With apologies to Jim Thorpe, Jim Brown, Willie Mays, Carl Lews, and a host of other Americans who might qualify for this honor, the best athlete in modern history is a Brazilian: Edson Arantes de Nascimento, better known to the world as Pele.
Hailing from the extreme poverty of Sao Paulo, Pele rose to become the greatest player in the world’s greatest game. After being signed up by local club Santos at the age of 16, Pele quickly established himself as a legend, becomming the top scorer in the Brazilian league in his first season. Less than a year later, he would be capped by the Brazilian national team, would score a goal in his first match. Over an 18-year career in the Brazilian league, Pele would score 589 goals in 605 matches – a rate rarely matched in soccer for the greatest players over one season. While the Brazilian government declared him a national treasure, preventing his sale to a top European club to allow him to compete against the best Europeans, Pele proved himself the greatest player in the world with his international performances. He played a key part on three World Cup champions (1958, 1962, and 1970), and sits near the top of all kinds of international records.
Pele, however, must be given this honor more because he is widely considered the greatest soccer player of all time. While baseball, basketball, and football have been played almost exclusively in the United States at the highest level during the prime of the century, soccer has always been a multicontinent, multinational game, and its numbers of participants dwarf the American sports combined. Yes, Jim Brown asserted himself as a world-class rugby player and one of the greatest running backs of all-time, but how many people played either sport when he was a developing athlete? The same can be said for Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Mickey Mantle. But Pele arose in one of the most populated countries in the world, a nation mad with futbol fever, immediately made his way on to a stocked national roster, and did nothing but win, score goals, and impress people in the world’s most popular game. Furthermore, he did it coming out of a destitution even the American poverty stories (like Ruth) would concede as awful.
Athletes in the truest sense of the word – think swimmers like Mark Spitz or Track stars like Bob Mathias and Carl Lews – might be able to give Pele a run for him money (pardon the pun), but my concpetion of an athlete is one who showcases both true atleticism and fantastic skill. Jim Thorpe would probably be his closest competition, as the man proved himself in track-and-field, baseball, and many other sports. Furthermore, Thorpe grew up in the awkward poverty of being Native American and trying to make it in early America. However, I surmise that the lack of other athletes in Thorpe’s heyday greatly contributes to his unrivalled versatility, whereas when Pele was growing up, South American teams had already won the World Cup and soccer was a sport played by virtually every boy in the country. Pele, too, let’s not forget, had outstanding natural athletic ability independent of his formidable skill. Midfielders and forwards in soccer are some of the fittest sportsmen on the planet, and Pele was no exception; he ran the field with an ease and grace whether he had the ball at his feet or not.
With apologies to Jim Brown, JIm Thorpe, and the other legends of American sports, not to mention other soccer greats like Diego Maradona, I name Pele as the best athlete ever.