Who is the world’s best athlete? The question itself is skewed.

To claim that a particular athlete or sport is the best will generate unwanted comparisons and wrong references that in turn would lead to iniquitous information.

Published : Apr 14, 2023 17:19 IST , Chennai - 7 MINS READ

Unparalleled: Michael Phelps’ sporting legacy has ensured his place among the all-time greats.
Unparalleled: Michael Phelps’ sporting legacy has ensured his place among the all-time greats. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Unparalleled: Michael Phelps’ sporting legacy has ensured his place among the all-time greats. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

‘Who is the best athlete in the world?’

This is one of the most frequently asked questions in the sporting arena and among people who follow sports ardently.

Such questions invariably cut across multiple sports and skills. So, to claim that a particular athlete or sport is the best will generate unwanted comparisons and wrong references that in turn would lead to iniquitous information.

Let’s look at certain parameters that make an athlete and the process involved in deciding so.

The yardsticks

An athlete is a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games that require physical strength, agility, stamina, mental strength, tactical and technical execution of skill and more.

But this is just an analytical starting point.

The world-renowned sport scientist, Mel Siff, noted that athletic prowess is defined by four major ‘S’es — Strength, Speed, Stamina, and Skill.

Strength is how much force one can produce.

Speed is how fast one can produce it.

Stamina is for how long one can produce it.

Skill is how intelligently one can direct the forces into the environment to do useful work, solve motor problems, and ultimately win sporting competitions.

All athletes have some combination of the first three qualities, but in different mixes and ratios. So, how do we weigh them to determine who is the most athletic? My understanding is that the fourth quality, the skill, is the most appealing and therefore has to be given special status over the other three parameters.

People who are strong, fast and fit are really noteworthy. The main idea of a top athlete certainly involves all these qualities in abundance. Conversely, they are the building blocks of athleticism. It is the perceptive expression of these qualities that is truly interesting in the transfer of these domains to their skills.

Motor skill is a quality that is far more complex and evolved in terms of design and engineering than components like strength, speed, or stamina. Many animals can swim faster than Michael Phelps, run faster than Usain Bolt, lift more weights than legendary strongman Zydrunas Savickas, jump farther than Bob Beamon, or run longer than Eliud Kipchoge. A robot, with a specialised AI, can be built to perform the above tasks with ease. But, there are no robots or animals that can outperform a moderately trained 10–12-year-old human at soccer, cricket, ping-pong, or any other sport that requires skillful and capricious movements.

That is because each of these sports requires a high level of creativity to quickly solve a wide variety of movement problems that arrive extemporaneously with second-by-second decisions. The skill that allows us to do this is repeatedly coined as ‘dexterity’.

Movement intelligence

Russian physiologist Nikolai Bernstein once described the nature of this dexterity as ‘Movement Intelligence’.

He defined dexterity as the ability to correctly solve motor problems as they arise, including unexpected problems. This skill is critical for the movements that matter in the survival of the fittest.

For example, many insects have excellent power but poor dexterity. They can jump many times their height or carry objects many times their weight. But if they roll onto their backs, they might not have the movement resourcefulness to recover because they are lacking in ‘motor wits’.

Humans are the most dexterous animals. Although many animals can run faster and jump higher, none can solve as many motor problems in so many ways. Add to that the million other amazing physical accomplishments by humans in sport, dance, music and art. The famous biologist J.B.S. Haldane noted: “No other animal can swim a mile, walk twenty miles, and then climb forty feet up a tree continuous without too much effort. Many civilised men can do this without much difficulty.”

Charging ahead: Jamaica’s Usain Bolt too is considered one of the greatest ever athletes.

Charging ahead: Jamaica’s Usain Bolt too is considered one of the greatest ever athletes. | Photo Credit: AFP

Four levels of control

Bernstein distinguished between four ‘levels’ of motor control based on the tasks they facilitate, the nature of the neural processes that control them, and the time when such processes emerged on the evolutionary timescale. Some movements rely more on one level than others, and some people are more skilled at one level than another. The world’s best athlete must be able to compete in a sport where elite performances in all the levels is required, particularly the higher levels where dexterity primarily resides.

Level 1: Base Posture

This is the primary foundation for all other movements required. It involves the coordination of the trunk and neck. The proper tone of the neck and trunk muscles is largely involuntary and unconscious, which provides the postural support that enables all the more complex activities.

Level 2: Large Limb Movements

Level 2 primarily involves large movements of the extremities in rhythmic, cyclical, locomotion-type activities. It controls a huge amount of muscle in large synergies of harmonious, continuous and reciprocal movement. The most obvious example is running.

Levels 1 and 2 together create the beautiful large-amplitude movements that we recognise as graceful, harmonious and coordinated. But the neural processes that govern these levels have a poor connection with the eyes and ears (the teleceptors) and are therefore in a poor position to respond to external changes in the environment. As such, movements in Levels 1 and 2 that are acting without assistance from higher levels cannot exhibit a great deal of dexterity. But they provide the foundation for more dexterous movements in higher levels.

Level 3: Targeted Movements

Level 3 is concerned with movements whose purpose is to apply force to an external object to achieve a particular effect. Unlike the cyclical repetitive movements in Level 2, Level 3 movements are usually a singular event, with a clear beginning and an end — such as a lift, throw or catch. They are characterised by business-like accuracy and precision as opposed to the smooth and flowing gracefulness of Level 2. More like a jump shot than a 360 dunk.

Level 3 can be further distinguished from the previous two levels in that the latter are concerned only with movement of one body part relative to the others, while Level 3 ensures that the body movements can affect some meaningful purpose in the external environment. Thus, Level 3 implies a need for constant resourcefulness in making corrections in relation to externally perceived space. Here’s an analogy — if Levels 1 and 2 govern the proper inner mechanical workings of a car, then Level 3 is the driver at the wheel.

There are a wide variety of Level 3 movements, and Bernstein divides them into various subgroups that I would leave for now. Some examples would be skiing, running in a particular direction, gymnastics, archery, targeted throwing or striking, or weightlifting.

Level 4: Complex Actions

Level 4 is significantly more advanced. While Levels 1-3 are present in almost any vertebrate animal, the rudiments of Level 4 can only be found in higher mammals and are significantly undeveloped even in human children. Bernstein calls this the ‘human level’.

Level 4 actions are defined as whole sequences of movements that when linked together solve a motor problem. If the missing link in the chain is omitted, the goal is not fulfilled. To perform an action, one must be able to constantly monitor the performance of each movement in the chain to ensure it has been done properly, and to make corrections or variations in the chain on the fly as needed.

Level 4 actions are frequently performed with an object and enjoy a close relationship with the hand because of its extreme adaptability. Another distinguishing feature of Level 4 is that unlike Levels 1-3, which are bilateral and symmetrical, Level 4 actions are usually far better performed on one side than the other.

In the context of sport, Level 4 actions are best exemplified by manipulation of a ball or racquet. These are examples of techniques that take thousands and thousands of hours of conscious practice with coaching to learn at the highest level. Compare this to a Level 2 activity such as running, an activity where many top coaches debate whether it is useful to devote any conscious attention to at all!

We will continue in the next issue regarding the coordination of these four levels with different sport and elite athletes.

More stories from this issue


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment