Whatever method you use for quantifying sporting greatness, some of the athletic feats witnessed in 2011/12 make it a truly memorable year for sports. Roger Federer won his 17th Grand Slam title. Lionel Messi scored a record 73 goals in a season for Barca. Michael Phelps (who I was fortunate enough to see while working at the London 2012 Olympics) was named the greatest Olympian of all time.
With all this in mind, Sports Illustrated's task of appointing a Sportsman of the Year seems rather tricky. The announcement was released a few days ago that LeBron James had been chosen as the winner of the award. At face value this seems like a fair decision. Last season the basketballer won practically every award he could - MVP in both regular season and finals, a long-awaited NBA Championship and an Olympic Gold with USA. Thus it seems at face value that he is a fair and worthy winner.
However, a series of heated debates with my friends about LeBron's right to add this award to his already bulbous collection from this year made me consider the alternative nominees more thoroughly.
Preeminent is a word which gets thrown about alot when talking about both James and Lionel Messi. They are both masters of their given field, unquestioned as being the most complete, effective, impactful athlete their sport has to offer. Yes, Messi's goal scoring record last season was nigh-on indomitable. However, is he as worthy as LeBron? fffffffffffffffffffffffff
To examine this question my friends and I considered which sportsman, if you strip them of their world-class supporting class (Messi without Xavi, Iniesta and Cesc/James without DWade and Bosh) and put them in a mediocre team they would still be as masterful. For me it seems that this scenario clearly favours LeBron. Cleveland fans still despise LeBron now, long after the dust has settled. He made a play-off contender out of an otherwise impotent franchise. This is why his 'betrayal' of the team was received so negatively - because he made their team click. Messi however has never proved himself anywhere other than Barcelona. At this club he has always been playing alongside the best - in the past few seasons he has been in that position most professional strikers can only dream of, being supplied by some of the finest playmakers in the game in the shape of Iniesta and Xavi. I feel that his effectiveness would be radically reduced were he to play at the football equivalent of Cleveland, say Everton or somewhere like that. I'm not saying he still wouldn't be a genius player, I just don't feel he would change the club in the same way LeBron would. Baskball is more the sport of individuals than football so I suppose it is unsurprising that a single player could carry more of an impact. Having said this the Sports Illustrated award is an award for the individual, not the team and so it seems unsurprising that LeBron should pip the Argentinian to the post.
In a highly emotive piece of sport's history, this summer Roger Federer won his 17th grand slam title and equalled Pete Sampras' record for having won the Men's singles title at Wimbledon seven times, posting his name alongside all-time greats. The gravity and significance of this achievement is undeniable and Federer represents yet another candidate who could have won the Sportsman of the Year award, were this particular year not so ruthlessly competitive. Moreover, within the field of contemporary tennis, Federer is not the uncontested apex-predator so to speak whereas any objective fan of basketball knows LeBron is currently the best player, equally adept in offensive and defensive disciplines. Indeed since winning Wimbledon Federer has dropped from no1 to no2 seed. This is not to say Federer was not once the undisputed king of the court. However, this award is for the Sportsman of the Year and is not an overall sporting-lifetime achievement award. If it were, I feel like Federer's claim to the award would be more persuasive.
In a summer which featured some of the most widely-watched sporting events like Wimbledon and the UEFA European championship, no event was quite like the Olympics. With the games as possibly the grandest sporting competition of all, it is perhaps surprising that the man who won 4 Gold medals in London fuelling the case that he is the greatest Olympian ever did not win the award from Sports Illustrated. I feel like, on a practical level, Sports Illustrated did not want to make the award seem stale by giving it to Phelps who had already received it in 2008. Moreover, it was more fitting that he received it in 2008 as opposed to 2012 as his record of 8 Golds in Beijing clearly announces his greatness far more than his 4 in London. Obviously being considered the greatest athlete in the greatest sporting contest is some accolade, however it makes me return to my previous point that the award is for sporting achievement in a given year rather than a lifetime award.
Considering the competition, I still believe LeBron is the most deserving winner. His winning of the NBA championship with Miami was a long time coming, however in winning it LeBron showcased many of the skills people had criticised him for not encompassing in his game. Concrete defence, laser-beam passing and that 4th quarter clutch gene everyone said he was lacking following the previous season's finals defeat to Dallas were prevalent in his game. Backed by the supporting cast, James made short work of OKC and it was he that was the key figure in Miami's ascension to the championship. It is because of the outright skill, athleticism and versatility LeBron brings to a team that people have begun comparing him to by-all-accounts one of the best of all time in Michael Jordan, and James still has plenty of time for his talent to grow even more.