Who is the world’s greatest athlete? In honor of the leaping and flailing and patriotic sobbing that has been occurring for some days on my television, I will venture toward an answer by considering a few cultural figures of varying levels of renown.
All of them inhabit not this present world—which is to me a baffling, shadowy place of ever-eroding footholds—but the milieu with which I am much more familiar, the one I traversed in my childhood, specifically the star-spangled bicentennial summer of 1976, when this quiet Rick Rhoden card slipped unnoticed into my budding collection.
Let’s play the word association game. Ready? Jan-Michael Vincent.
What comes to mind? I’m guessing it’s an image informed by the afflicted former actor’s more recent forays into the public eye, handcuffed appearances in court, bedraggled mug shots, and the like. Decay and ruination. Sort of the opposite of the gleaming ideal of athleticism.
At one time, however, Vincent was the ideal athlete, at least in fictional terms, playing the titular character in the 1973 movie The World’s Greatest Athlete. I never saw the movie but I read the novelization two or three years after the movie came out. Vincent was cast as a long-haired Tarzan type named Nanu who gets pulled out of the African jungle by an American college coach and brought back to campus, where it is confirmed that all the vine-swinging and tiger wrestling has sharpened the ape-raised jungle lad into an indomitable collegiate athlete capable of shattering pole vault records and reviving the punt return attack.
I don’t remember what could have been the dramatic tension in the story. Nanu won everything. Maybe he gradually got civilized or something, married the college president’s bookish daughter, etc. My copy of the book is long gone, most likely impossible to replace, and I’m not about to order the movie off Amazon and sit through it while looking at a youthful Jan-Michael Vincent and thinking about the crushing desolation of time and substance addiction. But I wish I still had the book, damn it. It was one of those books with a section in the middle with photos, stills from the movie. Born Free was another book from my childhood that had that still-shot section in the middle. I don’t remember that book or movie so well, except to associate it with lions and an almost terrifying level of sadness. Jesus Christ, I never want to know what it was in Born Free that touched my vast early childhood capacity for terrifying sadness.
Sorry, what? Oh, right, great athleticism. Great athleticism would translate into being able to win any athletic contest, right? This would be impossible for anyone in the real world, but Nanu did it in a movie, and in doing so provided an ideal that real athletes could be measured against.
The athletic ideal established by Jan-Michael Vincent seemed to materialize in reality in the 1976 summer Olympics in the form of Bruce Jenner. Like Nanu, Jenner was a white fellow with flowing hair who hurled things, leaped obstacles, and rushed toward finish lines. He won the gold medal in the decathlon, the event most frequently associated with the notion of the world’s greatest athlete, and parlayed that success into a monetized cultural ubiquity to rival that of Evel Knievel; i.e. from the viewpoint of a nondenominational pop-culture-addicted child, God. Jenner could do it all better than anyone.
Or could he? I understood fairly early on that Jenner wasn’t really the greatest at everything, that he was actually generally mediocre when measured against the world’s top specialized athletes in each of the events comprising the decathlon. He was more accurately the world’s most versatile athlete, but only if the realm of athleticism could be stripped down to ten rudimentary track and field events and excluded all other forms of competition.
Jenner fared better, as the years went on, than the oft-arrested man behind Nanu. But like Vincent’s contemporaneous embodiment of virile youth, Jenner is now most commonly considered—by sporting-minded internet typists such as myself, and by people who avail themselves of Wikipedia—along the cheap-shot decay continuum of “how far they have fallen” rhetoric. We like to point out witheringly that Jenner is now a renowned figure in the world of reality entertainment, famous not for great athleticism but for being a plastic surgery victim and Kardashian empire subordinate. A few days ago my wife told me that she saw an episode of Dr. Phil featuring several women who received plastic surgery from an unlicensed felonious charlatan who promised to make the women’s unsatisfactory buttocks plump up like those of Kim Kardashian. He instead endangered their lives with injections of, among other toxic substances, quick-setting cement.
I’m no better than anyone else in this demented world. I fully participate in this collective mudslide to oblivion, which is a polite way of saying that I’ve jacked it to images of Bruce Jenner’s step-daughter’s rear end more than once. More than twice. It’s not a contest, though.
Kyle Rote Jr. I should be purer than I am, maybe. I should stop digressing, stop onanizing. Stop writing about baseball cards, perhaps. Move on to doing good works, helping others, praying to a higher power.
I come to these thoughts of purity frequently, then discard them. Or not even discard them, really, for that would require more purposefulness than I am capable of, but instead just kind of blah my way into and on to something else, some other manner of cogitating that allows for more meandering and guttering and nowhereness. That’s my life. Others decide to cast such a life aside, or try. Many are successful, I assume.
Kyle Rote Jr. seems to be one of these pious types. He has fared better in later years than the two other mid-1970s paragons of athleticism mentioned so far. He is a successful sports agent. He’s probably pretty wealthy, and definitely a devout Christian. Maybe this allowed him to avoid some pitfalls.
I remember Rote from 1976 and thereabouts for being the perennial winner of Superstars. That made-for-TV competition pitted athletes from various sports against one another in several events to determine the greatest athlete of them all. It puzzled and fascinated me that Rote, a nondescript soccer player I’d never heard of, always won. The program itself fascinated me. It was much less formal than the Olympics, which undercut its legitimacy, and yet it featured guys who were the best in each of their sports, and these sports, unlike track and field, were the ones that I followed and loved. If you were going to pick a greatest athlete in the world, how could you not include the superstars of American team sports? That’s what I thought anyway. But then the winner was always Kyle Rote Jr.
It was as if Marvel Comics put out a special issue featuring all its superheroes in a free-for-all brawl to decide who was the most powerful, and at the end the winner was some marginal lower-echelon guy not even capable of carrying his own series. Kyle Rote Jr. was like Hawkeye from the Avengers, if Hawkeye ever somehow figured out a way to defeat the Hulk, Thor, Spiderman, and the rest, and then went on to be a devoutly Christian multimillionaire sports agent and abstainer from digression and gherkin-jerking.
This is preposterous, of course. Hawkeye, weakest of limb of all superheroes save perhaps the Invisible Girl, possessing only one skill—an easily obtained skill shared by pale bespectacled loners in high school archery clubs everywhere—beating the Hulk? No, the winner of the ultimate contest, i.e., the world’s greatest athlete, would have to be someone with immense physical power and speed.
After all, a great athlete is in many ways a superhero. This was my thought in 1976, a thought which feels purer than what I am capable now, and thus closer to truth. Often in 1976 I imagined that I had superpowers, and in these imaginings I would more often than not use them to dominate various sports, running faster, throwing harder, jumping higher than anyone else. I could also, as needed, bash in faces and reduce skyscrapers to rubble.
In reality, I wasn’t particularly fast or strong, and certainly never bashed in a face. Also, even in my imaginings, I understood that having superpowers wouldn’t necessarily translate to mastery of every sport. I could dominate the Olympics and then go into football and rush for touchdowns on every carry, dragging entire teams of would-be tacklers on my back, and then I could move to basketball and Darryl-Dawkins a few backboards, I guess. But then, when I pondered channeling my Hulk-strength into baseball, I usually let the whole fantasy kind of fade into some other scenario. I knew by then that baseball was tricky. You couldn’t just swing in on a vine like Nanu and start drilling sliders into the gap. That took skill.
I’ll get to that idea of skill in a bit, but for now let’s dwell a little longer on Hulk-strength, since in my mind the Hulk would win the imaginary Marvel Comics free-for-all punch-fest. I think there may be some thought out there Thor was stronger than the Hulk, because Thor is a god, but fuck Thor. Thor is full of shit. Hulk smash.
Not that you asked, but here’s my full top-five power rankings list:
1. The Hulk
2. The Thing
3. Luke Cage: Power Man
5. Oh, all right, Thor (Note: Sean Howe, author of the forthcoming book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, advised me on seeing this list that Thor should at least be moved up to #3.)
The Hulkiest athlete of my childhood was a man named Brian Oldfield. He was a shot-put specialist who went pro in the sport at a time when such a thing was rarely done by track and field athletes in their prime. Because of this, he did not compete in the 1976 Olympics, which occurred when he was at the peak of his powers. For a time, he enjoyed notoriety as something of an outlaw. He was a little like the Hulk in that sense, too: unaffiliated, bounding around the country from place to place. He didn’t fit. And his powers were mind-boggling, feats of strength and speed battling spiritedly for column space with anecdotes from his life as a good-natured, fearless, hard-partying lantern-jawed Dionysus.
A Superstars clip from 1976 includes a mini-feature on the colorful Oldfield. The clip then climaxes in a 100-yard dash in which Oldfield beats all the other Superstars assembled save for Steelers wide receiver (and former track star) Lynn Swann. In another Superstars clip, Oldfield easily defeats the Hulk.
A Nameless Dog
Everything about the Superstars clips on YouTube speaks to me. The aimless pacing, the random collision of sports heroes, the modest and relaxed scale of the event, which seems to have the scope and urgency of a company picnic. But there is something in the 100-yard dash clip I wanted to mention in particular: In the last few moments of the 100-yard dash, Brian Oldfield runs into a dog that has bounded onto the track.
What does this dog have to do with this discussion? In my opinion, every discussion should include the equivalent of this dog.
The popularity of the 1976 Olympics as well as the success of the Superstars competition inspired a Saturday morning cartoon called the Laff-A-Lympics. The captain of the team that won the most of the weekly competitions was Scooby Doo. Here are the all-time Laff-A-Lympics standings:
The Scooby Doobies – 14 wins
The Yogi Yahooeys – 7 wins
The Really Rottens – 2 wins
One three-way tie
Despite his wondering whether “re really rarromprished ranything,” the most-decorated Laff-A-Lympian was a fearless avenger for justice.
The 1970s craze for channeling everything into an Olympics-y competition also inspired The Battle of the Network Stars. There’s no need for me to add anything to Bill Simmons’ pitch-perfect take on this competition’s soaring masterwork moment, except to say that Simmons’ appreciation was written before the recent passing of Robert Heyges, so Gabe Kaplan’s famed win now features a bittersweet note. There’s Epstein at the finish line, alive once again, front and center, the only network star visible for a moment, before Wonder Woman and Richie and Laverne and the rest storm in, just one Sweathog alone, arms raised in triumph and welcome for his teacher.
Those days. I miss them.
Rick Rhoden slipped and fell on scissors as a kid and got sick, had to wear a leg brace, got the brace off at 12, started striking everyone out, and within a few years was drafted first overall by the Dodgers. He won 151 major league games, more than all but 240 other pitchers in history. Of those pitchers only a dozen or so could claim to be as good a hitter as Rhoden, who won three Silver Slugger awards and was the only pitcher to ever serve as a designated hitter. Since his baseball career, he has become a successful professional golfer (lifetime winnings of over $250,000 and counting), something seemingly every great athlete in the world fantasizes about but can’t accomplish.
So in terms of mastering difficult, subtle athletic skills, Rhoden has few, if any, peers. Yes, Hulk smash. But imagine him trying to throw a curveball for a strike, then trying to hit a curveball, then trying to chip a tiny ball from the rough over a water hazard and onto a slippery green in the tense late stages of a pro event. Rrraaorggh! Hulk mad!
So Rick Rhoden had an uncommon mastery of subtle athletic skills. But if all Rick Rhoden ever did was master pitching, hitting, and the club-striking direction of a small white ball toward a series of tiny holes, I wouldn’t have considered him for this discussion. I don’t know what greatness is, but I know for me it resides somewhere in a long-gone Saturday afternoon after a morning of sugared-up Wheaties with Bruce Jenner and the Laff-A-Lympics and an issue of Marvel Teamup featuring Spiderman and the Thing, and a ceaselessly roaming little-kid imagination still capable of being amazed.
I was never amazed by Rick Rhoden. But recently I discovered, in my usual useless meandering, that in addition to his other athletic masteries Rick Rhoden also vied for the coveted title of 1975 bubble gum champ. He was not the greatest of all bubble blowers—only he who is called (Kurt) Bevacqua could make this claim—but Rhoden did make it all the way to the semifinals of the hallowed event. In this video, another beautiful piece of the shambling era I love and that made sense to me and that has left me, Rhoden appears at around the 1:40 mark, blowing a large oblong bubble as if the miraculous creation were nothing special, all in a day’s work for the world’s greatest athlete.