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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.