It was Muhammad Ali who started it. “I am the Greatest” he announced as a personal brand signature and the world, pretty much, bought it. Whether he was “The Greatest” was a subjective call – it always is. But we still do it, all the time.
There is now a mnemonic for it – the Greatest Of All Time or “GOAT” . And newspapers actually have serious articles as to whether somebody is the “GOAT”. Take football. There is a debate as to whether Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo is the GOAT. This daft discourse conveniently ignores the fact that before these two modern players appeared on the scene there were a few decent kickers of the ball around – Pele, Maradona, Bobby Charlton anyone?
And it is the historical comparison that makes the GOAT invalid. We might debate whether Messi or Ronaldo is the greatest of our times . A pretty sterile debate in my view but at least there’s a context. But Ronaldo versus, say, his countryman Eusebio? They played in different eras and you just can’t make a qualitative judgment. Even when you try and get quantitative (goals scored per game, for example) there’s no real credible comparative measure. Times change.
A few years ago a music magazine asked top conductors to name the “Greatest Symphony”. They chose Beethoven’s 3rd, the “Eroica” – but, in my view, this is just as defective as comparing footballers. I can tell you my favourite Symphony (Rachmaninov’s 2nd actually) but it would be silly for me to claim that it’s the greatest of all time.
Back to sport and to cricket. The statistics suggest that the GOAT batsman was Donald Bradman. His average in Test Matches was 99.94 and the next highest is 61.87. Conclusive surely? but according to this survey he was only the seventh greatest and the GOAT was Sachin Tendulkar. You see the problem ? It’s subjective and recent players, ones we’ve actually seen, are magnified whilst more distant individuals are reduced in size.
In British politics the “Greatest Prime Minister” game is often played and Winston Churchill usually wins. Well he did lead Britain with distinction in Wartime of course. But he was actually for four years – 1951-1955 – a pretty dreadful peacetime PM.
The problem with all this GOAT nonsense is that when we seek to be objective the statistics are only part of the story and when we acknowledge the subjectivity we recognise that it’s all personal opinion. The other problem is that it’s a waste of time!