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Banality Of Seeking ‘The Greatest Ever’


On the eve of the latest Ashes Test series in Australia, former England fast bowler Steve Harmison has told BBC Sport that Kevin Pietersen – on the brink of his 100th Test match – is “the best player ever to wear an England shirt.”


I don’t mean why in the sense of “has Pietersen scored more runs than any other England batsman?” or “is his average superior to any other England player?” or even ‘is his style so superlative that watching him score 10 runs surpasses the pleasure of watching anyone else compile a double century?’

Do you remember this tennis player? He was very good, the greatest ever of all time some said, and his name is Roger Federer. Credit: Getty Images

And I don’t question Harmison’s knowledge of the man in question, given that they were team-mates during England’s victorious Ashes campaigns of 2005 and 2009.

No. What I mean is, why does the judgement always have to be who is the “best ever”? It is such a banal idea. Why do people think they have to keep straining towards such questions?

Thus we have heard in recent times how Rafael Nadal is the greatest-ever tennis player. Is he really? What about that other rather good player, the one who still holds the record of 17 Grand Slams…whatshisname?..people used to say the same thing about him….nope…name’s gone…

And then there was that other one, the one with the dodgy back who won seven Wimbledons…name’s on the tip of my tongue…

Of course, all competitive sport works towards the establishment – Roger Federer! Of course! – of who is best. But while the relative judgement of times or scores is absolute, there is rather more involved – and Pete Sampras! Yes! – in ascertaining the relative values of less specific factors.

In all – or at least all available – seriousness, Federer’s record and overall style has prompted many observers within the game to describe him as the “greatest ever”, although Andre Agassi, who won all four Grand Slams himself, has said Nadal is now “making the argument”to be considered greater even than the greatest ever. Hyperbole upon hyperbole.

Within athletics, currently, there is no great argument going on about who is the paramount track and field performer – it is Usain Bolt, the sprinter who in the past five years has raised the consciousness of his sport to well beyond its own boundaries. How many times in those years have I heard this affable Jamaican referred to as “the greatest athlete of all time”? (This is of course a rhetorical question, but if you would like to answer it, something along the lines of “more times than you can remember” would probably hit the mark quite well.)

Perhaps it would be best to leave such questions until the end of ever, when we can all be sure.

During last weekend’s World Athletics Gala at the International Association of Athletics Federation’s base in Monaco the second batch of athletes to enter the organisation’s Hall of Fame offered the poignant sight of champions past moving gingerly onto a stage to claim their glittering prizes to a backdrop of their young, dynamic selves slaying all opposition at the 1948 or 1952 Olympics.

I watched with particular interest as Marjorie Jackson-Nelson, Olympic 100 and 200 metres champion 1952, and Harrison Dillard, Olympic 100m champion in 1948, 110m hurdles champion in 1952, stepped up to receive their awards. Although Dillard, now 90, required a photofinish to be given his 100m gold, he was a clear winner in his preferred event of the hurdles, while the footage of Jackson-Nelson showed her so far ahead of her rivals that those in the auditorium gave a little gasp. Curiously, neither appeared to give their younger selves particular attention.

My own interest in these two athletic marvels stemmed from an earlier press conference at which they had been joined by the more recent Olympic champion, Marie-Jose Perec, 200 and 400m double winner at the 1996 Atlanta Games.

Although the trio had gathered ahead of the Gala to reflect on questions of sport and life in general, the question asked which occupied them the most was – yes, you’ve guessed it – “Who has been the greatest athlete of all time?”

Auen enquiry that, as Dillard – still lean enough to merit his old nickname of “Bones” – wryly pointed out, that would continue to be debated down the generations, without any definitive answer.

“What a question!” Dillard responded with a smile. “Obviously Usain Bolt is currently the finest athlete of our time. Times change, and conditions change. I never ran on synthetic surfaces. Who is to say how an athlete of 75 or 100 years ago would perform if they could run on today’s tracks, and have access to today’s training and medical methods? It makes for wonderful arguments.”

Asked specifically about the relative merits of Bolt and Jesse Owens, who won four golds at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Dillard replied: “Usain Bolt’s performances surpass those of Jesse’s. But does that mean Usain is a greater athlete than Jesse? Not necessarily. When you consider what Jesse had to do to win those four golds in Berlin, in an atmosphere where Adolf Hitler was promulgating his ideas about Aryan Supremacy – for a young black man to go there and win four golds, that was some athlete.

“As I say, it is a good argument to have, and I get into it with my friends. But I have a little time to talk about it now!”

Jackson-Nelson also recalled the massive differences between the days when she was competing and now.

“We all ran on cinders,” she said. “Things were so different for us. When we went away to the Olympics we had to go without wages for three months. To see Usain Bolt running on the television is a great pleasure to me, he is so magnificent to watch. He is one in a million.”

Perec was similarly just and diplomatic in her response. “He is a phenomenon,” she said.

And in so saying, I believe all three got the balance refreshingly right. Nobody was leaping in to make claims or counter-claims for x, y or z. All had seen life enough to know that such hubbub was no more than a noisy distraction from the biggest challenge, summed up by Jackson-Nelson: “The most important thing is life, and how to live it.”

This paragon of Australia has retained a similar wry humour to Dillard’s in circumstances which have often been far from easy.

“My husband died of leukaemia when he was 45 and that left me with three children to bring up myself,” Jackson-Nelson said. “I was Governor of South Australia for seven years, between 2001-2007 and I have also done a lot of work raising money for the Peter Nelson Leukaemia Research charity – I have raised six and a half million dollars so far. And I am just about to become a great grandmother for the second time.

“I think one of the worst things we do to our young people today is tell them that they have to win to be any good. There is too much emphasis on being the number one all the time. If you are an athlete and you train hard and you improve your times, then you are a winner.”

Now we are in a different territory from the deliberation over who is the greatest of the great. And it is a healthier place to be.

Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain’s most talented sportswriters, covered the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics as chief feature writer for insidethegames, having covered the previous five summer Games, and four winter Games, for The Independent. He has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, The Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. His latest book Foul Play – the Dark Arts of Cheating in Sport (Bloomsbury £12.99) is available at the insidethegames.biz shop. To follow him on Twitter, click here.

Inside the Games is an online blog of the London Organizing Committee that staged the 2012 London Games. The blog continues to cover issues that are important to the Olympic Movement. This article is reprinted here with permission of the blog editors.


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