During the month of September, Olympic.ca will be exploring “What makes the perfect athlete?” The goal is not to craft a definitive answer, but to acknowledge great athletes and achievements in sport – Canadian and international – throughout the month and welcome fans to discuss their favourite heroes and moments.
The biggest problem in ranking the 10 all-time individual achievements in sport means ultimately leaving out dozens of deserving candidates. The dilemma increases when considering the brilliance of athletes within team sports (i.e. the likes of Pelé, Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky), but perhaps they’re best to leave in an altogether different category.
Anyhow, after a great deal of accumulating, hand-wringing, cursing and finally giving up, crying and picking names from a hat (just kidding), here are my top 10 all-time individual achievements in sport:
10. Kurt Browning: the first quad
Before he became a four-time world champion, Kurt Browning landed the quad toe loop for figure skating’s first ever four-revolution jump in competition at the 1988 World Championships. Someone was bound to do it eventually but the Canadian was courageously first to land it in front the world, and thereby forever becoming a revolutionary (pun intended) figure in one of the most popular winter sports.
9. Steffi Graf: 377 weeks
Be it man or woman, no tennis star has ever spent more weeks as the world’s number one singles player than Steffi Graf. Her 377 weeks at the top beats the men’s standard of Roger Federer (302 weeks) and dwarfs present day contemporaries in the women’s game such as Serena Williams (200 weeks and counting).
8. Vitaly Scherbo: six gold medals
Anytime you walk out of the Olympics with six gold medals you get on lists. Belarusian artistic gymnast Vitaly Scherbo left Barcelona 1992 with five individual and a team gold for the Unified Team, which consisted of republics of the former Soviet Union.
7. Eric Heiden: long track sweep
Clever marketers have forever lionized Lake Placid 1980 for the American hockey team’s “Miracle on Ice,” but that was just one of the six gold medals United States won at home that year. The other five all came from one man, speed skater Eric Heiden, who swept the men’s long track events, setting four Olympic records and besting the world mark in 10,000m.
6. Haile Gebreselassie: greatest distance runner ever
One of the greatest endurance athletes of all time, the Ethiopian double-Olympic champion rewrote the record books multiple times in the men’s 5,000 and 10,000 metres before moving up distance for arguably his greatest feat, becoming the first man to run the marathon under two hours and four minutes (2:03:59) at the Berlin Marathon in 2008.
5. Jesse Owens: four records, one hour
Remembered fondly for pouring cold water over the myth of Aryan supremacy on German soil at Berlin 1936 by winning four Olympic gold medals, Owens’ greatest feat actually came a year earlier at an university track meet. Competing for Ohio State at Ann Arbor, Michigan, Owens broke three world records (long jump, 220-yard sprint, 220-yard hurdles) and tied another (100-yard dash) in less than an hour. An hour!
4. Nadia Comaneci: perfect 10
Romania’s Nadia Comaneci’s greatest athletic achievement was realized inside a Canadian hockey institution at Montreal 1976. Comaneci won five of her nine career Olympic medals in 1976, though her iconic status came from being the first gymnast to ever score a perfect 10, which she achieved seven times under the watchful eyes of the legendary hockey ghosts of the Montreal Forum.
3. Roger Bannister: four-minute mile
Perhaps the most famous of firsts in athletics, on May 6, 1954 Englishman Roger Bannister became the first runner to break four minutes in the mile with a time of 3:59.4 at Oxford University. This was a celebrated feat as the race was heating up to break what many thought was a physically impossible barrier.
2. Michael Phelps: Beijing brilliance
The most-decorated Olympian of all-time (22 Olympic medals) it was Michael Phelps’ exploits at Beijing 2008 that really sets the American’s accomplishments apart. The swimmer won an all-time Olympic best eight gold medals at a single Games, setting seven world records along the way. Five of the eight gold medals were earned in individual events.
1. Usain Bolt: the triple-double
That he is the fastest human in recorded history running the 100m at an astonishing 9.58 seconds may be the second most impressive feat achieved by Jamaica’s Usain Bolt. Notably, Bolt is the only person ever to repeat as Olympic 100m/200m sprints & 4x100m relay champion, enthralling the world first at Beijing 2008 and then making it a “triple-double” at London 2012. Bolt plans to make it even harder for future generations to match his unprecedented results by returning to make it three straight 100m/200m/4x100m relay Olympic titles at Rio 2016.
Honourable mentions: This list was compiled with the greatest of great apologies in no particular order to Muhammad Ali, Javier Sotomayor, Bob Beamon, Larisa Latynina, George Eyser, Saori Yoshida and countless others who achieved incredible individual sporting feats.