If you are reading this column, I have great news: You are the GOAT!
That’s right: Among those who have happened upon this space, I consider you the Greatest Reader of All Time.
Then again, if you’re LeBron James, or Serena Williams, or Nikola Jokic – with that shiny NBA championship ring – well, you already know you’re the GOAT. Everyone said that.
“Bahhh, bahhh, bahhh,” goes the bleating of a goat. There is also the sound made by James’ Los Angeles Lakers teammates when he enters the dressing room. GOAT hosannas are practically the soundtrack of his life.
Motivated by its widespread usage around sports, five years ago the wordsmiths at Merriam-Webster entered the term GOAT in the dictionary as an acronym and noun.
Defining the term as “the most successful or accomplished individual in the history of a particular sport or category of performance or activity”, a Merriam-Webster editor nodded to the pervasive use of Tom Brady’s name along with GOAT in a popular search engine like engine. example of why the acronym became dictionary official.
Yes, I know – this GOAT, it’s a bit confusing. Being the greatest implies singularity, right? But now there are Goats everywhere we turn.
Even worse than the overuse of the acronym is its dreary simplicity. There is not enough nuance. Too much emphasis on outright winning, not enough on winning.
What are our options here? Perhaps we should ban the use of the term entirely in sports, following the lead of Lake Superior State University, which cheekily ranked the nebulous, lazy acronym No. 1 on its 2023 list of deleted words.
“The many nominators did not have to be physicists or grammarians to determine the literal impossibility and technical inaccuracy of this aspiring superlative,” read a statement from the university.
A ban doesn’t quite seem like a possibility, though — not when a word has bored a hole so deep into our collective consciousness.
Definitely, being a goat ain’t what it used to be. In sports, it was once a terrible insult, a term of shame hung upon athletes who plucked defeat from the jaws of victory. Greg Norman, otherwise known as the Shark, was a scapegoat for coughing up a six-stroke lead in the final round of the 1996 Masters, a tournament he lost by five strokes.
Before Norman, there was the grounder-through-the-legs-at-the-worst-possible-World-Series moment goat of the Boston Red Sox, Bill Buckner.
Need I say more?
Muhammad Ali is widely credited with first injecting the Greatest of All Time into the mix. When he went by Cassius Clay in the early 1960s, he recorded a comedy album anchored by the title poem, “I Am the Greatest.”
After his upset victory over George Foreman in 1974, he added flourish, admonishing his doubters and critics, and reminding them of his status: “I told you I’m still the greatest of all time!”
But did Aliya really invent this particular selfish prosperity?
Some say the origins of GOAT actually stem from a flamboyant, blond-tressed wrestler, George Wagner, who was known as Gorgeous George and who in the 1940s and 50s earned lavish paydays turning trash talk into a fine art.
In a precursor to WWE-style bragging, Gorgeous George once claimed before a big fight that if he lost, he would “crawl across the ring and cut my hair off!” He added, “But that’s not going to happen, because I’m the greatest wrestler in the world.”
Ali said he learned a good deal of his swagger from Gorgeous George.
“A lot of people will pay to see somebody shut your mouth,” the wrestler reportedly told Ali after a chance meeting. “So go on bragging, go on ranting, and always be scandalous.”
This week marks the moment when sport’s most legitimate GOAT talk hovers over tennis and an event its organizers not-so-humbly call the Championships.
Wimbledon starts on Monday. The men’s favourite, Novak Djokovic, has 23 Grand Slam tournament titles, one shy of Margaret Court’s record of 24. If he wins this year, his wildly devoted fan base will confidently proclaim the Serb’s KARPRAN status.
That will keep fans of Rafael Nadal, who is stuck at 22 major titles, entertained. They will argue that their idol would have won 25 major titles (or more) by now, if not for injuries.
Then Roger Federer devotees will step in. He had losing records against Nadal and Djokovic. But, goodness-wise, he’s Roger Federer, a fine linen forehand with 20 Slams and a string of epic final-round battles to his name.
Not so fast, Serena Williams fans will remember. Not only does she have 23 Grand Slam titles – including one won while she was pregnant – Williams dared to play in a largely white sport and bent it to her will. In addition, she is as much a cultural icon as an athlete. Can any male gamer say that?
Then there are the old-school partisans of Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King. Stop the injustice, they will cry. Stop comparing superlative athletes from vastly different eras.
Time has changed everything in every sport – better equipment, better training methods, new rules – so how can we reliably compare? Before McEnroe lost to Borg in the 1980 Wimbledon final, neither had the benefit of sleeping, as Djokovic is said to do, in a performance-enhancing hypobaric chamber.
The argument will continue.
That’s the craziness of it. The silliness and the fun of it.
Who is the GOAT?
Well, to be honest, I have four. Willie Mays. Joe Montana. Williams. Federer.
I can remember each one for their sublime victories, of course. But also their stumbling blocks. 42-year-old Mays lost in the outfield. Delicate Montana in his twilight, playing not for San Francisco but Kansas City.
I was on hand to see Williams struggle and fall short as she chased that elusive last Slam. I sat at Federer’s feet as he held two match points against Djokovic in the 2019 Wimbledon final. Then the Swiss crumbled in defeat.
“Now it hurts, and it should – every loss hurts at Wimbledon,” Federer said at the post-match news conference. But, he added, he will persevere. “I don’t want to be depressed about an actually amazing tennis match.”
No one escapes disappointment and fragility. But if we do it right, we soldier on.
Do you know what that means? It means we can all be GOATS!
Bleu, my friends. Blue on!