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LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 23: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic of Team Europe talk on centre court during Day One of the Laver Cup at The O2 Arena on September 23, 2022 in London, England. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images for Laver Cup)

The G.O.A.T Debate: What The Hell Does It Even Mean?

Especially in the sporting world

If comparative genomic analysis is to be believed, goats split up from sheep and became different species at least four million years ago. In the sporting scene, however, the distinction between goats and sheep became crystal clear only in recent times. The goat you find in the sphere of sports is entirely different from the one you find in the grazing field—it comes with three ellipses.  

G.O.A.T.  Aka Greatest. Of. All. Time.  

As the ultimate signifier of greatness in sports, the G.O.AT has become a mandate to gauge a player’s legacy. Equal parts fun and annoying—depending on your mood, the weather outside, and of course, the strength of the opposing claim—the debate has become a raging ideological question of sorts. But, how did this discourse enter the realm of sports? 

Throwing in some context, the phrase owes its origin to Muhammad Ali, who prophetically released ‘I Am The Greatest’, a comedy album about his greatness six months before he became the undisputed world heavyweight champion. Long after the pugilist’s retirement, in 1992, his wife and manager Lonnie Ali set up Greatest Of All Time Inc (G.O.A.T Inc.) to manage Ali’s intellectual properties. Ali conceived it, surely. But it was the American Football fans who first embraced this abbreviation to describe the prolific feat of Tom Brady with the New England Patriots. To celebrate Brady’s 40th birthday, his team brought a flock of baby goats—the real ones with horns—to the training session!

Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali stands over Sonny Liston and taunts him to get up during their title fight. Ali knocked Liston out in one minute in the first round during their bout at the Central Maine Youth Center in Lewiston, Maine.

Other sports inevitably followed suit, and Tennis was the quickest to catch up. Long ago, tennis even reached a quiet consensus: anyone who breaks Pete Sampras’ iconic record of 14 grand slams would be declared as the undisputed G.O.A.T. Roger Federer was the first to achieve it; not content by merely breaking the record, he obliterated it in a ruthless fashion, racing away to 20 grand slams. Sampras may have set the bar high, but Federer uplifted it to the stratosphere, only to see his fiercest rivals, Rafael Nadal & Novak Djokovic, raising it even further to the seventh sky. Federer’s claim to G.O.A.T status is hardly unblemished.  

The devout fans of Djokovic will point to his supreme grand slam count. Nadal’s fans will remind us of the persistent injury that restricted their idol to 22 majors. Knowing they can’t win this debate purely on the empirical ground, Federer’s fans will wade into philosophical territory, invoking the idea of aesthetics and sublime as the primary goal of sports. Some jokingly point out that neither Djokovic nor Nadal is the protagonist of the most celebrated work of modern sportswriting, David Foster Wallace’s Federer as a Religious Experience.  

Honestly, everyone’s right. In their own ways. 

While things get incredibly complicated, we can’t help but acknowledge the multifaceted arguments in favour of each individual. For instance, with cricket, there are three different formats and each requires a distinct skillset to succeed. It’s hard to make an overall case for the greatest of all time. Of course, the mythic tales of Sir Don Bradman—corroborated by his astounding batting average of 99.4—still retains its allure among cricketing fandom. Challenging Bradman’s supremacy needs some bravery, and the internet is one place where you find bravery in abundance. Additional caveats like weaker opponents or lack of competitiveness in his era have been introduced against his achievement. 

The obsession with G.O.A.T isn’t limited to fans alone, even sportswriters love to indulge themselves, given their unadulterated love for the game. They can’t help but compare players of different eras, to understand how the advancement in science and medicine has also contributed to the betterment of bodily excellence. It’s one of the interesting ways to understand the evolution of the game and its practitioners. What was once deemed exceptional is now a regulation. Since there’s no such thing as the whole truth in sports, given the presence of a plethora of variables, there are just too many routes to drive home the arguments.

Yet, it’s also a simplistic drill, preventing us from fully apprehending the profound splendour of athletic achievement. Every athletic journey possesses its own unique trajectory, and the definition of crests and troughs varies from athlete to athlete. The inclination to bestow the G.O.A.T title also limits our perceptions, sacrificing the idiosyncrasies of the athlete to the altar of greatness. Rather than savouring a sporting tale in their own right, we end up wasting too much time in the futile comparison which often leads to no substantial conclusion.  

It’s not just for sportspersons, but also serves as a disservice to the viewers, as there’s no universal law that guides one’s interaction with sports. Some watch it with great academic rigour, dissecting every minute detail of the game with surgical precision. Others do it for cheap thrills, seeking escape from the daily rut. Perhaps we should take cues from the great Trinidadian historian and journalist CLR James, who, unhesitatingly, added Wilton St Hil—a player with a very modest record—in the rarefied league great cricketers like Bradman, Garry Sobers, and George Headley. To each their own. And in all honesty, that’s where the beauty of sports lies.