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Last Updated: Sunday, 24 July, 2005, 16:39 GMT 17:39 UK
Is Lance number one?
By Alex Trickett

Another year, another victory for Lance Armstrong in the Tour de France - arguably the toughest sporting event on the calendar.

The Texan legend retires with seven Tour titles to his name - two more than anyone else - and stands comparison to the greatest solo sportsmen in history.

To send him off in style, BBC Sport revisits a popular debate from last year, weighing up his achievement against those of six other icons.

LANCE ARMSTRONG - SEVEN TOUR WINS

Lance Armstrong

Believe it or not, Tour de France specialist Armstrong is still not considered the best cyclist of all time - that honour deservedly goes to Eddy Merckx, the "Cannibal" who devoured his rivals across a range of races in the 1970s.

But by passing Merckx's five Tour wins, the American can lay claim to the sport's most significant record.

A Tour winner needs to combine climbing with time trial speed and endurance fitness that would put a marathon runner to shame. Armstrong has all three qualities in abundance.

The fact that the American bounced back from a cancer that almost killed him in 1996 makes his feat even more incredible.

MUHAMMAD ALI - THREE (SHOCK) WORLD TITLES

Muhammad Ali

The self-styled "greatest" had a brilliant boxing career and was the first man to become world heavyweight champion three times.

On each occasion, he showed remarkable resolve, stunning "unbeatable" champions Sonny Liston and George Foreman before digging deep to win back his title, well past his prime, in 1978 - against Leon Spinks.

Ali - like Armstrong - is often considered second in his sport (behind Sugar Ray Robinson), but the nature of his upset wins stands him apart.

CARL LEWIS - NINE OLYMPIC GOLDS

Carl Lewis

With respect to long distance runners Paavo Nurmi and Emil Zatopek, Lewis is responsible for athletics' ultimate achievement.

Not only did the US sprinter emulate compatriot Jesse Owens' feat by winning four Olympic golds in 1984, he also won the long jump event at four-straight Games.

Lewis also added a silver to nine golds for a 10-medal haul.

MARK SPITZ - SEVEN GOLDS IN 1972

Mark Spitz

Swimmers tend to have more scope than athletes to win multiple medals at the Olympics - and Spitz took full advantage.

The American won a record-breaking seven golds at Munich in 1972 and added four further medals to that tally.

Spitz set an awe-inspiring mark - one that even Michael Phelps fell short of in Athens.

JACK NICKLAUS - 18 MAJORS

Jack Nicklaus

Tiger Woods is a phenomenon and his ownership of all four majors in 2001 was a seminal moment.

But he will remain only the second-greatest golfer until he overhauls Nicklaus' 18 majors.

The "Golden Bear" also bowed out in 2005. He certainly could not have matched Armstrong's physical conditioning at his peak, but neither could Lance have hit a golf ball 300 yards, pin-high to a bunker-protected green.

PETE SAMPRAS - 14 GRAND SLAMS

Pete Sampras

Rod Laver may have won more Grand Slams had he not been banned from competing for six years after turning professional, but this should not detract from Sampras' trophy cabinet.

"Pistol Pete" went up against great players like Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Boris Becker and generally beat them.

Roger Federer may eventually catch and pass him, but for now, Sampras is the benchmark.

MICHAEL SCHUMACHER - SEVEN F1 TITLES

Michael Schumacher

Opinion is divided about whether Schumacher has surpassed the great Juan Manuel Fangio, but on paper, at least, he has.

The German already has seven Formula One titles to match Armstrong and may yet add to that tally.

He also has more Grand Prix wins than anyone else and is fast closing in on Ayrton Senna's 65 pole positions.

VERDICT:

SEVEN OF THE BEST TEAM STARS
Pele (football): 3 World Cups and 1,281 career goals
Don Bradman (cricket): Test career average of 99.94 runs
Babe Ruth (baseball): 714 homers, average of .342
Wayne Gretzky (NHL): 894 career goals with 1963 assists
Michael Jordan (NBA): Six titles, average of 30.1 points
Bill Russell (NBA): 11 titles in 13 NBA seasons
Steve Redgrave (rowing): Gold in five straight Olympics

Only solo sportsmen have been considered to keep this debate manageable, although female superstars like Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, Fanny Blankers-Koen and Jackie Joyner-Kersee boast comparable careers.

Armstrong - who is ultimately an individual competitor despite getting massive support from the team around him - truly belongs in this exalted company.

For me though, his feat is not quite the greatest.

On paper, Lewis' may be the most impressive, taking place as it did in modern times on the biggest sporting stage of all.

If pushed though, I would still side with the effortless Ali.

He sprang two of the biggest shocks in sports history and reigned on-and-off for 16 years in the toughest arena of all.





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