He gets across the impression that only the titanic efforts of America's athletically minded have kept sport going this long
Thursday 09 November 1995
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 60 years ago, is given exalted status by Bert Randolph Sugar in a book to celebrate the careers of 100 sportsmen and sportswomen he thinks supreme in history.
As Sugar never removes his fedora in public and goes around chomping on a large cigar, it has long since been concluded, especially in boxing circles, that he is a fully paid-up eccentric.
However, the status Sugar accords Nevers in The Hundred Greatest Athletes of All Time has less to do with a capricious nature than insular perception. With the exception of Pele, who is in eighth place, and reading downwards, Sugar's top 10 is 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 (basketball), Nevers and Michael Jordan (basketball).
While all other than Nevers have widespread reputations, a good question is how would they rate in minds other than that of a myopic compatriot.
This applies absolutely to Sugar's overall list in that it does not include a footballer other than Pele, and Sir Donald Bradman (misspelt, Broadman) is the only cricketer. Nobody was chosen from either code of rugby. Another American, Al Unser, is the lone representative of motor racing. "That is because he won the Indianapolis 500 as well as on the Grand Prix circuit," Sugar said last week in Las Vegas shortly before Riddick Bowe demolished Evander Holyfield. Well Bert, so did Graham Hill and Jim Clark, to name but two.
Another inexplicable omission is that of Lester Piggott, perhaps supreme among horsemen who is relegated to a supplementary roll call along with such notable performers as Franz Beckenbauer, the extraordinary CB Fry and Juan Fangio.
Familiar bias is also evident on the distaff side of Sugar's selection. Apart from Martina Navratilova, who was born and raised in Czechoslavakia, the Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci and the Dutch athlete Fanny Blankers- Koen, it too is 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 would be influenced by opinions held internationally.
He gets 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 publisher would want to trust Sugar with his money, you can have fun with something like this. You can point out, for example, that if drawn up in most other countries, a similar list would contain a number of outstanding footballers; Diego Mara- dona, Alfredo di Stefano, Johan Cruyff, George Best, Ferenc Puskas, John Charles, Sir Stanley Matthews.
Probably, it would have Muhammad Ali, who transcended boxing, in first position. A personal view is that Ali for social as well as sporting reasons, stands above all others.
Advance publicity for Sugar's book poses 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 draw a blank expression. Jim who? you imagine a lot of them asking.
Great player that he was, to suppose that Brown is more significant in history than Ali and Pele is ridiculous.
As for Nevers, it was almost impossible to get a line on him.
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