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opinion

Canada's Damian Warner holds up his gold medal during the medal ceremony for men's decathlon at the Tokyo Olympics in Tokyo on Aug. 6.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Strangely, what first comes to mind about Damian Warner’s remarkable Tokyo Games isn’t anything he did at the Olympic Stadium.

For one thing, I didn’t sit in the stands to watch him. Most of Warner’s decathlon events took place during the day. No human could be reasonably expected to sit in the open under the August sun in Tokyo.

“The shade’s hot,” Warner said afterward. “What are you supposed to do when the shade’s hot?”

Hide. You should hide. Because that’s what’s coming for all of us. We might as well get used to it now.

The only spectators were media and most of the media watched track and field in an air-conditioned bunker underneath the stadium.

So you didn’t really lay eyes on Warner until after he’d finished the day’s work and was running the interview gauntlet.

What I remember best about him was how relaxed he seemed. Like he was out for a night’s constitutional and kept running into pleasant, if vague, acquaintances and stopping for a chat.

Usually, athletes move through the mixed zone like cornered cats. Some will only stop if they are physically confronted by an official who corrals them into a pen – and they are literal pens.

But Warner was very happy to talk, even after the successful first of his two days, when you’d expect some worry about counting chickens to surface.

After winning gold and putting up one of the best scores in decathlon history, Warner sounded no more or less triumphal than he had the night before. He was happy, but also reflective. His mind had already turned away from the hardware around his neck to philosophy.

“As you get near the end of a decathlon, you think, ‘Why do I do this?’ ” Warner said. “And then it ends, and you think, ‘I can’t wait to do this again.’ ”

But that’s also not what struck me as special. What got me was Warner’s competitors. There were still a bunch of them milling around, though they should have been long gone – the winner does a lot more interviews than everyone else. What were they waiting for?

They were waiting for Warner. To hug him, or clap him on the shoulder, or lean in to whisper something at him and then look him straight in the eyes for a long beat. Without exception, they were all delighted for him. It’s impossible to fake genuine delight.

If you can be this good and yet not make an enemy while doing it – that’s greatness.

Does that make Warner the best Canadian athlete of 2021?

I’ve come to believe this whole best-of-the-best thing is a mug’s game.

Who’s the best novelist? Or painter? Or singer? Nobody with sense would make so definitive a claim, but it would make more sense in those pursuits than it does under the vast umbrella that is athlete. Two novelists write novels. A decathlete and a race-car driver do completely different things.

One can only speak about great athletes (plural) or the best athlete in Sport X. But one cannot legitimately talk about the best athlete in general. It’s apples and oranges and bricks and bicycles. Some of these activities have no more in common than that they are performed in varying amounts of Lycra.

Damian Warner is incredible at something that requires many skills that only a handful of people on Earth do in combination in any serious way. We’re talking a few hundred contemporaries, max. But when it came time to judge those few, he lapped them all. As much as it is possible, we can be sure Warner is the best at what he does.

Andre de Grasse does something requiring one very basic skill that we all possess, even if few of us choose to exercise it beyond our youth. But he is probably not the very best at that. Very, very close, but not quite the top.

Connor McDavid does something that, again, requires multiple skills, and he occupies a middle ground in terms of participation. Lots of people play hockey. None play it as well as he does. But that’s subjective. Other people score more. Plenty of others win more. McDavid’s great ability is creating a “wow” factor. There’s no statistic or trophy for that.

This of course leaves out plenty of worthy swimmers and soccer players and judokas and all kinds of stuff that people are good at. A quarter of the roster of any winning Stanley Cup team deserves serious consideration as Canada’s top athlete that year.

So who’s the best?

There is no best. You can’t really even say top. What you can say is that someone is the best story of the year.

Unfairly, that tends to mitigate in favour of new entrants.

Who wants to hear that Sidney Crosby is the best Canadian athlete, even though there has been a good argument for every one of the past 10 years that he is? No one. Crosby’s old news. He’s so old that even McDavid – who was in his first year in the league when Crosby was in his 11th – is starting to seem overfamiliar.

De Grasse? Old news as well. It was never going to be easy to top the warm glow he gave this country when he was cuddling up to Usain Bolt at Rio 2016. So hard that even a gold medal couldn’t quite manage it.

If best story is the bar and I have to choose, then it’s Warner. Mostly because I like him most of all (the most unfair bar of all).

Warner has a fabulous backstory, he’s sharp as a tack and he seems miraculously unspoiled by all the attention that’s been thrown his way. It’s a very nearly unique combination of superlatives in a single human. Because I guarantee you that if you won a gold medal at the Olympics, however well your parents raised you, you would not be as lovely a person as Damian Warner.

Yes, he can run, jump and throw things better than just about anyone alive. For two days in August, he was the definitive best at doing a wide variety of basic sporting skills. He could in that moment credibly be called the greatest athlete alive.

But I think he’s best because even while doing something better than everyone else, he managed to seem like someone you’d like to have as a neighbour. Few people have ever qualified on both counts.