Choosing the best is not so simple

Who should be Sports Personality of the Century? It could be Ali, Nicklaus, Pele... or Kevin Campbell
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On Friday I received a gung-ho press release from the BBC sports department, declaring, among other things, that no sport has increased its audience after leaving the BBC. The words "straws," "clutching" and "at" spring unstoppably to mind. It added that Channel 4 has not increased the Test cricket audience beyond 1.5 million, still mostly men over 45. This is a little like the school bully, yelling at the kid who has left him with a split lip that it didn't hurt much anyway, so there.

The fact is that BBC Sport is finishing the second millenium on a disastrous note, having started it so brightly with exclusive live coverage of the Battle of Hastings. "And for those watching in black and white, the Saxon bowmen have yellow toggles on their tabards," as David Coleman so memorably said. Who would have thought then that the BBC would kick off the third millennium without the FA Cup Final, indeed with precious little live football at all? And without Des Lynam to present its precious little live football? Although I do think, incidentally, that Gary Lineker has filled the great man's boots quite brilliantly on Match of the Day.

Anyway, next month's ritual clips of the year's sporting highlights, in BBC Sports Personality of the Year, will merely help to emphasise how much has been lost. "Pictures from Sky Television" and "Pictures from ITV Sport" will, I imagine, be well-used captions. Moreover, the programme - on Sunday 12 December - is also reviewing the century, which will offer a poignant reminder of decades when the BBC really did rule the roost.

In fact, the programme's rather unwieldy title is Sports Personality of the Century incorporating Sports Personality of the Year, and you will have seen the trailers exhorting viewers to vote, with great stars such as Denise Lewis, Henry Cooper and Tony Parsons selecting their personalities of the past 100 years. In our house, this has occasioned much debate, starting with the obvious one - who cares what Tony Parsons thinks? But it is an irresistible parlour game. So on Saturday, when friends and relatives congregated at our place for fireworks, I invited everyone to draw up a list of their top 10 sports personalities of the 20th century. There were fireworks, alright.

We decided that the criteria should be sporting ability first, with charisma, impact and historical significance joint second. Thus, to my mind, the remarkable Jack Nicklaus should rate just ahead of Arnold Palmer, even though Palmer was twice as charismatic and had a much greater impact on golf. This caused some dissent. And my father-in-law threw a further spanner in the works. If you're going to have a golfer in the list, should it not be Bobby Jones, whose 1930 Grand Slam arguably remains the greatest achievement of the golfing century? As for football, do you choose Pele, or Puskas, or Beckenbauer, or Maradona? My robust arguments in favour of Kevin Campbell fell on mostly unsympathetic ears.

A further dimension was added by the presence of an American friend, George, whose list was: 1. Jesse Owens. 2. Babe Ruth. 3. Pele. 4. Arnold Palmer. 5. Joe Louis. 6. Michael Jordan. 7. Wayne Gretsky. 8. Muhammad Ali. 9. Olga Korbut. 10. Mickey Mantle. My own list also featured a distressing number of North Americans, but I confess a mild British bias. It too was led by the incomparable athlete Jesse Owens, followed by Muhammad Ali, Jack Nicklaus, Daley Thompson, Don Bradman, Pele, Suzanne Lenglen, Steve Redgrave, Michael Jordan and Lester Piggott... with Kevin Campbell as first reserve. The selection of Lenglen proved slightly controversial. Some simply said "who?" And I was tempted to include Pete Sampras instead. Yet I have heard the Frenchwoman's contemporaries insist that she was more sublimely gifted than any tennis player before or since, male or female.

Opening up the debate, I phoned a few sporting acquaintances. Unsurprisingly, Alan Pascoe chose Jesse Owens too, citing not only his athletic achievements, but also the way he shattered Hitler's Aryan dream at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Jonathan Agnew preferred Muhammad Ali, but added that he would want at least two cricketers on the list, probably Bradman and "Tich" Freeman, the Kent leg-spinner who took 3,776 first-class wickets between 1914 and 1936. Of course, all these lists are outrageously weighted in favour of men. So I called Rachel Heyhoe-Flint, whose top three, bless her, were Martina Navratilova, Mary Peters and, wait for it, Fanny Blankers- Koen, the Dutch athlete who excelled at the 1948 Olympics.

I also called Dickie Davies, another who had no doubt that Ali is the century's supreme sports personality. And what of the century's supreme sports broadcaster? Again, he had no doubt. "David Coleman set the benchmark for all of us," he said. Those were the days.