Is Max Verstappen really the best athlete in the world?
Opinions differ on that. Do you sit in a car, stomp on the gas pedal, and then become the athlete of the world? It’s just getting madder,” someone quickly replied under this newspaper’s Twitter message, which contains the news that Verstappen has won the honorary award.
It was characteristic of the feeling that plays with almost every sporting award Verstappen has been nominated for. Verstappen is preferred for the Laureus Prize over swimmer Caleb Dressel, marathon runner Eliud Kipchoge and tennis player Novak Djokovic, among others. In other words, all athletes who are primarily responsible for their own performance. Verstappen outlasted them all on Sunday, although he could not be said to be the strongest or fastest.
For him, it is his car that determines how successful he will be. In 2016, statisticians at the University of Sheffield concluded that a Formula 1 driver’s influence on his race result is about 14 percent. They arrived at this ratio by using mathematical models to analyze all races between 1979 and 2014. Verstappen cannot excel without a top car. This fact had no consequences for him at the Laureus Awards.
What are the criteria for an honorary award?
nothing. The world honorary title was established in 2000 by the luxury goods company Richemont and the car manufacturer Daimler, the parent company of Mercedes. The trophy’s website states only that “big names” qualify, with the relatively vague description that “outstanding achievements” is the norm.
That doesn’t change the fact that Verstappen survived a major set-up before receiving the trophy, which was designed by jewelry house Cartier. First of all, the nomination committee, which included more than a thousand sports journalists from seventy countries, decided on his candidacy. It was then shown to be the most popular after an anonymous vote within the so-called Laureus Academy. Of these, 71 notable former athletes are members.
How is Verstappen’s choice viewed in the world of sport?
The athletes only reacted positively to Verstappen’s election on Monday. They know better than anyone what they have to do and what they can do to stand out in a global sport like Formula 1. The pressure is always there and massive, especially with a big team. Every moment of carelessness at a speed of more than 300 kilometers per hour is under a magnifying glass.
Two-time F1 champion Mika Häkkinen, a member of the Laureus Academy, emphasized in the jury’s comments that Verstappen is a unique athlete. Everything physical is trainable. You can master your muscles and nutrition. But what happens in the mind is another story. How do you maintain your focus? How do you maintain your self-confidence and motivation? This is a journey that for many years, Verstappen has made a special driver.
Moreover, with the award, Verstappen received recognition, to say the least, not least from the world of sport. The Laureus Academy is full of sporting legends, from Franz Beckenbauer and Sergey Bibka to Chris Hoy and Michael Johnson. Ruud Gullit is the only Dutch member of the academy. This large company has also been awarded the Laureus Awards with the prestigious aura of the “Oscars of the World of Sport”.
Who has ever preceded Verstappen?
Especially individual athletes from world sports. Tennis player Roger Federer has been named the best athlete in the world more than once: five times. He is followed by tennis player Novak Djokovic and sprinter Usain Bolt (both four times). Verstappen is the fourth Formula 1 driver to receive the honorary award. He was preceded by Michael Schumacher (twice), Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton.
It seems that famous athletes are much less likely to appear. Lionel Messi was the first soccer player and team athlete to win the trophy in 2020. The global appeal also seems to matter. NBA star LeBron James, for example, has never won a Laureus Award. The same is true for the celebrities of other sports that are mainly in the United States, such as baseball, ice hockey, and American football.
Isn’t it more of a popularity contest than a sports prize?
It seems so. Verstappen is the reigning champion in one of the world’s greatest sports; Almost half a billion television viewers around the world watched at least one race last year. Prior to that, Verstappen had already made a name for himself with his daring driving style, no-nonsense off-track attitude, and the milestones he set as the youngest-ever F1 driver.
Thanks to a recent contract extension with Red Bull, he is now one of the highest-paid athletes in the world, reportedly earning an annual salary of €50m.
Last season, he won his first title in one of the most exciting years ever in Formula 1, after relatively quiet seasons in which Mercedes dominated. Verstappen’s battle with seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton continued until the final round in Abu Dhabi. The finale, which drew nearly 110 million viewers, made headlines and news stories around the world. For Verstappen it was the last push towards the Laureus Prize, in the words of academy member Ruud Gullit: ‘For a long time Formula 1 has not seen such an end. Max gave his sport the spark it needed.
An earlier version of this article stated that Verstappen is the first Dutch Laureus Prize winner. this is not true. Wheelchair tennis player Esther Vergeer has won the Laureus Award for Best Disabled Athlete twice, in 2002 and 2008. Verstappen is the first Dutchman to receive the Laureus Award for Best Athlete in the World.
“Professional reader. Award-winning gamer. Zombie buff. Social media junkie. Bacon maven. Web scholar.”