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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
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

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wimbledon, SW London

£24000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wim...

Day In a Page

Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

Homeless Veterans appeal

Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

Front National family feud?

Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

Pot of gold

Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore