Tuesday, 21st May 2024

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

The Toughest Sport?

Posted on 14. Jul, 2023 by in Articles, Personal essays



The debate rages, finally, an answer.

GENEVA, Switzerland


Is an Ironman triathlete tougher than an ultramarathoner? Is American football wimpy compared to rugby? What takes more courage and agility, a free solo up El Capitan or a dive off a cliff into a tidal pool?

If your pub conversation slows down you might ask these questions:  What is the most dangerous, toughest, hardest-to-master sport? And, by extension, who are the “best” athletes?

At the end of this article I offer my own conclusions.


Everybody’s got an opinion.

A quick Google search about this question generates these answers: 

  • Boxing, Ice Hockey, American Football. (ESPN.com, measuring: endurance, strength, power, speed, agility, flexibility, nerve, durability, hand-eye coordination, analytic aptitude)
  • MMA (mixed martial arts), Football (soccer), Rugby.  (AskMen.com, measuring: strength, speed, cardiovascular endurance, durability)
  • Gymnastics, Swimming, Equestrianism.  (TheTopTens.com, measuring: skill)
  • Cross-Country Running, Freestyle Wrestling, Equestrianism. (Sportsbrowser.net, no criteria offered)
  • Water Polo, Football (Australian Rules), Boxing. (Bleacherreport.com, measuring: endurance, speed, strength, agility, skill, physicality)
  • Rugby, Boxing, Gymnastics. (Sportytell.com, measuring: physical strength, balance, mental strength, endurance)
  • Boxing, Gymnastics, Ice Hockey. (iask.ai, no criteria offered)
  • Boxing, MMA, Rugby, Ice Hockey, American Football, Ultra-Marathons, CrossFit, Rowing. (ChatGPT, multiple criteria)
  • BMX cycling, Boxing, Mountain Biking, Taekwondo.  (British Journal of Sports Medicine, measuring injuries from the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics)
  • Powerlifting and Bodybuilding (with a stern medical warning about steroids), Triathlon (with a joke: “If God created the marathon so that people would not come up with anything more crazy, then the triathlon took him by surprise”), Professional Cycling (with dramatic anecdotes about the dangers of doping), and Competitive Sauna (more on this later). (Bolshoi, bolshoisport.ru, a  Russian sports magazine)

Such judgments are bound to spark spirited debates.


My opinion? The lists above feature too many cultural biases with limited (and limiting) criteria:

  • Many of the sports are United States-biased.
  • Many of them are professional team sports, where the athlete has a built-in support system of trainers and coaches, with ambulances standing by.
  • Many of them have short recovery periods; the athlete can go out the next day and play again at a high level.
  • None of them consider sports that are subject to environmental hazards, such as snow, angry animals, dehydration, heat stroke, frost-bite, low-oxygen, killer waves, avalanches.
  • Few of them factor in risk of serious injury or risk of death.

I’ve created my own set of 16 criteria, broken down into six categories — Physiological Effort, Injury Risk, Strength/Endurance, Agility, Mental Skills, Isolation.  I use the terms “athlete” and “sportsman” to include male and female players.


1. Cardio Effort

The highest-scoring sports on the “toughness scale” include those that require sustained, intense cardio effort.

Athletes playing American football, for instance, which often rates high as among the “hardest” sports, generally experience short bursts of high effort, followed by longer periods of almost-complete rest. These athletes might go on the field for a single play, which might last five to ten seconds at most, and then slog off to the air-conditioned/heated bench, or regroup in a huddle.  I’d like to see a statistic of how much intense playing time an American football player has per game; I’d guess it’s in the region  of five-10 minutes, not more.

The most cardio-intensive sports include rowing, long distance swimming, running, cycling, Nordic skiing, squash, and Ironman triathlons.

2. VO2 Max

VO2 max is the maximum rate of oxygen consumption as measured during incremental exercise. It is defined by the Fick Equation: VO2 = (CO x Ca) – (CO x Cv) where CO = Cardiac Output, Ca = Oxygen concentration of arterial blood, and Cv = Oxygen concentration of mixed venous blood.

Give special consideration for biathlon (Nordic ski racing with intervals of shooting) in which athletes repeatedly expend maximum cardio/VO2 effort then have to immediately slow their breathing and heart rate in order to enter a quiet Zen mode for shooting.

High marks also for rowing, Greco-Roman wrestling, long distance swimming, running, and biking, synchronized swimming, and water polo. Don’t overlook the decreased oxygen availability mountain climbers have to deal with in high-altitude environments.

3. Calories Burned

Certainly more calories are used in sustained-effort sports, like running, swimming, road cycling, Nordic skiing, and mountain climbing than in quick-burst sports like sprinting, baseball, or weight lifting.


4. Risk of Injury I — Aggressive opponents

Any sport is tougher when a hundred-kilo opponent is trying to dismember you. 

Scoring high would be ice hockey, rugby, American football, boxing, and MMA (mixed martial arts). And yes, I know it’s choreographed, but professional (WWE) wrestlers give and take a tremendous amount of physical abuse.

5. Risk of Injury II — While Playing, Non-Fatal

Some sports are benign — golf, swimming, tennis, badminton, volleyball.

But elite athletes in many sports suffer injuries that often require surgery and lengthy rehabilitation: parkour, free solo climbing, baseball, basketball, American football, football (soccer), gymnastics, and MMA.

The British Journal of Sports Medicine rated BMX cycling as the sport causing the most injuries during the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics, with 38% of BMX cyclists suffering injuries, compared to 8% of Olympians overall. In the semi-finals of the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, American BMX racer Connor Fields, who won the gold medal in 2016, crashed and was hospitalized with a brain hemorrhage, a broken rib, and a bruised lung. Dr. Jonathan Finnoff, the chief medical officer for the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee who attended to Fields in Tokyo, said: “It was the worst injury of the Tokyo Summer Games.”

Athletes in the Olympic Winter Games are even more likely to suffer injuries than participants in the Summer Games, and those injuries tend to be more serious. According to the International Olympic Committee, about 12% of almost 3,000 athletes participating in the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, sustained at least one injury. Ski halfpipe was the most dangerous (28% of athletes injured), followed by snowboard cross (26%), ski cross (25%), snowboard slopestyle (21%), and aerial freestyle skiing (20%).

In 1894, during the first Olympic Congress of the newly created International Olympic Committee (IOC), the sport of alpinism, or alpine climbing, was recognized as an official activity, but it took another 30 years for the first medal to be awarded, and that for an event that did not take place at the Olympic Games.  That recognition came at the 1924 Winter Olympic Games in Chamonix, France, when the IOC awarded the Prix Olympique d’Alpinisme to Lieutenant-Colonel Edward L. Strutt, who accepted the prize on behalf of the thirteen mountaineers (12 Britons and an Australian) who had taken part in the disastrous 1922 Mount Everest expedition. The climbers came close, but failed to reach the summit, and an avalanche killed several climbers.  Posthumous medals were later also given to the seven Sherpas from Darjeeling, India, who died during the expedition — Antarge Sherpa, Lhakpa Sherpa, Narbu Sherpa, Pasang Sherpa, Fembra Sherpa, Sange Sherpa, and Temba Sherpa — with an eighth medal awarded to Tejbir Bura, a Nepalese soldier who also perished during the attempt.

Alpinism ceased to be part of the Olympics in 1946; nevertheless in 1988 Reinhold Messner and Jerzy Kukuczka were awarded honorary Olympic silver medals for climbing 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks; Messner refused the award.

6. Risk of Injury III — Later in Life Repercussions

Joe Namath was an American football quarterback who had multiple knee surgeries from injuries incurred while playing quarterback for the Jets.  He was known for proudly publishing photos of his surgical scars, a sobering sight of injuries that hobbled him well after retirement from professional sports.  Many athletes participate in sports where concussions and other serious injuries can be related to serious later-in-life complications such as permanent disability, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s — boxing, American football,  rugby, MMA, weight lifting, and ice hockey.

7. Risk of Injury IV —Immediate Catastrophic Injury (You Might Die!)

Most sports injuries are reparable — broken bones, strains, torn ligaments.   This category, however, involves the risk of dying while playing your sport.

How many competitive swimmers or springboard divers would be willing to participate in the Red Bull Cliff Diving competition, in which athletes leap off a high platform — 27 meters (88 feet) for men, 21 meters (69 feet) for women) — into tiny-appearing tidal pools. In 2.6 seconds the diver might achieve six rotations and a top speed of 85 kilometers (53 miles) per hour. The sport requires strength, agility, and, considering that a sloppy entrance into the water might kill you, considerable courage.

High marks also for mountain climbing, BASE jumping, bull riding, big-wave surfing, free solo climbing, long endurance races in the desert, off-piste wilderness skiing competitions, ski and snowboard acrobatics, and boxing.


8. Strength

Does the athlete need to power through traffic to make a layup? Rescue an injred competitor by carrying him or her through a blizzard? Climb out of a crevasse? High marks for boxing, rugby, gymnastics, mountain climbing, and basketball.

9. Recovery Time

Can an athlete can repeat a match/physical feat the following day? 

Low “toughness” marks for baseball, basketball, gymnastics, and tennis.

High marks (indicating longer recovery times) for Ironman triathlon, Nordic skiing, marathon running, and boxing. 

And a long season puts increased stress on an athlete’s body.

A tangent on Recovery Time: Let’s examine American football vs football (soccer):

First, many authorities (and websites of varying degrees of bias) argue that American football is one of the hardest, toughest sports. Since many authorities (and websites) are American-based this glorification of American football (along with ice hockey and basketball) could relate to the fact that these are professional, mainstream sports that are important in American society and in which athletes are paid obscene salaries and are pop-culture heroes.

Certainly, American football players suffer injuries.  But the season is relatively short and the cardio expenditure relatively modest. A good player on a good team that makes it to the Super Bowl might play 20 games spread over a five-month season. And the maximum time spent on the field for each game will be measured in handfuls of minutes.

Compare that to a football (soccer) player on a top team in the English Premier League (EPL). The highly successful Manchester City team played 61 games in five separate competitions during the 2022-2023 season, which included winning the famous “Treble” of the Champions League, English Premier League, and FA Cup. In addition, individual players might have played perhaps another six or more games for their national teams, potentially playing 90 minutes or more per game. In one estimate, star Manchester City midfielder Kevin De Bruyne could have played up to 78 matches for his team and country (it was a World Cup year) during the almost-non-stop 2022-2023 season. The reality is only slightly lower — in 2022 Manchester City’s most-used player, Rodri, played 68 matches for club and country.  “Every year it’s getting worse and worse and it will be getting worse and I don’t know how it’s going to end, honestly,” Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola said.

That’s a lot of wear and tear on an athlete’s body.

Other comparisons:

Major League Baseball (MLB): Regular season, each team plays 162 games over a six-month period, with playoffs that might run over another month.  What’s the risk of a player suffering an injury?  In the 2023 season, the New York Yankees placed 15 players on the injured or disabled list, the most of the 30 teams in two leagues (other teams had significantly fewer injuries —Milwaukee Brewers (7), Toronto Blue Jays (5), Baltimore Orioles (4), and Houston Astros (4). The Yankees injuries included a torn toe ligament, several torn ulnar collateral ligaments, left triceps discomfort, hamstring strains, and rotator cuff strains. These are troublesome for the player and team, certainly, but none of them are life threatening. The only truly worrying injury was a post-concussion syndrome suffered by first baseman Anthony Rizzo.

National Basketball Association (NBA): Regular season, each team plays 82 games over a seven-month period, with (seemingly endless) playoffs for another month.

National Hockey League (NHL): Regular season, which overlaps with the NBA season, each team plays 82 games over a seven-month period, followed by playoffs.

The Tour de France, for professional cyclists, consists of 21 day-long segments over a 23-day period; it typically covers around 3,500 kilometers (2,200 miles).  Many of the stages feature steep alpine climbs and descents, which are often treacherous due to a congestion of speeding riders, slippery roads, tight turns, and idiotic fans stepping into the road to ring cowbells in the cyclists’ faces. The professional cyclist’s summer season includes several races of similar difficulty and length.


10. Grace under pressure

This is the ability to make acrobatic plays, to throw your body around in a way that is effective and doesn’t lead to dismemberment. Some sports have different positions which value agility more than others — for example, a wide receiver in American football is more agile than an offensive tackle.

High points for agility: gymnastics, baseball, some American football positions, free solo climbing, springboard diving, cliff diving, tennis, figure skating, professional wrestling, parkour, and high jump/pole vault.

11. Hand-Eye Coordination

High marks for table tennis, golf, tennis, baseball, basketball.


12. Brain/Tactics/Thinking on Your Feet/Analytics and Quick Decisions

Low marks for rowing, Nordic skiing.

High marks for American football quarterbacks (but less for other positions), ice hockey, tennis, football (soccer), and basketball.

13. Mental Toughness/Focus/Key Shots/Choking

How often does the player have to make a crucial serve/shot/movement?  The higher the stakes the greater the risk of choking.

High marks for tennis (a must-make serve), golf (a must-make putt), figure skating (a quadruple toe flip with double lutz to win the gold), gymnastics (stick the landing), basketball (gotta make that free throw), baseball (end of a tight game, a pitcher has to make a good pitch, the batter has to get a hit), free solo climbing (the climber has to choose the next handhold, then execute the move).

But you can look at this criteria another way.  That’s the “refusal to lose” mind-set, also known as “mental toughness,” or simply “tenacity.” Top-level tennis has provided many memorable matches highlighting this quality, notably the 2008 Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.  At the time, between them they had won 14 of the previous 16 Gland Slam titles; the two had met in the two previous Wimbledon finals, with Federer victorious both times.  Nadal, the underdog on grass, won the first set. He also won the second set, coming from 1- 4 down. The next two sets featured some of the highest-quality tennis ever played. Federer won the third set.  In the fourth set Nadal was up 5-2 at one point, but Federer saved two championship points and went on to win the set.  The fifth set was equally epic, with the lead changing hands several times. Nadal saved 12 of the 13 break points he faced, and went on to win 9-7 in a tiebreak.  It was the longest final in Wimbledon history, lasting four hours and 48 minutes.


These points are seldom included in calculations about a “hardest” sport, but for me they are essential in determining difficulty.

14. Individual vs Team

I suggest we deduct points where the athlete is part of a team — when the athlete is part of a group there is reduced individual responsibility — if I don’t score the goal hopefully my teammate will.

So higher marks for isolated, individual sports where the athlete is alone with his or her inner demons — mountain climbing, Ironman triathlon, long distance running and swimming, boxing, gymnastics.

15. Isolation

Does the athlete have a support system of coaches, trainers, psychologists, cheerleaders, groupies, sponsors, public relations people?

Low marks for most professional sports. Particularly low marks for coddled American football players who have huge outdoor air-conditioning units to keep them cool on the sidelines when the weather is hot, and outdoor heating units to keep them toasty warm during the cold weather, and have flunkies who squirt Gatorade into their mouths during seemingly constant breaks in the action.

High marks for relatively “amateur” less-well organized sports in which the athlete is more or less independent, such as mountain climbing, ski randonnée, Ironman triathlon, and long-distance open-ocean swimming.

16. Climatic/Environmental Impact

High marks for the athlete who performs alone while exposed to wind and snow, furnace-like heat or frigid temperatures while struggling up steep mountains and down deep valleys. Let’s call these “extreme sports.”

A few examples of sport competitions that combine isolation and extreme environmental conditions.

  • La Grande Course, a series of European ski mountaineering competitions.  The most famous is the Patrouille des Glaciers in which three-person ski teams climb and ski a distance of some 53 kilometers (33 miles) in the Swiss alps. The record time for the course, which involves climbing some 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) and descending a similar elevation, is 5 hours, 35 minutes, 27 seconds, held by an Italian team who won in 2018.
  • Ironman Triathlon World Championship — the grandaddy of triathlons.
  • Marathon des Sables, a multi-day ultramarathon of 251 kilometers (156 miles) held in the Sahara Desert.
  • Race Across America (RAAM), a non-stop transcontinental cycling race that spans approximately 4,800 kilometers (3,000 miles) from the west coast to the east coast of the United States.
  • Badwater Ultramarathon, which takes place in California’s Death Valley, during which participants run 217 kilometers (135 miles) through desert landscapes and steep mountain passes.
  • The nonstop, round-the-world, solo Golden Globe Race has been referred to as “a voyage for madmen.” The 2022 winner was 40-year-old South African Kirsten Neuschäfer who sailed around the three major capes in 233 days, 18 hours, 43 minutes, and 47 seconds.  Entrants are required to sail small boats alone, using only pre-1960s-era technology — no satellite communication, autopilot, cellphones, or radar.  Courses are plotted using celestial navigation and a sextant. Along the way, Neuschäfer stopped to rescue Tapio Lehtinen, a competing sailor whose boat sank in the southern Indian Ocean. He had spent 24 hours adrift in his life raft before Neuschäfer reached him, gave him a glass of rum, and transferred him aboard the bulk carrier Darya Gayatri.
  • The Speed Project is an unsanctioned, unsupported 563-kilometer (350-mile) race from Los Angeles to Las Vegas via Death Valley.
  • The famed Barkley Marathons in rural Tennessee was inspired by the 1977 prison escape of James Earl Ray, who assassinated the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The race covers 160 kilometers (100 miles) with five loops of 36 kilometers (20 miles) each, and must be completed within 60-hours of almost non-step effort. The elevation gain is around 19,000 meters (63,000 feet), the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest twice.  The trail is unmarked, overgrown in parts with thorns and briers. There are no aid stations, and runners are not allowed phones or GPS to help with navigation. At between nine and 14 unmanned checkpoints athletes must rip out a page in a paperback book corresponding to their bib number (the runner deemed to have “no business being here,” known as the “human sacrifice,” is given bib number 1); these sacrificial books, with titles such as Oh, No! We’re Gonna Die, by Bob Bell, are hidden below rocky ledges and in rotting tree trunks (runners get clues to help them find them).  The Barkley is dubbed “The Race That Eats Its Young.”  Only 17 athletes have completed the race since it started in 1986. If any of the 40 participants get lost, injured, or simply collapses, well, they are on their own. Fans call it the toughest running race on the planet. There is no official website, and registration information is guarded within the running community.  Applicants have to write an essay on why they want to participate, pay a registration fee of $1.60, and bring a bottle of alcohol and a license plate from their home country. If selected they receive a “letter of condolence.”
  • Even tougher is the Barkley offshoot called the Chartreuse Terminorum, held in the mountainous Chartreuse region of eastern France. Like the Barkley, the Chartreuse Terminorum route is unmarked, unmonitored, and no phone or GPS devices are allowed. It is so difficult no one has ever finished. The race’s five loops of 60 kilometers (37 miles) total 300 kilometers (186 miles), requiring a lung-busting, thigh-squishing 25,000 meters (82,000 feet) of altitude gain. The race’s motto is a quote from Cicero:  “Neque porro quisquam est qui dolorem ipsum quia dolor sit amet, consectetur, adipisci velit….” roughly translated as “There is no one who loves pain itself, who seeks after it and wants to have it, simply because it is pain.” The entry fee is €3 ($3.30), calculated as one centime per kilometer. The essay question smacks of a college application: “Why should I be allowed to participate at the Chartreuse Terminorum?” The books with pages to be torn out include portentous titles such as: Le livre qui rend fou (The Book That Drives You Mad), Stupeur et tremblements (Fear and Trembling), Introduction à la psychanalyse (Introduction to Psychoanalysis) , and La Cité de la joie (City of Joy).  Benoit Laval, one of the race organizers, noted the route’s proximity to the region’s famed Carthusian monastery: “The monks were rather amused by the idea of imagining the solitude of these athletes running in the middle of the night in silence. It spoke to them.”
  • And consider the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), a race so epic it has been described as the World Cup, Tour de France and Super Bowl of running. None of those does it justice. UTMB covers 170 kilometers (106 miles), starting and finishing in Chamonix and passing through three countries — France, Italy and Switzerland — as it circumnavigates Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in western Europe. The distance is only half the story. Runners must tackle 10,000 meters (33,000 feet) of elevation gain. The race follows a popular hiking route that usually takes 10 days; the elite runners at UTMB run, walk, and stagger round in under 20 hours.


But, let’s take this a step further. Should we consider the toughness and athletic ability of the Outliers; people who are not generally considered “athletes” playing in a well-known “sport,” but who exhibit exceptional physical stamina, extreme courage, and an almost-surreal “I will survive” mentality.  They are the: Almost Ignored, Incredibles, Ridiculous, Explorers, Warriors, Accidental Survivors, and Artists and Entertainers.

Almost Ignored

Most of the sports discussed in this paper are more or less organized. But if you dig you’ll find tales of extraordinary accomplishments by people who aren’t part of a team, who may not have any support, who suffer for the hell of it.

Some of these individual achievements never make the headlines, such as the roughly 1,000 people who “thru-walk” the entire Appalachian Trail each year.

And I raise a glass of the finest wine to cave explorers, who squeeze through previously unexplored passages, unable to turn around if they get stuck or a gush of water heads towards them, in the expectation that eventually they will arrive at a cavern, and hopefully, an exit point.

The Incredibles

  • Benoit Lecomte became the first person to swim the Atlantic — it took him 73 days.
  • Free diver Tom Sieths, from Germany, descended to nearly 213 meters (700 feet) and, on another occasion, held his breath underwater for 17 minutes and 19 seconds.
  • Gethin Butler rode his bike from the point furthest north in the UK, John O’ Groats, to the furthest south, Land’s End. He covered the 1,406 kilometers (874 miles) in just over 44 hours.
  • Lewis Pugh, known as the Sir Edmund Hillary of Swimming, has a staggering list of accomplishments.  He swam the 2,865 kilometers (1,780 miles) around Great Britain, and was the first person to swim across the Red Sea, covering the 123 kilometers (76 miles) in 16 days while avoiding oil tankers, container ships, rough seas, and some 40 species of shark. He holds the world records for the furthest north and south swims (also becoming the first to swim under the East Antarctica ice sheet).  On Pugh’s Arctic and Antarctic expeditions, for which Pugh wore just a Speedo swimsuit, cap, and goggles, Tim Noakes, a sports scientist from the University of Cape Town, recorded the swimmer’s ability to raise his core body temperature by nearly 2° C in anticipation of entering the freezing water. Noakes coined the phrase “anticipatory thermo-genesis” (the creation of heat before an event) and argued that this phenomenon, which had not been noted in any other human, is a Pavlovian Response to years of cold water swimming. Pugh simply believed it was a response to fear.
  • Jacky Hunt-Broersma lost her left leg to Ewing Sarcoma, a rare type of bone and tissue cancer. Yet in 2022 the 44-year-old nevertheless ran 104 full marathons on 104 consecutive days.

The Ridiculous

  • The World Sauna Championship existed in a netherworld between athletic pursuit, a Guinness World Record-type event, a symbol of national heritage, and the experience of voluntarily sitting inside a pizza oven until your soft tissue starts to melt like mozzarella. Held between 1999 and 2010, competitors in the oh-so-Finnish event signed a waiver that they realized participation might cause “injury and death.” The event was abandoned in 2010 when Russian competitor Vladimir Ladyzhensky died after six minutes of 110o C. heat, suffering severe burns and trauma.  There were clear rules: The winner was the last person to stay in the sauna and walk out without outside help.  Competitors had to sit with “their buttocks and thighs on the bench.” They could not touch their skin or disturb each other. Every thirty seconds a bucket of water was poured on the white-hot rocks, adding steam to the inferno. American sports writer Rick Reilly, who competed in 2007, interviewed Timo Kaukonen, considered the greatest Finnish competitive saunist, who won the World Championships five times.  “Timo trains with multiple sauna sessions per day. His pulse rises to 200 beats per minute when he competes, and he actually trains aerobically, riding a bike and running. He is also very quiet. In this game you don’t want to be a person who needs a lot of movement.”


History is full of brave people who survived extreme conditions:

Some famous examples:

  • Ernest Shackleton’s South Pole Expedition
  • Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s Everest Summit
  • Lewis and Clark’s Transcontinental Expedition
  • Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki Voyage

But what about those countless less-heralded explorers who survived trekking through deserts, tropical rainforests, and swamps, while suffering malaria, broken bones, starvation, hostile indigenous groups, snakebites, delirium, and hardships that would have easily killed most people. Do you consider them athletes?


And would you consider elite soldiers who serve in the U.S. Army’s Delta Force, the Israeli Sayeret Matkal, the British SAS, and other units, to be athletes? (Maybe it depends on whether you consider war a sport). These men and women certainly are marvelous examples of athleticism, endurance, and mental toughness.

Accidental Survivors

In addition, consider the individuals caught in snowstorms, attacked by wild animals, or abandoned at sea who somehow dug deep and survived.

Artists and Entertainers

I recall my first exposure to ballet. I was the cultural affairs editor of my university newspaper and I was sent to interview ballet star Edward Villella who was performing on campus.  I was stunned watching him, and thought: this guy is a superb athlete. Or consider the jaw-dropping extravagance of the tap dancing Nicholas Brothers in the 1943 film Stormy Weather. The art of combining dance and acrobatics is not limited to the stage or film set. Breaking (breakdancing) will be an official Olympic sport at the 2024 Paris Summer Games. Dancers, acrobats, and circus performers combine many of the attributes we associate with top-level athletes — physiological effort, agility, and strength while adding two key components that we might not always associate with sportsmen — elegance and showmanship.

Would you consider stuntmen to be athletes? They certainly are athletic, generally unheralded, and risk serious injury every time the director yells “roll the cameras.”  Some famous stunts have been performed by A-list actors — Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Harrison Ford, Michelle Yeoh, Jean-Paul Belmondo, John Wayne, Burt Reynolds, Michelle Pfeiffer, and, perhaps the most accomplished, Jackie Chen. When asked why he did his own stunts in one Mission Impossible film, where he clung to the side of a cargo plane, Tom Cruise replied: “Would you ask Gene Kelly why he does all his own dancing?”

But the legions of stuntmen who often stand in for the stars deserve a nod. Yakima Canutt who, in John Ford’s 1939 film Stagecoach, leaps from his speeding horse on to the back of the lead horse (of six) pulling the eponymous stagecoach, deliberately twists under the horse, holds on for a moment, then lets go and lies flat on the ground while somehow avoiding death as the horses and the coach’s wheels thunder by on either side. In Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, Zoë Bell hangs on to the hood of a speeding 1970 Dodge Challenger, grabbing just a bit of seatbelt in each hand for security; then Kurt Russell starts ramming the car from behind. In what the studio described as an “unplanned event,” Joe Canutt (son of Yakima), Charlton Heston’s double in Ben-Hur,  flipped his chariot and was launched head over heels into the path of thundering horses. He walked away with a scraped chin. Arguably the greatest stuntman of all time, Dar Robinson broke 19 world records and set 21 “world’s firsts.” He was proud that he never broke a single bone during filming, until 1986 when he fatally drove his motorcycle off a cliff while filming a stunt for Million Dollar Mystery. An inquest ruled that he accidentally pressed the motorcycle’s accelerator rather than the brake.


(NB: I have not included motor sports)

  1. BASE jumping
  2. Baseball
  3. Basketball
  4. Biathlon (Nordic cross country skiing combined with shooting)
  5. Bicycle (road racing)
  6. Bicycle (mountain bike)
  7. Bicycle (BMX)
  8. Boxing
  9. Bull riding
  10. Cave exploration
  11. Cliff diving
  12. Climbing (mountain climbing, mountaineering)
  13. Climbing (free solo, without ropes)
  14. Cricket
  15. Decathlon
  16. Football (American)
  17. Football (Australian rules)
  18. Football (soccer)
  19. Golf
  20. Gymnastics
  21. High jump
  22. Hockey (ice)
  23. Ice skating (figure)
  24. Ice skating (speed)
  25. MMA (Mixed Martial Arts)
  26. Pole vault
  27. Running, long distance
  28. Rugby (league)
  29. Rugby (union)
  30. Rowing
  31. Ice skating (speed)
  32. Swimming (synchronized — requires stamina and the willingness to wear waterproof makeup)
  33. Swimming (open ocean)
  34. Swimming (distance, in pool)
  35. Skiing (individual downhill racing)
  36. Skiing (Nordic/cross country)
  37. Skiing (randonnée/mountaineering)
  38. Skiing (extreme off-piste)
  39. Ski jumping
  40. Skiing and snowboard (all forms of freestyle aerials, slopestyle, and halfpipe)
  41. Skiing and snowboard (all forms of cross racing)
  42. Squash
  43. Surfing (big wave)
  44. Tennis
  45. Triathlon (Ironman)
  46. Water polo
  47. Weight lifting
  48. Windsurfing
  49. Wrestling (Greco-Roman)
  50. Wrestling (WWE professional)


My nomination for the “toughest” sport:  Mountain climbing. 

And my two nominations for the “best athletes?” 

Rheinhold Messner,  (b: 17 September 1944) was the first person to climb all 14 peaks above 8,000 meters (26,247 feet), and did so without the use of supplemental oxygen.  He made the first solo ascent of Mount Everest.  He was the first to cross Antarctica and Greenland with neither snowmobiles nor dog sleds, and also crossed the Gobi Desert alone.

Veteran Sherpa guide Kami Rita, (b. 17 January 1970) has summited Mount Everest 28 times while helping clients achieve this life-threatening exploit. He also holds the record for the most 8,000 meter summits, with 38.



Paul Spencer Sochaczewski is a French-American writer based in Geneva, Switzerland. He does not claim any exceptional abilities as an athlete.

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

Paul, near the summit of Gamalama volcano, Ternate, Indonesia.