Sporting hero is a term that should be handled with discretion

ONE of the occupational hazards of a veteran sportswriter is the scorn that historical perspective raises in an advancing generation. Things may be better than they were, maybe not, but how many sports performers today will be remembered as genuine heroes?

Beginning last night, Sky Sports 3 is broadcasting a series of 20 interviews with great figures from Britain's sporting past conducted by the old ITV hand Dickie Davies, who was big on the box when some of today's star presenters were in nappies.

First up was the 1980 Olympic 800 metres gold medallist, Steve Ovett, to be followed by his great middle-distance rival, Sebastian Coe, and such notables as John Charles, Tom Finney, Colin Cowdrey, Mary Peters, Stirling Moss, Willie Carson, Roger Bannister, Gareth Edwards and Henry Cooper. Davies's personal choices, all qualify as sporting heroes.

I'm certain, anyway, that the status ought not to awarded lightly. It has as much, maybe more, to do with presence as achievement, a matter of people confronting fame and time and themselves.

A friend, Tom Cushman, who writes sensitive sports columns for the San Diego Union-Tribune recalls the thrill he felt as a college freshman track athlete when hearing of Bannister's four-minute mile. "It was unbelievable," he said. "From that moment Bannister was, and still is, one of my sporting heroes."

The fact that Bannister did not win an Olympic gold medal is irrelevant. Henry Cooper didn't make it to world class, his only attempt at the heavyweight championship ending in bloody defeat by Muhammad Ali in 1966, but the years since then have not diminished his popularity. Stirling Moss failed to win the drivers' world championship but he remains unquestionably a hero of motor racing.

Last year I attended a dinner at which Charles was given a lifetime award for his great feats in football. Most of those present had never seen the Welshman play, not even on television, but they knew a hero when they saw one. Many footballers today state the desire to be with a club that offers them a chance of winning championship and cup medals. A brilliant England international, all Finney has to show for a club career spent entirely in Preston North End's colours is a loser's medal in the 1954 FA Cup final.

Recently, I was recalling for some young people (this happens all too frequently these days) a period through which I lived as a goggle-eyed boy. Television was only a rumour so a sense of sporting heroism could only be gained from newspapers and radio. Importantly, I later discovered that one or two of the heroes who thrived in my imagination, Stanley Matthews and Denis Compton for example, were heroes to many millions.

I still find sport a better area than most to look for truth. Without question we stand in the middle of a national sports boom: growing attendances, better-prepared performers who in some case get more for their labours than people are paid for running countries. Precisely where we stand in the matter of heroes is less apparent.

If Davies had come a little further forward in time he could have found other candidates. Ian Botham was a natural hero of cricket. For all his technical limitations Frank Bruno was, in a curious way, heroic. Lennox Lewis may be the most accomplished heavyweight out there but somehow heroism doesn't fit with him.

Sporting hero is a term that should be handled with care and discretion. Nick Faldo has climbed higher in golf than one of Davies's heroes, Tony Jacklin, and is unquestionably a hero but Jacklin's success was totally unexpected and therefore more heroic.

Once you get into something like this, I frankly don't know where you stop and how the leading figures in British sport today will be looked upon by historians of the future. Nobody will have to think twice about Steven Redgrave, but it's difficult to imagine that Paul Gascoigne will qualify as an all-time British hero and, despite his prowess, Alan Shearer may never be spoken of in the same breath as many illustrious figures in the fairly recent history of football.

All the heroes Davies has selected relished personal success and took pleasure in the honours that came to them. Circumstances saved their greatness from the modern carnival vulgarity that would have debased it. That was good for sport and good for the concept of heroism.