try riding on melting pavement for over 2000 miles. Try riding on slick roads after a rain. Try climbing those mountains with people screaming in your ears leaving you just enough space to ride to the top. Bicycling takes just as much training as any other sport. He just happens to make it look so easy, people don't think that cycling is a hard thing. Did he see all of the riders that came in 30, 45, over an hour behind Lance on the mountain days? Does he realize that Lance came in 4th in the king of the mountain race?
All great althletes share commonalities and that is the determination to be the best at their sport. I particularly don't think that golf is a sport but Nicklaus is right at the top of that game. Lance, Jordan, Gretzky, Orr, Bird, Johnson, Montana, Rice; these are great athletes who I look up to. Lance may not be the best rider of all time based upon the differences in races he was in, how the tour is now team oriented and wasn't always this way, but he is the best of the sport right now and has been for 8-9 years.

Posted by: caroline miller at Jul 25, 2005 5:14:33 PM

"Armstrong doesn't qualify as the greatest all-around athlete because cycling doesn't test enough athletic talent or skill. And he doesn't qualify for greatest performer because his sport doesn't have the equivalent of last-second shots or throws or catches, of two-outs-in-the-ninth swings or of final-hole putts. The pressure through 21 Tour stages is constant, but rarely if ever acute."

Well, if someone only watches Tour de France a couple of days every year then perhaps he can have that opinion. On the other hand, is the problem that the sport lacks those moments or was Lance too good to "create" that acute pressure.

To me, the penultimate (?) stage of the Giro this year, with the Savoldelli-Simoni-Rujano-battle, was one of those moments. I loved every second of it and I didn't want it to end. Just as I can see Magnus Bäckstedt's win at Paris-Roubaix last year over and over again.

Posted by: Dennis at Jul 25, 2005 5:32:49 PM

I've posted a bunch of times that I think ESPN has become so self-referentially self-important that it has become a worthless measure of sport. Bayless is just one example. His article was awful. Armstrong isn't one of the greatest athletes because all he could do is ride a bike faster and better than anyone else in the world? Because he only did one sport (after starting out and succeeding in two, or three (if you count triathlons) other sports)? Then why? Bayless says: Because only today's it's all about me stars can be the greatest. Because only those people with eye hand coordination are athletes. What Bayless neglects is that the greatest athletes transcend the athletic arena: Gehrig and Ruth are two great examples from a different era. They are athletes who inspired great things out of the populations around them. Jordan and Gretzky too. Deion Sanders? Ha. Bo Jackson? Bo knows he isn't one of the greatest. As for Lance, he may not be the best cyclist ever, but he is probably the greatest cyclist so far.

Posted by: tweedledopey at Jul 25, 2005 5:40:00 PM

If Bayless limits the criteria to hand-eye coordination under pressure, then there are hundreds of table tennis and badminton Olympians who are better athletes than Michael Jordan.

At the very least, Pete Sampras would rank higher than Deion "Tackle? Isn't that the guy who plays on the line?" Sanders.

Posted by: Beau at Jul 25, 2005 5:44:18 PM

Likewise I read Bayless this morning. Got a chuckle out of his lack of insight into the sport (reminded me of an all night book report on a subject the writer knew or cared to know little about). Besides, when American sport writers take there shots at cycling, how many in their core audience is going to take offense? Gutless piece of writing on the day after.

It would have taken Bayless more guts and gumption to learn enough about the sport and the achievement to attempt to educate his audience and what it all meant. I'm afraid that level of intelligence is just beyond him.

I almost took the bait and posted about it on my blog. As I was gathering my thoughts, I decided the best way to deal with the troll was in the language of my 11 yo--"whatever."

It was good for a morning laugh. For that I say thanks.

Posted by: Trée at Jul 25, 2005 9:19:16 PM

The real between the lines comment here is he is pissed off at what Armstrong said at the end of the podium speech. He doesn't like the sport and he took this as a jab. He's clearly a touchy guy. He even refers to Lance as a 'little man'

It's also clear he has a real American athlete/American sport complex. Nowhere does he mention people like Tendulkar or Bradman or Pele. Great athletes in non-American sports.

But what do you expect? SI is a meathead American sportsrag with meathead American writers. I stopped reading in 10th grade after I realized how bad it was. Actually I did buy the swimsuit edition after that. It had more intelligent commentary.

Posted by: Chad at Jul 25, 2005 10:29:25 PM

Look at the list of all-time great long-distance runners the guy gives.

The list is pathetic. Five minutes with Google would have added a few names to the list that are far more deserving.

The whole "Greatest athlete" schtick is nonsense. In some way, all "Top 10 lists" are trolls designed to provoke discussion (if not arguments). But if you're going to play that game, you have to acknowledge that Armstrong makes the list, and is one of the top athletes, if not the top.

Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain make a lot of similar points, but they do it in a logical way that's not flame-bait.

Posted by: Rob at Jul 25, 2005 11:03:53 PM

Oh geez. Some lamebrain columnist writes this same column every year. I can't get over sportfanus americanus who thinks ball sports actually matter.

Sorry. I suppose it's ridiculous to argue that any sport actually matters very much, but ball sports, IMO, matter not a whit. (I would add team sports in general to that statement, but where would that leave cycling!)

There you have it, an equally lamebrained opinion. Greatest athlete in the world? Eh, who cares. You look at online polls that ask this question though, and the overwhelmingly majority of Americans will still vote for Lance.

Posted by: noelle at Jul 25, 2005 11:09:12 PM

Bayless is a dope. Every year we get the "Lance is the greatest...or is he?" garbage. Some of it is well-written and has valid, referenced points and provides a well-constructed argument. Bayless's piece doesn't do that at all.

I think he's peeved that he can't ride up the sides of mountains (both literal and oncological) like LA.

As far as great athletes (other than Lance), I look up to Ali, Gretzky, Ripken, and Howe. One could even add Eki to this list - he's cycling's true Ironman and had it not been for breaking his back, he would have been with LA for #7 this year, too.

Posted by: Beth at Jul 25, 2005 11:15:29 PM

I thought his Iverson/Sanders comparison was like saying Jordan wasn't that great an athelete because his floor-routine needed work, or his pole vaulting form was amateurish.


Posted by: Jarrett at Jul 26, 2005 1:52:08 AM

King Kaufman at Salon can also be counted on for this kind of stuff, this year he said that Lance's 7-time TDF accomplishment merely adds up to an Ali that only beat Frazier.

My favorite one came after 2003's Tour, during a Sunday morning roundtable. Some sportswriters were negatively comparing Lance to Brett Favre. A: "Does Lance Armstrong ride his bike with 350-pound guys chasing him?" B: "Of course not!" A: "I rest my case!"

Most of these U.S. pundits and media outlets have vested interests in keeping the ball sports and their related industries first and foremost, so this all amounts to little more than chicken soup for the football fan's soul. Deion Sanders, indeed.

Posted by: Peloton Pete at Jul 26, 2005 8:03:33 AM

Clueless sportswriters need to make some contraversy to validate themselves. Bayless is simply trying to get headlines by going against the grain of celebrating Lance. He comes up with some poorly researched argments so people will at least talk about his article, and it works...

Plus, if you ever watch those sports talk discussion shows they always try to make odd comparisons just for an argument....
"Which is better Muhammed Ali or a Diet Coke ?"
"Well Diet Coke is more popular than Ali ever was"
"Ali could crush a can with his hands!"
and on and on.....

Posted by: Marcello at Jul 26, 2005 8:55:30 AM

Greatest Athletic of all time? Can't compare one era to another but Jim Thorpe was the best in the early part of the 20th century period.

Lance is a great athletic better than "Prime Time" what about boxers? Sugar Ray Roberterson?

Oh! Boxers didn't hit a fast ball!

Bayless is clueless in ESPN land.

Posted by: Ken Slamon at Jul 26, 2005 10:15:28 AM

I found this site by accident but have to agree with practically everyone here. I live in the UK and we have just had a series come to an end where people voted for the greatest sportsman of all time. It was done on an individual sport basis with all the finalists then going head to head in public votes. Whilst undoubtedly there was a UK bias in voters we seem to be a lot more balanced in our view of the world. There was one wild card entry which came down to Babe Ruth or Lance Armstrong, Armstrong winning, possibly due to recency. But there is no mention in this article you are all quoting of some of the greatest sportsmen to ever live as they were non US.

Jan Ove Waldner

Someone made the point well, that outside of the US, Canada, Cuba and Japan, baseball is no more than a minority sport and Gridiron - non -existent. Football is the true global game and Pele retired having nearly scored at an average of 1 a game over a Thousand games. Is there a baseball player in history to have that many homeruns, or touchdowns? You are right to flame the author it is petty minded journalism like this that creates lack of understanding everywhere.

Posted by: Pete at Jul 26, 2005 12:27:23 PM

We need to make a distinction here between sportwriters and sports. In some of the comments here, not only do people criticize the ignorant Bayless column, but they condemn sports that are associated with America (baseball, football etc). In my experience sportwriters too often are arrogant loudmouths who devote vast amounts of time debating the most irrelevant subjects. And they blithely condemn and ignore any sport they are not interested in or don't understand.

But let's not condemn the sports themselves. Every sport is a game with rules and the best of the best of those sports are truly remarkable for their excellence and we should respect that whether we like the sport or not. Right now I'm watching Dave Mirra at the X Games do some incredible stuff on a BMX bike and what he is doing is not comparable to other sports.

So let's not condemn the sports themselves because some jackass sportwriter condemns a sport that we like. Instead lets dogpile sportwriters and their shallowness and stupidity.

What's funny about this is that you don't hear other athletes making these kinds of statements. The OLN coverage had pieces with Gretsky and Tiger celebrating Lance and just from watching various interviews over the years it is clear that the best athletes respect each other. These guys aren't just interested in their sport, they respect and are intrigued by excellence in any sport.

Posted by: phil at Jul 26, 2005 2:56:44 PM

Just like the rest of you, I find Skip Bayless' comments completely obsurd. I just wish Lance wasn't retiring. I personally would like to see if he can hold off guys like Jan and Ivan and Rasmussen for one more year.

One more interesting piece on Bayless though. These comments of his on Lance Armstrong come barely weeks after his Chicago Tribune article where argued that Rafeil Palmeiro doesn't belong in the baseball Hall of Fame. I don't know how many of you follow baseball, but Palmeiro is one of 4 people in MLB history to achieve 3,000 hits and 500 home runs... quite an elite achievement. He stated that Palmeiro didn't belong in the Hall because he didn't have very much media hype during his career.

Perhaps Bayless' only likes people with a lot of hype like "Neon" Deion? Who knows... but somebody needs to get this guy out of the media.

Posted by: Paul at Jul 27, 2005 12:15:39 AM

Note to Bayless:
You are right about that. But very inaccurate in your comments. Lance won the General Classification. Primarily the part of Le Tour that requires superior endurance skills.
You said, "because his sport doesn't have the equivalent of last-second shots or throws or catches, of two-outs-in-the-ninth swings or of final-hole putts" and you are wrong. The sprinters, the guys who win the flat stages, possess many of the same skills that you mentioned in your article. That is the direct equivelant of the last second shot at the buzzer. These stages are won in the blink of an eye. There are legions of fans of the Malliot Vert, the green jersey.
Lance may not be the greatest athlete. There are so many ways to measure greatness. Muscular strength, cardio capacity, hand-eye coordination, mental toughness.
This "greatest athlete" thing is actually stupid and I'm sorry you are perpetuating it. There is no possible way to quantify it.
An important thing to consider is outright dominance of a particular sport. Tiger, Wayne, Wilt, these men dominated their respective sports, just as Lance has. For this he is great.
But you and I could make an argument that Lance Armstrong is the most superior representation of human physical and mental excellence and condition.

Posted by: Wade at Jul 27, 2005 1:31:32 PM

What was Lance Armstrong's percentage ownership of the Discovery Channel team, if any?
Is it true that he held tight control over hiring riders for the team & therefore had a very loyal team, unlike other teams who competed with their leaders and did not always defend them?
What is the real story about Lance only training for and racing in the Tour de France, while others entered several or many races during the year. Was this because team sponsors knew they couldnt beat Lance in the Tour?
Was Lance frowned upon for not entering other races & therefore saving his strength for the "big race" and having a distinct edge over his competitors who were drained from previous races?
Can anyone clear up these mysteries?

Posted by: Starker White at Aug 9, 2005 5:48:26 PM