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July 24, 2005

Lance Armstrong: Most Dominant Ever?

Posted by Nick Beaudrot

More substantive posting is on the way, but I just wanted to pause and ask this question:

Now that he's won his seventh consecutive Tour de France, is there anyone in any sport who has been as dominant for as long as Lance Armstrong?

At a glance, the closest thing I can come up with is Garry Kasparov, who was the Undisputed World Chess Champion for eight years, and the classical world chess champion for fifteen years. Tiger Woods' two years where he won 50% of the tournaments he entered, and became the first person to hold all four majors' titles simultaneously was unprecedented... but that wasn't a particularly lengthy period of dominance. Sandy Koufax led the National League in ERA for six years in a row ... but he was helped to some extent by Dodger Stadium. Michael Jordan? Jim Brown? Wayne Gretsky? Even Gretsky had players who put up comparable numbers and would beat him for the scoring (points, not goals) title from time to time.

Put your thoughts in the comments.

July 24, 2005 in Sports | Permalink

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Comments

Agree the dude is flat-out awesome. However, competitive cycling definitely encompasses much more than "Le Tour." Apparently, some really think of it as a sport unto itself, almost disjoint from the rest of cycling.

Posted by: TJ | Jul 24, 2005 10:06:30 PM

John Wooden won 10 NCAA basketball championships and seven of those were consecutive. He also coached his UCLA teams to 4 perfect seasons. That's pretty dominant. Michael Jordan dominated professional basketball for a decade. Also impressive. The one thing about Lance Armstrong's feat that's possibly superior to Wooden or Michael Jordan is that Armstrong went to Europe and beat them at their own game on their own turf. Armstrong never had the luxury of being the "home" team.

Posted by: marvyt | Jul 24, 2005 10:08:40 PM

TJ: Is your claim that Lance wouldn't be as successful at the smaller races as he is at Tour de France? Is the Alps climbing particular to Le Tour, and he'd get smoked by sprinters on the Tour de Italy/Portugal/etc?

Posted by: Nick Beaudrot | Jul 24, 2005 10:10:28 PM

Nick,

Nah. I think he'd have been really successful in the other races, too. He does do some others as tune-ups, anyway, and though I think he doesn't often win them, I'm sure that isn't why he does 'em.

One thing to consider also is that LA has had really good teams with him, and that the aspects of race management, and even training, that are really serious parts of the racing world today were much less important in the past. Racers without the benefit of quite so much data, technology, and handling were sometimes dominant in the past (e.g., Eddy Merckx).

This is all just by way of saying that some don't think LA is the most dominant cyclist ever, but maybe the most dominant winner of Le Tour.

I don't necessarily buy it ;)

Posted by: TJ | Jul 24, 2005 10:39:38 PM

For whatever reason, cycling seems to be a sport that really lends itself to dynasties: Indurain, Hinault, Merckx, Inquetil all won multiple years in a row. It must be that to win the Tour you have to be such an unbelievable freak of nature that there aren't too many people capable of it alive at the same time.

Anyway: Bill Russell winning 11 out of 13 titles and Babe Ruth leading the league in HRs 12 out of 14 years including 10 years over 40 HRs.

Posted by: antid_oto | Jul 24, 2005 10:43:58 PM

Squash player Heather Blundell McKay was undefeated for almost twenty years up to the early eighties.Unbeatable?

Posted by: jimmydan | Jul 24, 2005 11:00:22 PM

Nick,

I think TJ is saying Armstrong's record is soley on winning one particular race. It's sort of analogous to the Yankees (hypothetically) winning their pennant each year. If their season consisted entirely of the pennant series, they would probably do amazingly well, since everything would be about whaling away on that one series. Armstrong has proven himself the master of the TdF, but other athletes you mentioned have much longer seasons and often have to play lots of "meaningless" games to get to play in the "important" games, thus increasing their chances to lose, and therefore "tarnishing" their streaks.

Also, winning the TdF often means coming in consistently 2nd-5th rather than whipping every one every day. My alma mater, FSU, was ridiculously consistant wrt finishing in the top 5 in football each year in the 80s and 90s, but they only won 2 championships in that same period and nobody really cared because of the dearth of #1 finishes. Armstrong's wins reflect a consistantly high level of placing in stages, but not a consistant record of winning stages; many other sports reward only for the wins, not the places (baseball with it's arcane stats mania being the major exception*). Various sports have such disparate requirments, victory conditions, and seaon/year lengths, that I just don't understand calling someone the best athlete over all sport; it is like comparing apples and VW Bugs.


* That anyone even cares that a batter won the award for hitting against left-handed pitchers from Argentina named Jorge who have a 5'3" wife and a pair of twins is beyond my comprehension.

Posted by: Phalamir | Jul 24, 2005 11:09:31 PM

The discus thrower Al Oerter won gold at 4 consecutive Olympics -- '56, '60, '64, '68, and pushed the discus world record forward several times during that span. But since discus isn't exactly one of the big-time attention-getting sports, he isn't really a household name.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Jul 24, 2005 11:19:20 PM

Martina?

Posted by: J Bean | Jul 24, 2005 11:37:59 PM

Oh wow. I completely forgot about the UNC women's soccer team, which had an obscenely long period of dominence.

Since Neil brings up the Olympics, Ukranian Pole Vaulter Sergei Bukba (sp?) is another good candidate for dominance.

The Lou Gherig era Yankees are another good one. The 1927 Yankees and the 1936-39 Yankees are both absurdly good teams.

To answer Phailamir's objections: I'm not really looking for a "best athelete in all sport", I'm looking for "most dominant athelete in any given sport.

I've seen an article or two on Lance revisionism, which basically says that Lance isn't comparable to previous tour dominators. To me, that's sort of like saying Barry Bonds isn't as good as Babe Ruth. To the contracy, Bonds is probably Much Better than Ruth. Ruth played in an era where he could show up to half the games hung over and still lead the league in homers, where most players had offseason jobs, . Bonds plays in an era where about a quarter of the league is on the juice trying to get a leg up, everyone does weights during the offseason.

I understand the argument that earlier Tour winners didn't have great teams, strategists, communication, etc., but neither did their competitors. Perhaps that means Lance's teammates deserve a higher share of the credit for his wins. So maybe we should be asking "is there a team as dominant for as long as the USPS/Discovery Channel team".

Posted by: Nick Beaudrot | Jul 24, 2005 11:38:28 PM

Armstrong may be the athlete with the greatest blend of inspiration and results of all-time, but I don't think he was the most dominant. As mentioned above Armstrong didn't "own" cycling, he dominated the Tour de France - - and not always (as mentioned when full stage results are taken into consideration).

I think a good comparison to Armstrong would be Pete Sampras. He was the best tennis player in the world for a while and dominated one portion of the sport for an extended period of time (not every year - - as true with Lance as well):

From 1993 - 2000 this was how Pete finished in Wimbeldon:

1993 - Won
1994 - Won
1995 - Won
1996 - Quarter Finals
1997 - Won
1998 - won
1999 - Won
2000 - Won

Not bad.

Posted by: Bill K | Jul 25, 2005 12:28:39 AM

Eh, I'm inclined to say that Michael Jordan was at the top of his sport for an at-least comparable period of time. Disclaimer: I was born and raised in the Chicago area. Although he may not have always carried the Bulls to the Championship (though six times in eight years is not too shabby, not at all) he was pretty much always inarguably the best player in the game. All until he retired the second time.

Posted by: Jon Ozaksut | Jul 25, 2005 12:56:33 AM

Only person that comes to mind is Carl Lewis, but that's different...

Posted by: MGR | Jul 25, 2005 1:23:27 AM

You can ask who was greater all you want, but the dominance question is not even close. Merckx's dominance of the sport utterly dwarfs Armstrong's. But it was a different era, and the sport was definitely easier to dominate then, truly. Yet--the level of Merckx's dominance, holy crap--5 Tours de France, 5 Giros d'Italia, 1 Vuelta a Espana, 1 Tour du Suisse. In the classics-- 7 Milano-San Remo, 5 Liege Bastogne Liege (HUGE!), 3 Paris-Roubaix (I dare say Armstrong would not even have been a credible contender during his Tour years), 4 World Championships, plus track Six Day wins, Flanders, Lombardy, plus just tons more semi-classics and minor stage races. He won 35% of the ALL of the road races he started. I'd be very surprised if Armstrong got 10%.

Where Merckx piled up wins in the Monuments and Classics of cycing, Armstrong got a couple of seconds in LBL, won the semi classic Fleche Wallone... but most of the rest was just getting high placings and wins in the minor tune-up stage races like Dauphine Libere, Cirque de la Sarthe, and Midi-Libre, or here in the states at DuPont, etc.

Even with modern training techniques, Merckx could not dominate now as he did then--the season is longer, and people specialize more than in the past. If he followed Lance's program, could he have won 7 modern Tours? We'll never know.

Posted by: Chasseur | Jul 25, 2005 1:58:42 AM

Hands down, most dominant individual: Alexandr Karelin-"the Experiment". Russian greco-roman wrestler who was undefeated in international competition for 13 years (tossing 300 pounders around along the way ... going 10 years without anyone even scoring a point on him! apperently, opponents were often so scared of being thrown and injured by him they basically let themselves be pinned...)

Posted by: kevin | Jul 25, 2005 3:19:59 AM

Karelin was the first name I came up with, and Pele should at least get a mention, but McKay's accomplishments seem hard to beat.

Posted by: Platypus | Jul 25, 2005 7:25:49 AM

You've gotta go to talk to cricketers. Don Bradman's career batting average was nearly double those of the next best players in his or any other era - the best of the rest managed about 50-55, but Bradman's was 99.94. For comparison, imagine a baseballer averaging about .700 over a twenty year career.

Posted by: Andrew | Jul 25, 2005 7:59:15 AM

Martina Navratilova--ABSOLUTELY dominated an period in women's tennis during which, it could be argued, five of the ten greatest women players in the open era were in their primes.

Wooden? He didn't play on those teams.

Also, while Armstrong could have dominated any segment of the pro cycling world, had he chosen to make that segment his focus, there is no comparison for Gretzky's mastery of the game.

If Gretz could regularly have had the strongest team built solely to support him, and could have had the choice of sitting out the season till the playoffs (the Tour), he might have doubled his championship total. The idea of a 100 point scorer when Gretz showed up was novel; he made it commonplace. The idea of a 200 point scorer was ludicrous; Gretz did it twice, and came close a third time. Ninety-two goals? One-hundred and sixty-something assists? These two numbers before Gretz's time were single-season total scoring marks.

Yes, Lemieux at time approached Gretzky's level, as Ullrich did Armstrong's. But, Gretzky's dominance changed the way the sport is coached at all levels. Armstrong may have an effect on the way coaches at the elite level approach the tour, but Lance's impact on the sport, while trememdous, is not as total and as lasting as Gretzky's.

Consider also the former standard bearer in the respective sports: Gretzky eclipsed Howe, even though he did not possess Howe's physical dimension: Gretz won the same number of Cups, more MVPs, more scoring titles, and finished with more assists than Howe had total points. (Howe also played more games, the latter ones in a league that was watered down by expansion--the NHL went from six franchises to twelve in 1967, and added new clubs almost annually for a decade after that.)

Armstrong did not approach Merckx total for stage wins and days in yellow. Nor did Armstrong so thoroughly dominate individual Tours by simultaneously leading in GC, Points, Climbing categories, as Merckx did in 1969 and 1970. A bum knee was all that kept Merckx from winning in 1973, and setting the mark at six Tours de France. Better training and sports medicine would have extended Merckx's prime by at least two seasons--he retired at age 31. Also, Merckx twice won "The Triple": Tour de France, Giro d'Italia and the world Road championship. If Merckx had dialed it back a bit, or, say, even cut out the regular world closed-course records he set (part of his endorsement contract with Adidas), I think it's safe to say that Merckx could have won seven.

Armstrong is great, one for the ages, and his seven crowns will be a record that stands for generations. But more than most athletes, Lance benefitted from progress moreso than other dominant athletes. Obviously, coming back from a potentially fatal disease makes Lance's feat that much more amazing, maybe the most amazing thing any athlete's ever done. But it does not make him the most dominant athlete.

Posted by: jim | Jul 25, 2005 9:56:53 AM

Edwin Moses didn't lose a 400 meter hurdles competition for something like 11 years. That's the one that stands out for me.

Posted by: diddy | Jul 25, 2005 10:28:21 AM

Perhaps it's because of the American press, but I get the sensation that Lance has basically been toying with his opposition. I remember either the 5th or the 6th win, though, where it wasn't a blowout. But several of them have been severe blowouts, and there was the one where he faked fatigue and then just steamrolled everybody.

From the press reports on this win, that happened in one of the earlier stages. But, again, it may be the American media lionizing Lance.

Posted by: Nick Beaudrot | Jul 25, 2005 10:42:54 AM

Second the mention of Sampras, particularly since in that time he also won a bunch of U.S. and Australian Opens. You should also talk about Borg, who won Wimbledon 5 times running and the French 6 times -- the two most divergent sufaces that any athlete competes on. It's like if Armstrong won the Tour and the Giro D'Itlaia...and then went on to win the Olympics in individual sprints. Borg and Sampras both had that same aura of total invincibility --- people were absolutely shocked when they lost.

And, of course, there's Martina, god bless her, and Graf.

Posted by: J.C. | Jul 25, 2005 12:00:13 PM

I'm with Diddy (man, that's an odd thing to write). Edwin Moses was the one that leapt to mind for me.

Posted by: mrgumby2u | Jul 25, 2005 1:09:34 PM

Chasseur knows the sport of biking. OK, Lance has dominated the prestige event of cycling over the past 7 years in a way that Eddy Merck could not do for as long in his day. But all this talk about Armstrong being the greatest cycling ever is beyond silly. Armstrong is the best cyclist today, he may be the best American cyclist ever, and his story is truly inspirational. But let's not insult those who loved his chosen sport by ignoring the great cyclists that came before Lance.

Posted by: pgl | Jul 25, 2005 2:44:11 PM

Edwin Moses. 122 consecutive victories over nearly 10 years (1977-1987) in one track & field event? That's ridiculous dominance.

Other than Moses, I think only Aleksandr Karelin comes close when it comes to sheer, absolute dominance over such a long period of time. 13 straight years undefeated (1988-2000) -- so dominant that it took 13 years before he finally lost (to Rulon Gardner in Sydney 2000)

Posted by: KenL | Jul 25, 2005 3:30:30 PM

Babe Ruth. The game was never the same after he started hitting home runs.

Posted by: Ara Rubyan | Jul 25, 2005 3:50:32 PM

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