Ken Jones: Eccentric American's Neverland of sporting greats

Despite personal reservations concerning polls that seek to establish a hierarchy of sporting greats this was an enjoyable enterprise that has probably fuelled many a bar-room argument. It also took me back a bit.

On a bright sunny morning in San Diego, shortly after Riddick Bowe defeated Evander Holyfield for the heavyweight championship in 1995, it was safe to assume that few, if any, people outside the United States immediately knew the name of Ernie Nevers and considered him to be among the 10 greatest sporting figures of all time.

Nevers, who is said to have performed prodigious feats of speed and mobility when turning out for Stanford University as a running back in the gridiron game, more than 70 years ago, was given exalted status by Bert Randolph Sugar in a book to celebrate the careers of 100 sportsmen and sportswomen he thought supreme in history.

As Sugar never removes his fedora in public and goes around chomping on a large unlit cigar, it has long been concluded, certainly in boxing circles, that he is a fully paid-up eccentric.

However, the status Sugar accorded Nevers in The Hundred Greatest Athletes of All Time had less to do with a capricious nature than insular perception. With the exception of Pele, who was in eighth place, and reading downwards, Sugar's top 10 was comprised entirely of American heroes; Jim Brown (gridiron), Jim Thorpe (decathlete), Babe Didrikson Zaharias (golf), Jackie Robinson and Babe Ruth (baseball, Jesse Owens (athletics), Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan (basketball).

While all other than Nevers have widespread reputations, a good question is how they would rate in minds other than that of a myopic compatriot.

This applied absolutely to Sugar's overall list in that it did not include one footballer other than Pele, while Sir Donald Bradman (misspelt, Broadman) was the only cricketer. Nobody was chosen from either code of rugby. Another American, Al Unser, was the lone representative of motor racing. "That's because he won the Indianapolis 500 as well as on the Grand Prix circuit.'' "Well, Bert," I said, "so did Graham Hill and Jim Clark." He shrugged.

Another inexplicable omission was that of Lester Piggott, who was relegated to a supplementary roll call along with such outstanding figures as Franz Beckenbauer, the extraordinary C B Fry and Juan Fangio.

Familiar bias was also evident on the distaff side of Sugar's selection. Apart from Martina Navratilova, who was born and raised in the former state of Czechoslovakia, the Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci and the Dutch athlete Fanny Blankers-Koen, it too was dominated by Americans: Zaharias, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Wilma Rudolph (athletics), Chris Evert and Billie Jean King (tennis) and Sonja Henie (ice skating).

Since the majority of American sports fans are stubbornly isolationist in attitude and Sugar is typical of them, it was unlikely that his selections were influenced by opinions held internationally. He got across the impression that only the titanic efforts of America's athletically minded have kept sport going this long, and that the whole business would be in a sorry state without their contribution.

Beyond wondering why any publishing house would have wanted to trust Sugar with their money, you can have some fun with something like this. You can point out, for example, that if a similar list of sporting greats was compiled in India it would be dominated by cricketers and field hockey players. Sachin Tendulkar would run Muhammad Ali close. The Japanese would have a sumo wrestler in there along with their golfing heroes. Cyclists would figure prominently in France, Germany, Italy and the Low Countries. In South America the polls would be swollen with votes for footballers and grand prix drivers.

In most countries other than the United States, any number of footballers would come into the reckoning; Pele, Diego Maradona, Alfredo di Stefano, Johan Cruyff, George Best, Ferenc Puskas, John Charles, Zinedine Zidane, Sir Stanley Matthews...

Probably, every country would have Ali, who transcended boxing, in first position. For social as well sporting reasons, Ali stands above all others.

As I recall it, advance publicity for Sugar's book posed the question, "Why is pro football's running back Jim Brown the No 1 athlete ever?" If suggested to most people in the wider world of sport it would have drawn a blank expression. "Jim who?" you imagined a lot of them asking.

Great player that he was, to suppose Brown was more significant in sporting history than Ali was ridiculous.

As for Nevers, it was impossible to get a line on him.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
The Queen and the letter sent to Charlie
football
Arts and Entertainment
Eurovision Song Contest 2015
EurovisionGoogle marks the 2015 show
News
Two lesbians hold hands at a gay pride parade.
peopleIrish journalist shares moving story on day of referendum
Arts and Entertainment
<p>
<b>Kathryn Williams</b>
</p>
<p>
When I was supporting Ray La Montagne I was six months pregnant. He had been touring for a year and he was exhausted and full of the cold. I was feeling motherly, so I would leave presents for him and his band: Tunnock's Tea Cakes, cold remedies and proper tea. Ray seemed painfully shy. He hardly spoke, hardly looked at you in the face. I felt like a dick speaking to him, but said "hi" every day. </p>
<p>
He was being courted by the same record company who had signed me and subsequently let me go, and I wanted him to know that there were people around who didn't want anything from him. At the Shepherds Bush Empire in London, on the last night of the tour, Ray stopped in his set to thank me for doing the support. He said I was a really good songwriter and people should buy my stuff. I was taken aback and felt emotionally overwhelmed. Later that year, just before I had my boy Louis, I was l asleep in bed with Radio 4 on when Louis moved around in my belly and woke me up. Ray was doing a session on the World Service. </p>
<p>
I really believe that Louis recognised the music from the tour, and when I gave birth to him at home I played Ray's record as something that he would recognise to come into the world with. </p>
booksKathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
News
Liz Kendall played a key role in the introduction of the smoking ban
newsLiz Kendall: profile
Life and Style
techPatent specifies 'anthropomorphic device' to control media devices
Voices
The PM proposed 'commonsense restrictions' on migrant benefits
voicesAndrew Grice: Prime Minister can talk 'one nation Conservatism' but putting it into action will be tougher
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?