It’s always risky to venture into such matters, but this distinction that seems minor is one of the biggest misconceptions regarding how sporting stars are viewed and judged. Superlatives are substituted one for one as if they were the same, but there are subtle differences that make comparisons of players across and amongst eras possible and relevant.
The word ‘greatest’ is the superlative form of great. It goes: great, greater, then greatest. Similarly, ‘best’ is the superlative of the word ‘good’. Now, are good and great the same? Worryingly, great is often used to mean a better version of good. “I’m good at my job, but I want to be great”. It shouldn’t mean that great is an improvement on good, but it’s taken to be so by many.
Why is this important in sports?
It’s nigh on impossible to tell for certain who would be the best amongst Pele, Diego Maradona, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Lionel Messi. Why? We never got the chance to be able to see them play at the same time, and they were exposed to vastly different sports and rules. Common sense would dictate, as in most sports, that players get better over time due to advances in technology, fitness, professionalism, and monetary backing. In cricket, Sir Donald Bradman is widely thought to be the greatest batsman of all time for his almost 100 batting average. Is he the best? Most certainly not. The game has advanced leaps and bounds and it would be detrimental for his safety if he were to face the quickest bowlers of this generation.
In football, current players are better than players of amateur eras and eras where football was not the monetary juggernaut it is today. The stakes are immeasurably higher and the appetites to be good are immeasurably more ravenous.
Are they further along the spectrum of greatness? That’s where we can compare across different eras. It’s unfair to compare on a scale of good, better, and best across most sports because Lionel Messi is better than Pele ever was, just as Tiger Woods is better than Ben Hogan, and Serena Williams is better than…well, everyone. Messi and Ronaldo spend too much time honing their craft to be compared to players from the 1930s or 1940s who were exceptional for their time but would look silly now if they were thrust into the modern game.
This concept is most quantifiable in track and field. Jesse Owens from the United States was a truly exceptional athlete. A triple threat, the man was excellent all round. However, his personal best of 10.3 seconds (100 metres) would struggle to win a high school 100 m sprint in Jamaica or his own country today. By the unwavering definition of good, better, and best, the 10.0-second sprinter is faster and therefore better, but Jesse Owens by the weight of his achievements and dominance over his peers was greater. Usain Bolt is the best sprinter of all time without a doubt, but Owens vs Bolt would be a proper debate as to who was the greater since Owens ran 10.3 seconds on tracks made from cinders. That’s literally burnt wood and it would steal energy with every stride. Tracks are now engineered for speed. In golf, clubs and golf balls are engineered for distance and control. In cricket, rules are bent to make run-scoring easier, for that is entertainment and, in football, surfaces are slicker and the ball is no longer as heavy as lead.
In short, everything is catered to making the athlete look good.