This story appears in the 20th anniversary issue of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!
For just a moment toward the end of her 70-kilogram women's judo bronze medal bout in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, Christella Garcia of Sacramento, California, sensed that her Brazilian opponent, Deanne Silva de Almeida, had let up. The American quickly flipped her foe and held her down long enough to win. A joyful, exhausted Garcia then took off her belt and held it aloft as she raised both arms high, jumped in the air and shouted "USA!"
Thing is, Garcia is blind. She has been from birth; she was competing in the Paralympics. She couldn't have learned how to exult by watching anyone else. Her immediate reaction to winning was natural. Indeed, it's hardwired. David Matsumoto, a San Francisco State psychology professor who has studied emotion in athletes, calls "the triumph expression" a mix of "expansion, aggression and attention" and declares it an evolutionary throwback to a time when humans established their primacy in social hierarchies by winning competitions. Because that also describes sports even today, you know exactly what he's talking about. Thump your chest and call it dominance.
Yes, sports teach us how to play by the rules and offer us inspiration. But their most visceral kick, and often their deepest impression, comes from wins so convincing there is no doubt who's on top, leaving fans to bask in their reflected glory. That's why, to celebrate ESPN The Magazine's 20th anniversary, we have compiled rankings of the athletes and teams that dominated their sports most thoroughly over the past two decades -- to bask just a little longer.
What makes these lists all the more remarkable is that dominance should be disappearing over time. When any sport keeps growing in popularity and reach, its talent level rises, making it harder for one player or group to stand out from the landscape. Not even Michael Jordan could score close to 50.4 points a game, as Wilt Chamberlain did in 1962. And while Jordan won eight of the last 10 NBA scoring titles before The Mag launched, six players have led the league over the past decade -- precisely because overall pro hoops skill keeps getting better. What Ruud Koning, a Dutch sports economist, has said about speedskating applies everywhere: Absolute competition continues to improve significantly; relative competition does not.
As stars catch up to superstars, the best athletes of all are also pushing the limits of achievement. The progression of world records has slowed in many Olympic sports, which means there just might not be much more success to squeeze out of gold medal bodies. In 2015, a team led by French computer scientist Geoffroy Berthelot asked, "Has athletic performance reached its peak?" The group pointed out that top 100-meter freestyle swimming times had plateaued, and so had winning triple jump distances. To some extent, this was just nature at work. The NBA record for 3-point shooting percentage has also leveled off. No horse has run under 2:00 in the Kentucky Derby since 2001. Calaveras County, California, started holding a frog-jumping contest in 1928. Winning distances increased until Rosie the Ribiter averaged 7.16 feet per jump in 1986, then stalled too. Consider the NFL's recent wave of injuries: Maybe it's basically the result of bigger-faster-stronger hitting a wall in a contact sport.
When it comes to players in team sports, we make it even harder to appreciate dominance if we accept the silly notion -- for which we can blame Jordan and George Steinbrenner -- that dominance equals rings. The truth is that by adding layers of playoffs, most recently the near coin flip of MLB's wild-card game in 2012, leagues have made it absurdly difficult to translate earned dominance into titles. Since 1998, just 29 percent of MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL clubs that finished first in scoring margin went on to win championships. (It's true that some organizations have figured out how to do both, which is why in the ratings that follow, we reward teams -- but not players -- for titles. Recognizing the Spurs, the Patriots, the UConn women and now the Warriors for their achievements is no reason to knock Peyton Manning.)
Look closely at our lists, though, and you'll see athletes and teams that have broken one ceiling after another not only by applying their physical gifts and determination but also through relentless innovation. Over the past 20 years, top athletes have exploited new technologies, from head restraints that literally keep motorsports drivers alive to bouncier golf balls. (Seriously, in 1998 John Daly led the PGA with an average driving distance of 299.4 yards. Today 65 tour golfers drive more than 300 yards.) They've turned arthroscopic and Tommy John surgery into routine procedures while exploring medical frontiers for treatments such as platelet-enhancing blood spinning. And they have led multiple revolutions in training, using new devices to analyze their own habits and applying the latest research to improve their practice, nutrition and sleep. Want to see how the fight to maintain dominance has changed over the past 20 years? Watch NFL players at a yoga class.
Innovations, whether legal, like fluorocarbon ski lubricants or elective LASIK surgery, or banned, like polyurethane bodysuits or steroids, have the same general effect: Elite athletes who become early, successful adopters of new technology break away from the pack. Statistics decentralize. Dominance increases. The most spectacular example: In 2001, Barry Bonds had a slugging percentage more than double the MLB average, a feat nobody had accomplished since Babe Ruth.
But it's not just technology that allows dominance to increase, it's also imagination. As long as fans, sponsors and media companies stay absorbed, everyone involved in sports will extend the search for new talent, new markets, even new games to play, fueling a feedback loop in which better athletes and teams spur even more interest. The globalization of sports has contributed to this upward spiral over the past 20 years, as has the rise of analytics. But the biggest example is in women's sports: With women athletes gaining widespread recognition from federations and fans, half the planet has had new chances to maximize skills -- and dynasties such as the Houston Comets and UConn have emerged.
Remember Pita Taufatofua, the only athlete from Tonga at the Winter Olympics in February? He became famous as his country's bare-chested, oiled-up flag bearer in Rio in 2016, then went from taekwondo to cross-country skiing. Taufatofua trained with help from sponsorships and crowdfunding, an idea that didn't exist 20 years ago -- at least not in Tonga, which didn't get broadband until 2013. His goal in Pyeongchang was to avoid finishing last. He succeeded -- and he isn't done yet.
Mark our words: Sometime over the next 20 years, another athlete will emerge from a place you barely know, playing a sport you don't even follow, and will grab your attention -- and his or her goal will be to crush the world. And a few years later, you'll find it hard to remember a time when you hadn't heard of that Paraguayan video gamer, just as it's tough now to recall who was No. 1 on the PGA Tour just before Tiger Woods went pro, or who won the Super Bowl the year before Tom Brady beat the Rams.
We live the struggle vicariously as fans, but we all have the triumph expression inside us. And as the universe places its many limits on human accomplishment, the fight for dominance lets us laugh in its face.