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Opinion: Who’s the GOAT? Who cares?

There are so many talented athletes to appreciate—why fixate on one?
A card known as the “Triple Logoman,” featuring three NBA logo patches cut from jerseys Lebron James wore with each of the franchises he has played for, set the sports collectible world on fire upon its release this year.

As a sports journalist and fan, one acronym I am particularly familiar with is: GOAT. For the uninitiated, that means “Greatest Of All Time,” and it is frequently bandied about in passionate exchanges regarding which athlete in any given sport stands head and shoulders above his or her peers. 

Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux? LeBron James or Michael Jordan? Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi? These kinds of questions can get us sports fans rather worked up, to say the least. 

Adjacent to that debate is the one about which player is the best at present. Hockey lovers may not be ready to equate Connor McDavid to Gretzky right this second, but they hold a mainstream consensus that McDavid rides alone at the top of today’s NHL. There are several other elite players in the league (Nathan MacKinnon, Auston Matthews, Cale Makar, Andrei Vasilevskiy, etc.) but most who dare insinuate that any of them are on McDavid’s level tend to elicit a droll look from others. 

The same is true in other sports. For instance, Stephen Curry is the NBA’s all-time leader in made three-pointers, with an edge of 730-plus and counting on runner-up Ray Allen—yet his name rarely emerges in basketball’s GOAT debates. Ronaldhino and Zinedine Zidane are two of the greatest talents soccer has ever produced, but I don’t hear them talked about as much as Ronaldo and Messi. 

Now, if I were to actually claim that Curry is the best hooper ever or that Zidane was better than Messi, I’d expect legions of superfans and pundits to shout me down using statistics and unbridled fervour in equal measure. But that’s not the argument I’m trying to make. 

This hill, I will die on: sports fandom is a more interesting experience when we step away from our collective obsession with crowning the GOAT. 

A wealth of talent

It’s inherently a flawed exercise to compare different positions across a team sport. McDavid, strictly speaking, might be hockey’s best forward: a five-time NHL scoring leader whose rare combination of speed and skill are a nightmare to game-plan for. Yet he can’t play defence like Makar, a generational blueliner who’s capable of guarding McDavid himself and driving play from the back end as no one else really can. 

Neither of them can stop pucks like Vasilevskiy, a Vezina and Conn Smythe-winning netminder who played an invaluable role in the Tampa Bay Lightning’s back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2020 and 2021. 

As a quick tangent: I would argue that goalie is the single most important position in hockey—a fact not reflected by mainstream media’s focus on elite skaters. A top-tier goaltender (or one who gets hot at the right time) can steal more than one playoff series for his club, while you need several great forwards and defencemen to outweigh the performance of one mediocre netminder. It is hard to outscore bad goaltending. 

Along similar lines: the question of “Is LeBron better than Jordan?” reduces basketball to a shell of itself because each man impacted the game differently. Jordan may have been the best pure scorer ever, but LeBron is a much better passer and playmaker. And while Curry may not have the raw accolades to join the GOAT conversation, he helped revolutionize basketball by influencing teams at all levels to take more three-point shots. 

There is nuance in individual sports too, and here’s a skiing example just because we’re a Whistler publication. 

Mikaela Shiffrin owns an unrivalled 97 World Cup victories, but while she’s good enough to be a five-time overall titleholder, slalom (60 wins) and giant slalom (23 wins) are her best disciplines. Contrast that with Lindsey Vonn, who dominated downhill (43 wins) and super-G (28 wins) for years. 

Shiffrin has more medals, yes, but she and Vonn are different types of skiers who excelled at different things. Both left a lasting mark on their sport. We could insist on comparing the two head-to-head, or we could appreciate them both for what they did. 

To my fellow fans and reporters, I ask: what if we spent more time doing the latter? Why obsess over finding a singular all-time great when every sport has so much talent for us to recognize?