Most of us know that 4 legged smaller domesticated animals with horns hopping around on grass is called goat.

My younger daughter used to sing, ‘High on the hill was a lonely goatherd…’ from The Sound of Music, which happened to be one of the all-time favourite movies of my mom. Yes, they love music.

Running is my routine activity, and I occasionally watch marathon races. I heard the media refer to Eluid Kipchoge as a GOAT, which I thought directly referred to his running capability like the animal with the same spelling.

I came across the word GOAT again at the end of the 2022 World Cup football when the press referred to Lionel Messi as the GOAT, but footballers are more commonly known for their footwork and less for their running capability. Being a slow learner, I finally discovered that GOAT stands for Greatest of All Time.

Being the greatest is not easy. Being judged as the greatest is a matter of quantitative or qualitative metrics. In science, many would agree that quantitative results are better as the ‘numbers never lie’. However, in some areas, qualitative analysis is also important (in my humble opinion). Otherwise, how do we get to have Miss Universe or Mr Olympia? Interestingly, in gymnastics, quantitative results (score points) are given based on judges’ qualitative judgement (with some calibrated written criteria). Are these entirely objective?  

In the professional arena, not too many know the name Edson Arantes do Nascimento because he is commonly known as Pele. He showed up in the 1958 World Cup as a 17-year-old Brazilian boy and revolutionalised the sport by showing how one could merge the athleticism of soccer with the finest of dancing feet. Likewise, Michael Jordon showed his basketball talent from college level to the NBA. Multiple major brands endorsed him into a multi-billionaire.

How about the ‘amateurs’? (Allow me to focus on runners only) IAAF was known for ‘amateur athletics’ even though many had put in their 100% devotion into the sport. Let us name a few males who had accomplished something way ahead of their time;

Alberto Juantorena, Cuba, 1976 Montreal Olympic 400m, 800m Double Gold medals first and only.

Sebastian Coe, UK, 1980, 1984 Olympic 1500M Consecutive Gold medals, also scored world records in 800m, 1500m, 1 mile in 41 days in 1979. He studied business at Loughborough University and became Lord Coe, who headed the Olympic Games.

Abebe Bikila, Ethiopia, 1960, 1964 Double Olympic marathon Gold, first time cross the finish line without shoes in a world record time of 2’15’16 (2nd time with shoes), while he told the press he was only second best in his nation. A palace guard captain he was.

Carlos Lopes, Portugal, triple world cross country winner, 1984 Olympic marathon winner, 1985 Rotterdam marathon with a timing of 2’07’12, the first ever sub 2’08 marathon in mankind.

Toshihiko Seko, Japan, won 10 out of 14 marathons in the 80s with near top of the world times, no Olympic Gold, set 25000m and 30000m world record on the same day in 1981 and stood for 30 years. ‘The marathon is my only girlfriend. I give her everything I have’. He became a coach and later served on the Tokyo Board of Education.

Emil Zatopek, Czechoslovakia, 1952 Olympics Gold in 5000m, 10000m, marathon, it was a feat itself that he had to compete in all the heats and semifinals in the 5000m and 10000m in a few days before the grand finale, his maiden marathon, unprecedented and yet to be repeated.

Alain Mimoun, Algeria-born French runner, aka shadow of Zatopek, lost many major titles to Zatopek but beat Zatopek in the 1956 Olympic marathon. Only his wife knew that he had been running 35km daily in preparation. Zatopek was beaten but gave him a military-style salute after.

Yuki Kawauchi, Japan, aka ‘citizen runner’ but represented Japan, won 2018 Boston marathon, and holds world record of over 100 sub-2’20 marathons (still adding).

Bill Rogers, fondly called Boston Billy, won 22 marathons in the 70s and 80s, three straight Boston, four straight New York, but never had a big Olympic moment. He has a master degree in Special education.

The list can be way longer (& I skipped the females), but I choose to stop here. There is one crucial element that was relatively common among the names above. They were not receiving a full paycheque from running! Even a mention or suspicion of ‘being paid’ could compromise their ‘amateur’ status in their era. They maintain their amateur status by keeping an occupation and derive little money from the sport itself!

In addition, they did it on dirt or grass tracks (all-weather running tracks only showed up in the late 60s), with no fancy GPS watches, basic nutritional support, simple shoe technology, and no pacers (it was not allowed, but nowadays pacers are common even for 800m race). The air on this planet was probably less polluted back then but they raced with their guts.

Fast forward to the 21st Century – most top runners are professionals. They get sponsorship, appearance fee, prize money, etc. They make a living totally out of it! Nowadays, the prize money for winning one of the more significant races may change the lives of a few families in a far remote village for decades to come. A meaningful amount of money is poured in! IMHO, with significant incentives, the drive to achieve is much higher; extraordinary things can happen. Well, by hook or by crook.

For example, many enhanced marathon shoes are currently marketed as having a 4%+ efficiency advantage. Mathematically, Abebe Bikila’s Tokyo Olympic Gold 2’12’11 may be adjusted by 4%+ to 2’06 (current Olympic record is 2’06’32), which is still world-class today but is it still 2’06 if he had the other modern technologies? Is it rational? Then who deserves the GOAT title?

The name GOAT is befitting to all the above names (and many more). However, the name itself is an oxymoron! The word GOAT (Greatest of ALL Time) simply fails to credit, practically, ALL the forerunners (and the future one too).

Then who rules? IMHO, those who show up daily and never give up on striving to be a better version of oneself is a GOAT in their own book.

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