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Olympics

World's Greatest Athlete

Who the heck's Tony Azevedo? After talking with experts, combing through stats and making comparisons, he's only the ...

By TOM JONES
Published February 8, 2004

Tony Azevedo is his name. You probably never have seen him. You probably never even have heard of him. You might not know Tony Azevedo from Tony Orlando. Or Dawn, for that matter. But if you are a sports fan, you should know his name and know his game.

His name should be bantered about in every household. His face should be plastered on cereal boxes. Kids should be hanging his poster on their bedroom walls while playing video games that feature him as the star. He should be sellings cars on television, buying mansions in the hills, taking pop stars to the Oscars.

After all, he's Tony Azevedo. The greatest athlete in the world.

With the Olympics, the world stage for athletic competition, six months away, we set out to find the world's best athlete.

We talked to the experts. We combed through charts, statistics and tests. We studied all kinds of sports and competitions, contests and activities. We analyzed the data, listened to the testimonies of athletes and scientists, considered all the opinions.

The result: There is no tougher sport than water polo and there is no one better at water polo than Tony Azevedo.

The 22-year-old from Southern California has the looks of a model, the intelligence of a professor (he studies International Relations at Stanford, for crying out loud) and the attitude of a surfer dude.

"When you're talking about water polo, Tony Azevedo is a good place to start," said John Vargas, the men's water polo coach at Stanford.

* * *

The short list of the world's greatest athletes isn't short at all. Ask 20 people for their choice and you might get 20 names. So where to start when choosing the world's best athlete? Maybe the jumping-off point is to identify which sport is the most difficult to play, or requires the best all-around athlete. And what sport is that?

"It's almost an unanswerable question," said the one man most qualified to answer that question. His name is Dr. Peter Davis, Director of Coaching and Sports Sciences for the United States Olympic Committee.

At his laboratory and think tank in Colorado Springs, Davis and his staff put Olympic athletes through a battery of tests. Name a body part and chances are Davis' group has studied it.

"My vote for world's best athlete? I'd say an Australian Rules football player," Davis said. "Then again, I'm biased. I'm from Australia."

Davis, though, brings up an interesting point. The Australian Rules football player combines speed, strength, endurance, toughness and all the things an American football player encompasses.

"Yeah, except they do it without pads," Davis said. "I do think they are incredible athletes, but to say they are the best, I don't know if you can do that for any sport. After all, what factors do you use? Is speed more important than strength? Is endurance more important than quickness? Who's to say? Where does agility fit in? What about durability? In the end, you have likes and dislikes depending on the sports that might alter what you think of a particular athlete."

For example, Davis said, cyclist Lance Armstrong gets credit for being an incredible athlete because he survived cancer and has won five consecutive Tour de Frances, which Davis said is on par with running a marathon every day or every other day for a month.

On the other hand, a sport such as synchronized swimming - a sport that scientists at the USOC consider among the most grueling - isn't taken seriously by the typical sports fan.

"But you try treading water for a minute while making perfectly choreographed movements," Davis said. "And, oh yeah, do it upside down, underwater. Tell me that doesn't take an incredible athlete. The thing is, it's impossible to compare synchronized swimming to any other sport."

It's almost impossible to compare any two sports. What's more impressive, winning a marathon or a 100-meter dash? Who's the better athlete, someone who can lift 500 pounds or swim a mile? Which would you least like to do, climb a rock or dive off a cliff? Is Roy Jones Jr., tougher because he won a boxing championship or is he a wimp compared with someone who rides a bull?

Last year, Men's Journal magazine assigned numerical values to sports in the following categories: fitness, skills, brains, pain (the chance of injury or death), contact, venue and intangibles. The magazine considered gymnastics to be at the top of the list.

Okay, twirling through the air and doing flips is hairy, but you don't find John Lynch waiting to lay you out when you land. Where's the contact?

"Well, contact with the ground can be pretty nasty," Davis said.

Making the Men's Journal top 10, in order after gymnastics: Ironman Triathlon, rock climbing, hockey, bull riding, boxing, rugby, decathlon, water polo and football. Yet, the magazine named football quarterback Michael Vick as the world's best athlete, followed by skier Bode Miller, soccer star Ronaldo and skateboarder Bob Burnquist. Azevedo was seventh.

Baseball almost never makes any of these lists. After all, how in shape do you have to be when arguably the best player in the history of the sport (Babe Ruth) resembled the "before" in a "before and after" diet plan?

"But what about throwing a baseball?" said Mike Stone, the head of sports physiology for the USOC. "Throwing a baseball 100 mph takes incredible athletic ability. Or hitting a 100-mph fastball. You would have to consider baseball players great athletes."

Stone tests athletes from all sports. He tests heart rates, oxygen intake and terms so complicated you need a couple of Ph.D.s to pronounce them, let alone understand them. His vote for the best athlete ever goes to Jonathan Edwards, a triple-jumper.

In 1912, King Gustav V of Sweden told Jim Thorpe, "You, sir, are the World's Greatest Athlete" after Thorpe won the decathlon at the Olympics in Stockholm. Traditionally, the title of World's Greatest Athlete has been given to the man who wins the decathlon, a two-day event that features runs of 100, 400 and 1,500 meters, the 110-meter hurdles, the long jump, the high jump, the shot put, the discus, the javelin and the pole vault.

The cousin of the decathlon is the women's version, the heptathlon.

If indeed that is the standard, then the United States' Tom Pappas or Sweden's Carolina Kluft might be called the World's Greatest Athlete. The lone flaw? They are consistently good in each of those events, but not great in any of them, not good enough to beat the best in the world in those individual events.

Hockey players combine speed, strength and endurance, and they do it on razor-sharp ice skates. Maybe that makes Peter Forsberg the best athlete in the world. Canada's Peter Reid and Wyoming's Barb Lindquist might have a claim because they are considered tops in the world in Ironman triathlons, a masochistic sport that combines a 2.4-mile ocean swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a full 26.2-mile marathon one right after the other.

Or maybe the title should go to Italy's Mario Fattore or Japan's Norimi Sakurai, leaders in the extreme sport of ultra-marathon, a 100-kilometer race that takes the winners seven hours to finish.

The World's Fastest Human label goes to the winners of the 100-meter dash. Is that good enough to consider Kim Collins or Kelli White as the World's Best Athlete?

It's no coincidence that all great athletes have a common bond, whether they are a 14-year-old female gymnast or a 45-year-old boxer.

"Genetics is most responsible for great athletes," Stone said. "With all the tests we do I've learned that I can make the average person a better athlete, but I can't make them a great athlete. It's genetics, and a lot of time it comes down to the mental aspect.

"We do some psychological profiling and we've found that all have the common desire to succeed, to endure pain, to not have the fear of failure. You can look at all the data of their physical attributes, but you start with the mental aspect of it. That's the beginning of a great athlete."

Maybe, then, the sports that take the most concentration and strategy - auto racing, curling, sports that include shooting a gun such as biathlon - produce the world's best athletes.

Everyone has his parochialism, all fans have their own slant on what athletes are the best.

But how can one argue with this:

Jump into a pool. Tread water for an hour. Don't touch the sides or bottom. Swim about two miles. Throw a ball the size of a volleyball upward of 70 mph. All the while, get punched, pinched and kicked in the mouth, eyes, nose and places you don't want to think about.

That's water polo, a sport that requires the skills of baseball, the strategy of soccer, the teamwork of basketball, the endurance of a marathon, the exertion of swimming, the grit of hockey, the contact of football, the danger of boxing and . . .

"Wrestling. Think of wrestling in the water," Azevedo said. "You're focused in on trying to score, working with teammates while you're getting roughed up like you wouldn't believe. You should see the stuff that goes on under the water. And all the while you're trying not to die from drowning. I'd put water polo up with any sport in the world."

* * *

Azevedo played basketball and baseball as a child, but he caught the water polo bug when he was 8 and barely has been out of the pool since. His father, Ricardo, played for the Brazilian Olympic team and coached Tony through high school, where he was a four-time All-American and three-time national player of the year.

He went on to Stanford and won national player-of-the-year honors as a freshman, sophomore and junior. Undoubtedly he would have won the award again as a senior, but he is taking two semesters off to train with the U.S. Olympic team, which is looking for its first medal since 1988 and its first gold since the first Olympic competition in 1912.

He was the youngest player on the 2000 Olympic team that finished a disappointing sixth and is generally considered the best in American history. Because he plays a little-known sport, one must draw upon another sport to describe him. He's the Michael Jordan of water polo.

"I don't know if I can be considered the world's greatest athlete until I win a medal," Azevedo said. "But I'm proud of this sport, for sure."

The old joke in water polo goes: How come the horses don't drown?

Water polo gets no publicity, at least not in the United States. It's big in Europe. The Olympics have been dominated by Italy, Hungary, Russia and Yugoslavia. Azevedo, though, said watch it once and you'll be hooked.

And you will be a believer in how tough it is.

Water polo players practice eight hours a day, six and a half of which are spent in a pool. They endure nasty injuries such as eye gouges, punched-out teeth, torn noses and broken eye sockets.

"I've been lucky," Azevedo said. "The worst thing that has happened to me is having my ear drum broken - three times."

Azevedo isn't going to end up on a cereal box even if the Americans win a gold. He won't be going to the Oscars. You might catch a quick glimpse of him on television during the Athens Games, but probably not. You might never hear his name again. But Tony Azevedo can make the claim that he is, at this very moment, the best, the greatest athlete in the world.

"I don't know if that's true, but it's fun to think about," Azevedo said. "It makes me proud of my sport and proud of what I've accomplished. I tell you this much, anyone that plays water polo is a great, great athlete."

Maybe the best in the world.

[Last modified February 8, 2004, 01:45:41]


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