Picking the world’s toughest sport is a tough game to play. Let’s see if you agree with our correspondent’s conclusion. Spoiler: It’s not football.
A traceur leaps in the air practicing parkour. Photo by TIGER500 courtesy of Parkour Foundations. (CC by 2.0)
Is an Ironman 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 27 meters above a tidal pool?
Is there one sport in the world that is the most dangerous, toughest and hardest-to-master? And are those who participate in that sport the “best” athletes? This has all the makings of a great pub argument. But let’s settle the question here, at News Decoder. My conclusion at the end.
Different sports seem to require different skills and abilities.
According to ESPN, for example, boxing, ice hockey and American football require endurance, strength, power, speed, agility, flexibility, nerve, durability, hand-eye coordination and analytic aptitude. According to the Ziff-Davis publication AskMen.com, mixed martial arts, football (soccer) and rugby require strength, speed, cardiovascular endurance and durability.
Other sites point to gymnastics, swimming and competitive horseback riding for skill and water polo, Australian rules football and boxing for endurance, speed, strength, agility, skill and physicality.
Is our choice of greatest sport culturally biased?
But these lists and criteria are victims of cultural bias. Many of the sports cited are most popular in the United States and involve professional team sports where the athlete has a built-in support system of trainers, coaches, medical help and cheerleaders.
Many sports listed as particularly “tough” are actually relatively benign and have short recovery periods; the athlete can go out the next day and play again at a high level.
None of the them factor in environmental hazards, such as snow, enraged animals, dehydration, heat stroke, low-oxygen, killer waves, frostbite, snow-blindness or avalanches, where there is a risk of serious injury or risk of death.
They ignore the agile and brave people who leap across buildings and vault over walls in the sport of parkour or those hardy and independent souls who gather from around the world to run 251 km (156 miles) in the Sahara for the multi-day ultramarathon known as Marathon des Sables.
So I decided to create my own set of criteria, broken down into six categories: physiological effort, injury risk, strength/endurance, agility, mental skills and independence.
Category 1: Physiological effort
This category relate to the intensity of cardio effort and level of oxygen and calories consumed.
American football players, for instance, generally experience very short bursts of high effort, then rest. These athletes might go on the field for a single play, which might last five to 10 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 5-10 minutes, not more.
Several sports that do involve intense cardio effort and consumption of high levels of oxygen and calories: rowing, wrestling, mountain climbing, football (soccer), Nordic skiing, water polo and long distance running, swimming and biking.
Category 2: Risk of injury
The sports with high risks of injury all around seems to be mixed martial arts, American football, rugby and boxing, where players risk potentially career-ending broken limbs, torn ligaments and internal injuries.
In addition, athletes in high-contact sports, such as rugby, football (soccer), boxing, mixed martial arts and American football risk concussions that can lead to later-life neurological impairments including early-onset dementia and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, also known as CTE.
But a misstep in some sports will get you killed. Let’s not dismiss the risk in some extreme sports of immediate fatal injury.
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 for men, 21 meters for women) into tiny-appearing oceanic pools. In 2.6 seconds the diver might achieve six rotations and a top speed of 85 kilometers per hour. The sport requires strength, agility and — considering that a sloppy entrance into the water might kill you — considerable courage.
High marks in the risk-of-death category also go to mountain climbing, BASE jumping (parachuting off buildings, antennae and bridges), bull riding, big-wave surfing, free solo climbing, long endurance races in the desert, off-piste extreme skiing, ski jumping and boxing.
Category 3: Strength and endurance
Does the athlete need to power through traffic to make a layup? Carry a tackler on his back? And can an athlete repeat the feat the following day and possibly keep doing that throughout a long season?
Let’s compare the strength-endurance criteria between American football and football (soccer).
Many authorities argue that American football is one of the hardest, toughest sports. Certainly, American football players are strong. But the season is relatively short and the cardio expenditure relatively modest.
Say a professional American football player is on a team that makes it to the Super Bowl. That would require him to play 16 games in the 17-week season, plus three or four post-season games. Let’s call it 20 games spread over five months. This might sound like a lot, but the maximum time spent on the field for each game will be measured in handfuls of minutes.
Compare that to an elite football (soccer) player in the English Premier League during a World Cup year.
OTHER COMPARISONS WORTH LOOKING AT
The U.S. Major League Baseball (MLB) season runs 162 games over a six-month period, with playoffs that might run over another month.
In both the National Hockey League (NHL) in the United States and Canada and National Basketball Association (NBA), the teams play an 82-game season followed by seemingly endless 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.
The season starts in August and ends in May. That’s 38 games for each team over approximately 40 weeks. In addition, the team might play in various national and international cup competitions, and an individual would likely play for his or her country in numerous international competitions. All together, a good player, from a good team, might have to play perhaps 50 games (on which they would potentially be on the pitch for 90 minutes per game) over a season that lasts 10 or more months.
That’s a lot of wear and tear on an athlete’s body.
Category 4: Agility
This is grace under pressure, balance, and often, a flair for elegant showmanship. We are talking about making acrobatic plays, throwing your body around in a way that is both effective and doesn’t lead to dismemberment. High marks for parkour, gymnastics, figure skating, high jump, pole vault, acrobatic skiing and cliff diving.
Category 5: Mental skills
The category relates to two factors: making quick decisions and performance under pressure.
Some sports, such as tennis, table tennis, football (soccer), boxing and bicycle racing require athletes to react quickly — what we might call “intelligent reflexes.” Another aspect is the ability to focus and overcome the curse of self-destruction — when a tennis player has to make a key serve to stay in a match, when a basketball player has to make a game-winning free-throw, when a golfer has to make a two-meter putt to win a tournament.
Often this ability to perform under pressure is the mark of a champion and features on the evening TV sports highlights.
Category 6: Independence
Again, this can be broken down into two categories: does the athlete have a support team, and does the athlete have to battle environmental hazards?
The concept of independence is seldom considered in calculations about a “hardest” sport, but for me the concept of performing on your own, without support, without an audience, dramatically increases the difficulty of any sport.
And what about the athlete fighting nature?
Individual sports where the athlete is alone with his or her inner demons and often pit one person against environmental challenges include long-distance open-water swimming, long-distance trail running, mountain climbing, free solo climbing and those seemingly mad people who windsurf across oceans or single-handedly row a boat across the Atlantic.
Then there are 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 back-to-nature sports are individual achievements and never make the headlines, such as the roughly 1,000 people who “thru-walk” the entire Appalachian Trail on the east coast of the United States each year.
And I raise a glass 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.
My conclusion … drumroll, please
After looking at dozens of sports and the skills they require, my nomination for the “hardest” sport goes to mountain climbing.
And my nomination for the “best athlete” therefore, has to go to Rheinhold Messner — the first person to climb all 14 peaks above 8,000 meters (26,247 feet), and who did so without the use of supplemental oxygen. Messner made the first solo ascent of Mount Everest. He was the first to cross Antarctica and Greenland with neither snowmobiles nor dog sleds. He crossed the Gobi Desert alone.
See if your favorite over-paid, over-egoed sports star can match that.
ATHLETES WHO WERE CRAZY TOUGH — OR JUST PLAIN CRAZY
- Benoit Lecomte: The first person to swim the Atlantic — it took him 73 days.
- Tom Sieths: The German free diver 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 to the point furthest south, covering the 1,406 kms (874 miles) in just over 44 hours.
- Lewis Pugh: Circumnavigated 1,780 miles around Great Britain and was the first person to swim 76 miles across the Red Sea, covering the 123 kms (76 miles) in 16 days while avoiding oil tankers, container ships, rough seas and some 40 species of shark and was the first to swim under the East Antarctica ice sheet, wearing just a Speedo, cap and goggles.
- Jacky Hunt-Broersma: The 44-year-old ran 104 full marathons in 104 consecutive days in 2022 even though she lost her left leg to Ewing Sarcoma, a rare type of bone and tissue cancer.
Add up the points yourself
Apply our correspondent’s criteria to your favorite sport and see if you reach a different conclusion.
I: PHYSIOLOGICAL EFFORT
- Cardio Effort
- VO2 Max (oxygen consumed)
- Calories Burned
II. INJURY RISK
- Aggressive Opponents
- Non-Fatal Injury During Play
- Later-in-Life Repercussions
- Immediate Catastrophic Injury
- Recovery Time
- Grace Under Pressure
- Hand-Eye Coordination
V. MENTAL SKILLS
- Thinking on Your Feet/Quick Decisions
- Mental Toughness/Focus/Key Shots/Choking
- Individual versus Team
- Climatic/Environmental Impact
Three questions to consider:
- Is a sport tougher if it takes muscle rather than brains to compete and win?
- Is it wrong to compare solo sports like cliff diving to team sports like baseball?
- Why do you think so many people compete in dangerous sports?
Paul Spencer Sochaczewski is a French-American writer based in Geneva, Switzerland. He does not claim any special abilities as an athlete (although he has experienced uncomfortable periods in harsh environments — Indonesian rainforests, high mountains on three continents, scuba diving in rough seas). He was on his All-New Milford New Jersey High School soccer team and almost drowned while body surfing off the coast of Borneo. These days his athletic prowess is limited to long e-bike rides, golf (he carries his bag) and full-contact gardening.