I am overdue for both a Top Ten list and a sports post. So I figured I’d knock both out in one shot. “Athletic Feats” is a somewhat ambiguous term. I’m using it in three ways: a remarkable single performance; accomplishments achieved by an individual during the course of a single Olympics; and, in the case of team sports, great single-season accomplishments. I am not including career achievements.
I also left out anyone whose accomplishment is either known or strongly suspected to have been aided by performance-enhancing drugs. That means no Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire or Florence Griffith-Joyner; among others.
Nine out of the ten are listed in random order. It would be too difficult to rank them. But there is one that has stood out in my mind above all the others as the greatest athletic feat in history. I’ll start with that one.
Bob Beamon’s 1968 Jump
Heading into the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, the world record for the men’s long jump was 27’4.5”. The record had never been broken by more than six inches in the event’s recorded history. Then Bob Beamon broke it by nearly two feet when he jumped 29’2.25”. Can you imagine jumping that much further than any human had previously done? There was a delay in posting the distance and Beamon didn’t know what the metric figure that finally appeared on the board equated to in feet and inches. When a teammate told him he had jumped over 29 feet, he collapsed on the track from the realization of what he had accomplished.
Beamon’s record stood for over two decades, until Mike Powell broke it by two inches in 1991. Powell’s record still stands.
Babe Ruth’s 1920 Home Run Record
Most baseball fans know about Babe Ruth’s career home run record of 714 and single season record of 60, both of which stood for decades. But given the relative infrequency with which home runs were hit prior to 1920, what he accomplished that year was arguably the Sultan of Swat’s greatest achievement. Ruth broke the old record the previous year – 1919 – when he hit a grand total of 29 dingers. That was considered a great feat at the time, given that the previous high of 27 had stood since the late 19th century. But what he did in 1920 was nothing short of magical. The Babe leaped right over the 30, 40 and 50 home run marks, winding up with 54 for the season. That’s twice as many as the record of 27 that had existed for many years before he hit 29 a year earlier.
Iolanda Balas’s Win Streak
There have been a pair of simply mind-boggling winning streaks in modern track and field. They both lasted about a decade. While Edwin Moses’ run of 122 straight wins in the 400-meter hurdles is better known – at least in the West – Romanian high jumper Iolanda Balas’ streak lasted for 150 competitions. She also set the world record and improved it 13 times in addition to winning a pair of Olympic gold medals during the streak.
Usain Bolt Sets 100 & 200 Meters Records
There isn’t much of an argument to be had over who is the greatest male sprinter in history. Usain Bolt’s accomplishments at the 2008, 2012 and 2016 Olympics speak for themselves. But taken together, those are career accomplishments. I am highlighting the remarkable fact that he broke both the 100 and 200 meters world records four days apart, and he did it two years in a row; 2008 and 2009. And both of the 2009 records – 9.572 in the 100 and 19.190 in the 200 – still stand, as they may for many years to come.
Secretariat Wins the Belmont Stakes by 31 Lengths
Snicker if you will, but I will not discriminate against non-human athletes. What Secretariat did at the 1973 Belmont Stakes was one of the most remarkable sporting accomplishments ever. Not only did this magnificent thoroughbred become the first horse to win the Triple Crown in 25 years. He so destroyed the rest of the field that they were all out of view of the TV camera even when it pulled back to show a wider view of Secretariat. His winning mile-and-a-half time of 2:24 shattered the previous record by two seconds and still stands.
Wilt Chamberlain’s 1961-1962 Season
They could devote an entire section of the NBA record book to Wilt Chamberlain’s incredible accomplishments. And I could have easily singled out his 100-point or 55-rebound games. But to me, the numbers he put up over the course of the entire 1961-1962 season are even more jaw-dropping. To average over 50 points and 25 rebounds per game for an entire season is something we will obviously never see again. Just as incredibly, he also averaged over 48 minutes per game played that same season by playing all of every game, including those that went into overtime.
Serena Williams Wins Major While Pregnant
She is almost unquestionably the greatest female tennis player ever and arguably the greatest female athlete to compete in any sport. I wanted to include Serena, but again, this list is not about career accomplishments. Then it occurred to me that one of my dining companions this past Thanksgiving asserted that her win at the 2017 Australian Open while pregnant was nothing short of mind-boggling. In fact, not only did she win the Open, one of tennis’ major championships, but she made it through the entire tournament without losing a set.
Joe DiMaggio’s 1941 Hitting Streak
Before the 1941 season, the record for the longest hitting streak in Major League history – 45 – had stood since the 1890s. The longest of the 20th century had been 41, which occurred in 1922. Then Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio got hot, reaching base by way of a hit in an incredible 56 straight games. That was over 80 years ago and the closest anyone has come to that record since was a 44 game streak in 1979. It’s a pretty good bet that this record will still be standing when it’s 100th anniversary is celebrated in 2041.
Tiger Woods Wins U.S. Open by 15 Shots
Tiger had many great accomplishments throughout his career and especially during his searing hot streak that ran from the 1999 PGA Championship through the 2002 U.S. Open. But it wasn’t a difficult decision to single out what may have been the most dominant performance in golf history from that stretch. The 2000 U.S. Open was held at Pebble Beach, which was playing extremely difficult that week. No other player was able to do better than three over par. Yet somehow, Tiger not only shot under par, but bettered even by 12 shots, leaving him 15 ahead of the runner-up.
Michael Phelps Dominates the Pool in 2008
Michael Phelps’ swimming career, during which he won an incredible 23 Olympic gold medals and set countless world records, was one long jaw-drop. But I had to pick a single accomplishment, and his record of winning eight gold medals at the 2008 Olympics, with seven coming in world record time, clearly stands out as a feat that may never be equaled.
I’m aware this is a very subjective list and that there will probably be plenty of disagreement among those of you who read through it. I don’t mind that a bit. That’s the point of these types of posts.
5 thoughts on “Top 10 Athletic Feats of All Time”
Good mix of in-the-moment and season-long accomplishments. And because it’s not on the list, you obviously didn’t see my diving, backhanded, at-the-tips-of-the-grass catch in 1988. ;^)
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None of these are even in Alex Honnold’s proverbial ballpark. Free-soloing El Capitan is exponentially more impressive. If you never climbed, perhaps you don’t understand. The endurance, incredible skill, intelligence, training, strength, and courage top any of these and it’s not close.
What about Don Larsens perfect game in the 1956 World Series
I didn’t think of that. It was certainly a great feat. I’m not sure I’d put a single perfect game in the top ten though. I also didn’t want to give more than a couple slots to baseball and thought the Ruth and Williams records I mentioned were the best fit. But thank you for your feedback. I appreciate it.