World of champions beyond compare

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The Independent Online

Only sport can offer you an escape from having your mind numbed by the millennium because we haven't had one. If you can imagine the past 1,000 years as a week, organised sport did not start until 7.28 on Friday evening.

Only sport can offer you an escape from having your mind numbed by the millennium because we haven't had one. If you can imagine the past 1,000 years as a week, organised sport did not start until 7.28 on Friday evening.

In other words, the sporting world as we know it hasn't existed anywhere near long enough to join in the celebrations. Just lean back, close your eyes and enjoy the relief. Unfortunately, the retrospection freaks won't leave you in peace for long. If we can be excused boots on the millennium march-past, we can't avoid the crunch of our studs on the gravel of the century.

We were well into business back in 1900 when Blackburn Rovers beat Sheffield Wednesday 6-1 in the FA Cup final (Townley 3, Lofthouse, Southworth, Dewar) and Scotland beat England 4-1 in Glasgow (McColl 3, Bell). At Gloucester, Wales beat England 13-3 to win the rugby championship. Ambush II won the Grand National... Christ, even I'm at it. Is there no escape?

But remembering great feats and brave deeds of the past is one thing; trying to put them all into some sort of order of merit is another. Already the lists are driving sane and sober people to drink. It is bad enough at the end of an ordinary year when our memories are plundered for any event worth remembering. Now we are badgered to make judgements on those we can barely recall or never even saw at all.

What is it - apart from sports editors with too much space to fill and columnists with nothing better to fill it with - that drives people to want to create neat and ordered catalogues of achievements across a length of time that is meaningful only mathematically. It surely belongs to the same family of mental obsessions that breeds train-spotters and beer-mat collectors.

I suppose there are occasions when the sporting comparisons are a useful exercise but, other than being trapped in a lift for several hours, I can't think of any.

Quizzes are different. Questions that test one's memory of sport come into another category altogether. "Who won the FA Cup in 1927?" for instance, is a profoundly more interesting and acceptable question than "Do you think Babe Ruth should come above or below Lester Piggott in the 100 great sportsmen of the century?" Regrettably, the lack of logic in such considerations does not stop the remorseless and futile bombardment and it will get worse as the fateful day approaches and, I fear, after it passes.

The British Broadcasting Corporation will, as usual, be at the forefront of the sporting remembrance business. They have mastered the art of looking backwards and this may be excusable because, let's be honest, they've got little to look forward to these days.

The fact that they have been systematically stripped of most of the meaty events they once regarded as theirs of right is mainly the fault of those at levels higher than the BBC's sports department. Looking back over my records, I find that for 17 per cent of the century I have been giving them stick for cherry-picking from the sporting calendar. For a few years now, they have been paying a heavy price for the lack of depth and breadth of their coverage when they had it all their own way.

That's why I am happy to see them making a comeback in the last days of the 1900s. The snooker from the Liverpool Victoria UK Championships on BBC 2 has been riveting and getting club rugby back on their screens via the Heineken European Cup was a heartening reversal of their fortunes.

But their best piece of work by far has been to get Muhammad Ali to be their top guest on the annual Sports Personality of the Year Show on Sunday 12 December. The Beeb are in their sporting element with this programme and it will allow them to make a dignified exit from the century on their highest note for some years.

I must confess this was never my favourite piece of television, mainly for the haughty, patronising way it was presented. It has irked even more since the flow of genuine British personalities has dried up to a trickle and, with it, the amount of film available of the year's main activities.

But the impoverished state of the BBC's sporting output in recent years hasn't affected their thirst for the past. They are still not content to let bygones be bygones; they make long programmes out of them. Hence, a fortnight tonight, they will luxuriate in two hours of nostalgia that may be more than bearable.

Ali is the key, of course, because his is the name on top of most lists of the giants of the past 100 years. Whether he has received the majority of votes from BBC viewers as Sports Personality of the Century remains to be seen. If he doesn't, it'll be the surprise of the millennium. Don't bother to add yours; voting closed last Sunday evening.

What will benefit the programme will be the opportunity it provides to roll out the archive footage of Ali, the one subject for whom there is no shortage of visible evidence of greatness. Add some of those bantering sessions with Harry Carpenter and Ali's deserved place at the highest peak of our affection and admiration will surely not be doubted.

As for the sports personality of the current year, voting continues until Thursday 9 December, to allow maximum brain-racking time. It is a melancholy fact that, even though the rugby and cricket World Cups were both staged here this year, and Manchester United won the Treble, very few home-bred heroes figure among our games players. I assume that Sir Alex Ferguson, as manager, is not a contender although he will certainly pick up the team award.

It looks, therefore, as if Lennox Lewis is favourite. As the man who brought us back the title of undisputed heavyweight champion of the world for the first time this century, he has the staunchest of claims even though the manner of his achievement lacked a touch of the spectacular. He had more decent belts wrapped around his waist than he handed out in the fight against Evander Holyfield.

But it is not the time of year to be churlish. At least, we should be grateful to have someone who has achieved something historically worthwhile during 1999. We are not exactly spoiled for choice as we are when running an eye over a century that has thrown up such marvels as Pele, Don Bradman, Jesse Owens (my particular favourite), Joe Louis, Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan, Jack Nicklaus, Emil Zatopek, Carl Lewis...

The list is as fascinatingly endless as the arguments are fatuous.

Sportsmen and women through the ages have willingly endured monastic disciplines before big events knowing that the sacrifice was worth it. They happily accepted the rule that abstinence makes the heart grow stronger, that celibacy is the first step towards celebrity.

Well, they've been had; or not had, as the case may be. The latest scientific evidence proves beyond doubt that far from being a debilitating activity, sex before sport brings the advantage of a supply of testosterone that will boost a man or woman's performance.

So crumbles the biggest sporting myth of the millennium - or, so it seems. There will be many who remain dubious, not least those whose immediate reaction is to fall into a deep sleep.

Obviously, the world of sport needs some guidance from the authorities on this. But they shouldn't probe too deeply. The last thing we need is scientific evidence of the benefits of sex instead of sport.

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