Well, it's happened. Fresh on the heels of golfer Tiger Woods being named by the Associated Press as Athlete of the Decade, race car driver Jimmie Johnson is named by AP as male Athlete of the Year. Both of these selections are a travesty and an insult to true athletes everywhere, especially athletes who don't participate in the big-money sports.
To some degree, this raises the question of what is a sport and what is an athlete. In my mind, these are two very different questions. Many recreational activities might be considered sports, while their participants would not be considered athletes, due to a number of factors which might include lack or low level of physical exertion or reliance on machinery or motorized vehicles, or some sort of propulsion other than self-propulsion. I don't want to fall into the trap of listing who is an athlete and who isn't, and comparing different sports in terms of athleticism can be a fool's errand, needless to say golf and race car driving, while requiring great skill and training, do not require the high level of athleticism required for running, swimming, biking, etc.
I've seen some of the defenses of Johnson's selection, and it is both ludicrous and fascinating. On ESPN's web site (for what credibility ESPN has left), NASCAR writer David Newton compares Johnson to past winners. He writes, "Michael Phelps won it last year. Does swimming laps instead of driving laps make him more deserving?" Then, "Lance Armstrong won from 2003 to 2005. Does pedaling a bicycle make him more of an athlete than a man who mashes a pedal?" Yes, yes, YES!!!! What planet is he on? He does also say, "Tiger Woods won it in 1997, '99, '00 and '06. Is he more of an athlete because he drives a golf ball instead of a car?" He's got me there.
In his own defense, Johnson said that his 5-mile run time (34:55) would beat most NFL players. If he's basing his athleticism on that, then even I've got him beat! So why not give it to a runner?
It's a troublesome world where the mainstream media give such recognition to golfers and race car drivers while runners are apparently misfits whose only value is to crawl out of their holes every four years for the Olympics or the occasional big marathon, and where even in the running world ultrarunners are treated as second-class citizens. Ultrarunners, keep running, keep spreading the good word. You are all incredible athletes, what you are doing is noble, and you are not misfits. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all!