Tuesday, Apr. 16, 2024

The GOAT Dilemma



Only once in the past decade have I stood atop a mountain, peering down at white powder with boards strapped to my feet. What came next didn’t go well. At one point I found myself on my stomach, skis splayed, unable to do one of the basic tasks I’ve done successfully since the first year of my life: stand.

Despite that, I’m a huge Shaun White fan. Maybe it’s the awe of watching him drop into a massive halfpipe and launch himself into the sky when I’m overcome by nerves simply facing down the bunny slope. Maybe it’s the videos he posts where he does all these cool cat moves set to great music. Or maybe it’s his vulnerability, when he talks about his mental health in Michael Phelps’ documentary, “Weight of Gold.”

Regardless, I watched White’s last run in the Beijing Olympics and got teary-eyed. After seeing him hug his board and say goodbye to his sport, I started thinking of the term GOAT—Greatest of All Time—that has flooded the sporting vernacular of late. In one way it’s a great term to acknowledge an athlete’s incredible achievements. But in another, it brings an onslaught of commentary and criticism that is amplified across the globe thanks to social media.

White really is the GOAT of halfpipe snowboarding. He pushed the boundaries and pushed the sport forward, making it bigger, better, more technical. But being the face of a sport has its costs as well as its benefits.

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Part of me loves the concept of this term GOAT, while another part hates it. It’s wonderful to acknowledge the profound impact of athletes such as White, Phelps, Simone Biles and even Tom Brady (although I say that last one begrudgingly). However, it’s a hard reputation to live up to while still competing—especially in this age, among the cacophony of voices on social media. Greats earn that moniker because of their push for perfection, but I can only imagine the burden of Instagram and Facebook makes such a journey more arduous.

How can they escape the noise of it all? How can they not feel this added pressure brought on by technology that allows comments and opinions to travel the globe in seconds? How can they not feel paralyzed by the fact that the world seems to hang their success on gold medals?

We’ve had so many legends that could be worthy of the GOAT status in the—granted, much smaller—equestrian world. When talking to coworkers, we threw out names classic and contemporary, like Bruce Davidson and Michael Jung, Isabell Werth and Reiner Klimke, Beezie Madden and Bill Steinkraus, and debated exactly who is “the” GOAT of their given sport. All are incredible horsemen and horsewomen who dominated their sport for decades on different horses and inspired the next generation. And there are many others one can argue could wear that mantel.

However, my problem with the term doesn’t quite translate in these examples because—while horses make up our whole world—coverage of equestrian sports doesn’t universally enchant the entire world (“rave horses” excluded) in the same way as soccer, gymnastics or swimming. But even in our more insular community, the GOAT pressure still exists.

We build these individuals up to be larger than life, superhuman in their talents and made of steel. Their losses can garner more attention than their wins because the wins are the norm; they are expected. In the same way, backlash against these athletes is greater and comments harsher because of their noticeability.



Bill Steinkraus was honored during his official retirement ceremony at the Royal Winter Fair (Canada) in 1972. Chronicle Archives Photo.

Tori Colvin’s house holds more loot than most hunter riders, but every time she adds another pristine round and a tricolor to her resume, I see a faceless avatar on social media say something negative about her position. When Madden withdrew from Olympic consideration last summer, my stomach soured when I saw people harshly criticizing her for even putting her name in the running, arguing she took the spot from someone else.

Perhaps such comments are justifiable in certain situations. But we must remember incredible athletes are also people, with their own demons, their own insecurities and their own emotions.

With luck, the horse world will see new riders who will push the sport and raise the bar again and again, inheriting the GOAT title from those who came before them. Their performances will give us goosebumps and fill us with pride for what human and equine can do together. And let us hope that we—in our comments, shares and general behavior—resist the armor of anonymity and herd mentality that social media can create and choose instead to give them an encouraging nudge forward, so that they can reach their full potential while also not feeling like their life’s worth is defined by gold.

After White’s fourth-place finish in China, I imagine he felt an emptiness for the end of his chapter in the story of halfpipe snowboarding. But he looked at what Japan’s Ayumu Hirano accomplished on that tube of snow and felt pride too, for where he is leaving the sport after his decades of innovation.

“Everybody’s been asking me what my legacy in this sport has been,” he said, “and I’m like, ‘You’re watching it.’ ”

Really, it’s that intangible inspiration and excitement for the future that the likes of White, Biles, Phelps, Madden and Werth, pass on that makes them the GOATs.




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