Top US amateur athlete? Louganis is Sullivan Award choice here

Even when you confine ``Most Valuable'' awards to a single sport, there's no really logical way to make selections. How can you compare a quarterback to a linebacker, a pitcher to a slugging outfielder, a high-scoring forward to a goalie? You can't, of course -- and the process becomes even more impossible when you try to single out one athlete for an award encompassing all sports. That's what the AAU James E. Sullivan Memorial Award attempts to do, though, so a nationwide panel of athletes, sports officials, and media representatives is asked annually at this time to weigh the relative merits of runners, swimmers, gymnasts, wrestlers, skiers, etc., and somehow pick out the No. 1 amateur sportsman or sportswoman of the preceding year.

In theory, the award is open to all amateur athletes, including those in team sports. In practice, though, it has evolved into a way of honoring competitors in individual events -- the idea apparently being that team sport stars have ample opportunity for glory elsewhere. The only football players ever to win it were Army teammates Doc Blanchard and Arnold Tucker back in 1945 and 1946. Basketball has crashed the party more recently -- with Bill Bradley in 1965 and Bill Walton in 1973 -- but that's probably the limit here too. Neither sport, in fact, has even had a candidate in the seven years that the voting has been done on the basis of 10 finalists.

Given these realities, plus the fact that 1984 was an Olympic year, it is no surprise that all 10 nominees this years are competitors in individual sports, Olympians, and, in fact, gold medal winners. They are, in alphabetical order: marathoner Joan Benoit; track star Valerie Brisco-Hooks; gymnast Bart Conner; equestrian Joe Fargis; wrestler Steve Fraser; swimmer Rowdy Gaines; skier Bill Johnson; diver Greg Louganis; gymnast Mary Lou Retton; and synchronized swimmer Tracie Ruiz.

As to why quadruple gold medal winner Carl Lewis isn't on the ballot, an athlete can only win the award once, and Lewis was the 1981 recipient. The same rule applies to hurdler Edwin Moses, last year's winner.

One does have to wonder, though, about the absence of Phil Mahre, who was a finalist in three of the previous four years, and who closed out the greatest career of any US skier in history with a gold medal in the slalom at Sarajevo. Johnson, of course, also won a gold medal -- and in a more glamorous event (the downhill), but he's a relative newcomer who lacks Mahre's overall credentials.

Controversy goes with the territory in any of these award votes, though, and it's hard enough to decide among the candidates who are on the ballot without worrying about those who aren't. So the question is: Which of the 10 actual finalists should be this year's winner?

Obviously, all 10 have strong credentials for the award -- which, by the way, is supposed to be given on the basis of ``character, sportsmanship, and leadership'' as well as for outstanding athletic accomplishments. Some, of course, are bigger ``names'' than others, but each has recorded outstanding accomplishments in his or her field. So how does one make a choice?

Among my own criteria are such questions as how completely the individual dominated his or her sport, the status of that sport, and longevity. Technically, of course, the latter is not a factor, since the award is supposed to be strictly for the previous year's accomplishments. As we have seen, though, theory and practice aren't necessarily the same. And as with most awards like this (Oscars, Tonys, etc.), the voters can't help but be influenced somewhat by a candidate's overall record.

One hates to eliminate anyone from such a distinguished list, but it has to be done. I crossed out Fargis and Ruiz because their events seem to fall in a grey area between sports and entertainment, and dropped Fraser, Conner, and Johnson because each seemed to be one of several possible candidates just within his own sport.

Now it gets harder. Brisco-Hooks won the women's 200 and 400 an anchored a victorious relay team in Los Angeles to become the first female triple gold medal winner in track and field since Wilma Rudolph in 1960. There were other track stars too, though, and as a relative newcomer she doesn't have the ``longevity factor'' going for her either. So, reluctantly, I crossed her out too.

Retton, of course, became a household name as the first American gymnast to win the women's all-around gold medal. She did just make it, though, in the closest of decisions over Romania's Ecaterina Szabo, who went on to dominate the individual apparatus competition. And Mary Lou, who was just 16, also didn't have a list of earlier major accomplishments to back up her claim.

That leaves Benoit, Gaines, and Louganis. I would be happy with the choice of any of this trio when the winner is announced Feb. 18. In fact, I find it very difficult to single any one of them out. But you have to vote 1-2-3, so the eliminating has to continue.

Benoit certainly epitomizes the dedication of the great amateur athlete -- as she showed not only in winning the Olympic marathon, but in the courage and determination she displayed in running in and winning the US Olympic trials just 17 days after arthroscopic knee surgery.

Speaking of dedication, though, how can one overlook Gaines. Frustrated by the Moscow boycott in 1980 when he was unquestionably the world's greatest swimmer at the sprint distances, he stayed in training for four long, difficult years, then won three gold medals at L.A.

And then there is Louganis. Arguably the greatest diver in history, the powerful, graceful Californian won an Olympic silver medal in 1976 and has gone on to dominate his sport over the years, including three world championships and both 1984 Olympic gold medals.

If there is any basis on which to choose among these three, perhaps it is that Louganis has been in contention for the Sullivan Award so much longer and more frequently than either of the others -- or for that matter than any other athlete in history. This, in fact, is Greg's sixth consecutive year as a finalist -- and it does seem that any athlete that great and that consistent should eventually be rewarded with the top honor.

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