How in the world do we judge the best?

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The Independent Online
LINFORD CHRISTIE may not be the cheeriest human being in the world but we are delighted to acknowledge that he is the fastest. Although we might have to wait until Wednesday to confirm it. The nearest we have got to a world championship sprint this year takes place in Zurich and Christie faces the very best.

Leroy Burrell, Frankie Fredericks, Andre Cason, Jon Drummond, Dennis Mitchell and maybe Carl Lewis. Not exactly the charge of the light brigade but definitely the mad dash of the year. Burrell is the world record holder but what does the clock know about racing? The man who wins in a field of that quality deserves to be called the fastest in the world.

At least, he's the fastest over 100 metres. Over 200 metres, he might struggle to stay ahead and over 400 might be gasping to keep up. Over 1500 he may not even get the trip. But these are mere quibbles - the 100m men are fairly reckoned to move quicker than any others on earth.

Always supposing, that is, that the rest have had a fair chance, that on some remote hill in Outer Mongolia there isn't a yak-herder who runs like greased lightning. How is he ever going to prove it to us, his being so busy? In some swarming city slum there may be a boy so quick that he can catch pigeons for his mam's cooking pot. Who is ever going to try him out in a pair of spiked running shoes?

These questions are asked only to clarify the entitlement of those we call world champions to be indisputably regarded as our planetary overlords. I am not suggesting that Christie does not deserve his title or that it should be changed to 'Fastest man in the world who's got spikes and who hasn't got a herd of yaks to look after' but it does help to remember that however sophisticated sport considers itself to be, it is in many areas still a long way short of thoroughness in its search to identify the best.

It so happens that the 100 metres is probably the most readily acceptable of all the world titles that are flashed around so grandly by their holders. Much more so, for instance, than world powerboat champion. This would strike a more meaningful chord if it was changed to 'champion of the 723 people in the world who own powerboats'. Either that or they should buy us all powerboats and book the Atlantic for next summer to give the world a chance to battle it out for the title. This would be a great help in establishing how much admiration we should extend to this particular champion or, indeed, if we shouldn't be concentrating our full attention on the boat.

At least, we can relate to the simple and straightforward matter of running a short distance as fast as possible. Every man, woman and child on earth has had to do that, even if only for a bus. And since most buses hove into view while the distance between you and the bus stop is almost precisely 100 metres, we know exactly what eye-bulging effort it takes.

Thus we can look on knowingly when Christie and Co explode into action on Wednesday and then marvel at the fact that the better equipped to run for buses a man becomes, the higher the probability that there is a Mercedes waiting outside the stadium for him.

Not all athletics events are so easily identified with by the masses, but they are well within comprehension distance. Colin Jackson is the fastest man over 110 metres with a row of obstacles in the way. This would have most appeal to anyone who has had to run for their bus across the back gardens but the majority would recognise the skill and effort involved. So it is with all the running, throwing and jumping events.

The javelin, however, is a little puzzling. Steve Backley's success is thrilling, as was that of Tessa Sanderson and Fatima Whitbread, but you would think that this event would lend itself more to those whose forebears were dab hands at flinging spears, like the African assegai. It shows how wrong this racial stereotyping can be. We did much good work in going around the world introducing football and cricket to the natives and persuading them to lay down their weapons. Now they murder us at football and cricket and we dominate the world at throwing spears.

The Greeks were heavily into the forerunner of an event taking place at this very moment. This weekend sees the world modern pentathlon championships in Sheffield. I have long harboured the unkind thought that this event was for those who could not decide which sport to take up but were down to a short list of five.

Iread in one of the cheaper newspapers that Aristotle believed pentathletes to be the perfect sportsmen. The five disciplines in the old Greek's day were a little different from those being pursued at Sheffield - which are shooting, swimming, fencing, riding and running - but I'm sure he had a point and if it was not for events for all- rounders we would not have had the pleasure of Daley Thompson and Mary Peters.

Yet, how many in the world get a chance to take up such a sport? What about the other esoteric event being held here last week; the world croquet championships. I doubt that 99.9 per cent of the world's population could explain croquet if you threatened them with a mallet but it is a game requiring great skill and a ruthless streak which makes it ideal for family participation. Sadly, the number who get a chance to play is not rising and the game could be croquing its last within the next few decades.

The previous week we had the world equestrian championships. No one is suggesting that horse- riding is a declining sport but, again, the vast majority of us have never been on a horse. Could it be that the human being fitted by nature to be the world's finest horse- person has never had the chance to sit astride a horse?

We can take this thought further. The finest gymnast might never have hung from an asymetric bar; the classiest canoeist might never have dipped a paddle into water; the swiftest swimmer might never have gone in over his ankles; the best dinghy sailor might never have tugged on a rudder; the handiest heavyweight boxer might never have clambered through the ropes - although, on second thoughts, we've probably been through them all. We could go on.

It's all about opportunity, about giving people at least one chance to show an aptitude. School is usually the place where this fleeting moment occurs but with the teachers mounting a counter-attack on the place competitive sport occupies in the National Curriculum this may disappear. The National Lottery, if used intelligently, may provide the funding to spread our sporting interests but can we depend on it. Without some concerted attention, our sporting diversity is threatened. For many sports, it is already a small world. It could become a lot smaller.

BASEBALL has never obtained my interest. I am an avid watcher of American football but their baseball is a mystery. I am much more interested in the British version, which is confined to south Wales and Merseyside, and which I used to play enthusiastically but badly.

So the forthcoming players' strike in the US does not affect me, other than to make me wonder. This is the second time the players have been on strike. If they have another one, are they out?

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