Pele, Muhammad Ali, Juan Manuel Fangio, Babe Ruth, Sachin Tendulkar, Roger Federer, Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, Richie McCaw, Shane Warne, Diego Maradona, Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Ayrton Senna, Dan Carter, Phil Taylor, Ronnie O’Sullivan, Eddy Merckx, to name but a few, might all be candidates for the sobriquet “best sportsman ever”.
According to some venerable souls they are all operating in the slipstream of Anthony Peter McCoy, the hitherto indefatigable record-breaker over fences.
No jockey in the history of jump racing has done what McCoy has done. The numbers are mind-bending, the longevity beyond comprehension, the talent profound, the courage, commitment, desire all off the scale. But the best sportsman ever? What is it with human beings and hierarchies? Is it not enough to recognise genius?
By definition, the qualities inherent in the status suggest the host is made of epic stuff. It seems to me insulting to want to list one above another. In doing so we instantly devalue those ranked below. Bonkers and unnecessary.
For those who like to play that game, there is an immediate problem with numbers. How deep is the pool of competitors? How many have even tried to cock a leg across the hindquarters of a horse?
The population of India is upwards of a billion. Since half of them are men, it is a fair estimate that a sample greater in number than the population of these isles have picked up the willow with dreams of scoring a ton at Eden Gardens.
Out of these legions, Tendulkar stands alone. Is McCoy more deserving? How might he have fared had he been up against millions of kids bound to saddles?
And who is to say it is harder to get a horse across the line first in the Grand National – which the greatest National Hunt jockey managed only once, by the way – than facing a leather-bound sphere 9in in circumference travelling at 90mph-plus for six hours a day?
Or more demanding than cycling a bicycle up the 21 hairpins of Alpe d’Huez during the mad three-week thrash around France? Or tougher than doing lengths of the pool hour after hour, day after day, month after month for a shot at Olympic glory once every four years? Or more dangerous than driving a prototype rocket wheel-to-wheel at 200mph-plus in nothing more than a pair of leather gloves and goggles? Or harder than trading punches with a bloke twice your size for a living?
Stanley Ketchel didn’t even make my list at the top of the order but he deserves more than a passing mention for stepping into the ring as a middleweight to contest the heavyweight championship of the world against the legendary Jack Johnson, who might also have been included above.
Ketchel gave away more than two and a half stone in a bout scheduled to last 20 rounds. He floored Johnson in the 12th, and as he went in for the kill, walked onto a huge right hand that left two of his teeth embedded in Johnson’s glove. That’s how they rolled in 1909.
Ketchel fought twice a month early in his career and had racked up 60 bouts by the age of 24. He didn’t make 25. Having fought six times by June 1910, and with negotiations for a rematch with Johnson under way, he was shot dead in a botched robbery at the ranch of a friend.
No one is saying A P has had it easy but even with the catalogue of broken bones and weight-shifting horrors he has had to endure, it looks like he will leave the game in one piece.
I make these points not to diminish the achievements of McCoy but to highlight the futility of grading performance across disciplines and eras. Let these great figures of the sporting firmament stand alone in their own space to be enjoyed, not measured against the achievements of greats from other spheres.
McCoy is self-evidently a man to be admired for all sorts of reasons, not least the manner of his declaration, a casual aside to a television reporter after yet another victory: “Yeah, great to win, he’s a grand horse and by the way, I’m retiring at the end of the season,” or words to that effect.
OK, it was his 200th winner of the campaign and having decided he was off at the end of it, he waited until he had chalked up the double ton to let the world know. But it’s hardly Steven-Gerrard-leaving-Liverpool territory, a soap opera that was weeks in the telling.
Goodness knows what pomp and ceremony awaits when Cristiano Ronaldo calls it a day at Real Madrid. A commemorative range of undercrackers for starters. At least we never saw McCoy in his pants. If there must be a list, stick him at the top for that.