Under their spell: The greatest influences of our sporting lives

On the day the BBC unveil their viewers' Sports Personality of the Century, Independent on Sunday writers choose the icons from their past whose exploits made a lasting impression

MUHAMMAD ALI

Beauty of a

dangerous

obsession

appealed first to my curiosity. I cannot pinpoint the exact date or time or fight. But I can remember the source of the fascination. Ali - or Cassius Marcellus Clay as he was back then - was different. No one of that size had the right to move with his ease; no purveyor of his brutish trade had the right to talk with the fluency that he did, let alone write poetry and predict the rounds of his opponent's defeat with such assurance. And he fought with his hands at his side, relying on his reflexes to keep out of trouble. It was like watching a man hanging from a ledge. He broke every rule, an appealing trait for a teenager blinking into the bright lights of the Sixties.

Boxing was not a fit sport for a white middle-class public schoolboy. So when the transistor was smuggled to bed in a ritual usually confined to Ashes Tests and Ali's victory over Sonny Liston came crackling through the bed sheets in the early hours of the morning, something more than the fear of detection tinged the sense of adventure. This was immoral, illicit, dangerous. But we had found a new hero and, for a short time, this strange, beautiful, creature from a place called Louisville was ours and ours alone. Ali was quite possibly the first black man we had ever really noticed.

The first Ali-Liston fight in Miami was critical to the mystique. We wanted Ali to beat Liston without really knowing why. We were sucked irresistibly into the allegory of the fight. Liston was the ex-con, a man of appalling violence and inarticulacy, a perfect fit for the racist's view of the black man. Decent white folk would have to lock up their daughters with a man like Liston as champion.

No one quite knew what to make of Ali, which was attractive in itself. America wanted him to play the white man's black man, the Huck Finn sort of black man, much as Joe Louis had done before him. But they did not altogether trust his mouth or his boxing ability. Unpardonably, the majority of Americans ignored him in those early days. The arena in Miami was barely half full. Only later did they latch on to his genius, claiming, of course, that they knew about it all along.

He certainly had little in his record to make anyone believe he could beat an ogre like Liston. But Ali wore white trunks and Liston wore black, Ali was pretty and Liston was ugly, Ali danced and Liston plodded and those were good enough causes for allegiance on this side of the Atlantic. Ignorant of the complex racial politics of his rise, trusting only to the tender instinct of youth, we were the earliest and the purest of Ali's believers. And when Ali won, we were proud of him and said that we had known all along, though deep down, like Ali himself, we had feared Liston's brute strength.

After the second, controversial Liston fight, which nobody watched, it became a lot more complicated. Ali was no longer Cassius Clay and he was no longer the private property of a young English schoolboy. We didn't care much about his conversion to some strange black American religion and only later did we dimly realise his pivotal role in the civil rights movement.

When Ali came over to England for the first time to fight Henry Cooper, it was a difficult moment. Ali was not particularly generous to his opponent, a man whom he was clearly going to beat, and it was impossible to dislike Our 'Enery, so we decided that the correct stance for the duration of the bout was a studied neutrality. The sight of Ali dumped on his backside by the craggy, balding British boxer was not just the first dent in Ali's pride, it was a disturbing reminder of human weakness.

Cooper still believes to this day that he was robbed of victory that night. Ali's glove mysteriously split, allowing the champion an extra 40 seconds to recover his senses. He went on to pulverise Cooper, but the magic and the innocence vanished in the split second Ali's chin collided with Cooper's left hook. Until then, Ali had made boxing glamorous, invested it with an artistic gloss; with Cooper, Ali dumped boxing back on the streets. Only later did we understand that a very much more precious virtue had emerged that night. Ali's courage, like his ambition, knew no limits.

When Ali re-emerged, a decade had passed. We had all grown up. I wasn't much interested in Ali the politician, or even Ali the draft dodger, even less in Ali the religious leader or Ali the propagandist. It was only in the wars against Joe Frazier and George Foreman that he strode back into focus. These were battles which demanded a precise new allegiance. All the elemental forces so vaguely apparent in the Liston fights resurfaced in Zaire. Ali was the underdog again and he needed our support in this dark and fearful hour. The moment he recoils from the ropes to floor Foreman is the single most astonishing moment in the history of 20th Century sport and we felt part of it because we knew Ali from way back.

The face is fatter now, but has remained largely immune to the demands of time and the ravages of Parkinson's Disease. A smile from Ali can still silence a room. Yet the portrait of Ali by Neil Leiffer which adorns the front cover of David Remnick's excellent study of the Rise of an American Hero shows a meaner and moodier side. Ali's face was as much his fortune as his fists. Before he was the greatest, he was the prettiest, which would have seemed an outrageous claim for any boxer other than Ali to make. With Ali, there was no real denial, even down to his last sad, shuffling fight when his claims to greatness had passed from the ring and the poetic innocence of the early Sixties had long faded. He could still lay claim to being the prettiest.

I have never met Ali. My daughter has, at Sea World in San Diego four years ago. He asked for her name and said how pretty she was. Her camera was not working very well, so Ali is only just visible in the grainy photo still pinned to her bedroom wall. His face is the size of a baby's thumbnail but instantly recognisable on every street corner in the world. Now Ali is back in London, possibly for the last time, to receive his reward as BBC Sports Personality of the Century. There is no debate. But we knew that a long time ago.

ANDREW LONGMORE

PETER OSGOOD

Wizardry of

Os, lord of

ringmasters

BACK IN the late Sixties, teenage dreams were tinged in blue for one college student. The object of his infatuation carried the No 9 and the burden of his expectations - and those of 50,000 other supporters.

In his idol's honour that scholar grew sideburns, and vainly tried to perfect the roguish grin which always appeared when another goal had the likes of Gary Sprake or Bob Wilson squirming. He imagined that it was actually him dallying with Raquel Welch after a game (even though her appearance at Stamford Bridge, claiming to be a supporter, was only a publicity stunt).

Peter Osgood epitomised sexy football way before Ruud Gullit introduced the concept at Stamford Bridge, and we disciples at the Shed End worshipped him for all his frailties, as well as his strengths. We prided ourselves on the fact that rival supporters abhored the strutting cockiness of the Kings Road carouser in much the way they do David Beckham today. Our pleasure was in their envy.

"Skill, great attitude, two great feet, great in the air. A marvellous heart," the Chelsea manager Tommy Docherty, paraphrased his attributes. "What more is there?" What indeed. Nobody would deny the claims of Pele, Cruyff, Best, Puskas, to their places in football's pantheon. But they were distant, unattainable models, to be revered from afar. If there was one footballer into which this observer metamorphosed on the cloying mud of the Sunday morning park pitch it was the Wizard of Os.

In your mind, you heard Kenneth Wolstenholme eulogising about you on Match of the Day with the words, "What a beautiful mover this boy is," as he did of the newly-discovered 18-year-old Osgood after a scintillating run against Liverpool in an FA Cup third-round tie at Anfield.

In your own ludicrous fantasies, it could be you who was plucked from a local side - in Osgood's case a team bearing the unprepossessing title of Spital Old Boys - to be propelled to stardom. He was the First Division's top scorer in the 1969-70 season and scored 220 goals for Chelsea and Southampton, including the Blues' equaliser against Leeds in the final replay at Old Trafford in 1970, and their winner in the European Cup Winners' Cup final against Real Madrid the following year. Again, that required Chelsea to come through a replay. Osgood's preparations for the second game would scarcely be acceptable today. "Charlie Cooke and Tommy Baldwin and me went down to the Hilton hotel and got pie-eyed," he recalls. "We just didn't believe our name was on the Cup."

He was one of three wise men who came to Chelsea bearing extraodinary gifts in that golden age - Osgood, that demon of a Scottish winger Cooke, and the midfield stylist Alan Hudson. But of that triumvirate of showmen, Osgood was always the ringmaster, the man who brought a new direction to goal celebrations; that sliding fall to the knees became his trademark, an almost apologetic raise of the arms, as if to say, "Sorry, fellas, it's just too easy" to his subjects.

Manchester United may have boasted George Best but, on his day and in his own way, Ossie could compare with the Irish phenomenon, certainly in terms of projecting a glamorous persona. Maybe it was the era, the Swinging Sixties, that caused Osgood particularly to endear himself to us.

He represented a welcome andidote to what was perceived as Leeds' hugely talented but somewhat joyless football. Yet, for all that Osgood and Jack Charlton were anathema to one another, there was no doubting the Leeds defender's generosity as he recalled the 1970 World Cup campaign in Mexico. "The one guy who was really at the top of the tree at the time, that we all felt would have a big part to play in the World Cup finals, was Peter Osgood," reflects Charlton. "In all our practice matches Peter seemed to be by far the best player; his laid-back style was ideally suited to the heat. But Alf never used him, except as substitute."

Osgood only ever appeared four times for England. Despite his regard for him, Sir Alf didn't really trust him. There will be those who might ask - as they did with Best - what might the forward have become if he had not been a free spirit and, indeed, free with the spirits? The answer is that such self-discipline could only have restricted both.

It is another matter to question what Osgood might have become if he had not broken his leg early in his career in a tackle by Emlyn Hughes, then with Blackpool. The leg was repaired, but the weight he put on during his recovery would always restrict him slightly. Not that you would have noticed too much. "Osgood is good" became the fans' refrain. And didn't he just know it.

So did one young student for whom the name Osgood remains a byword for great entertainer, master practitioner.

NICK TOWNSEND

BILLIE JEAN KING

A pioneering queen and court marshal

A LEADING work of reference calls her "perhaps the most important single figure in the history of women's tennis" but let's not pussyfoot around here. The word "perhaps" does not belong in the vicinity of any description of Billie Jean King.

This fireman's daughter from Long Beach, California, ignited a conflagration that razed the rickety, privileged structure of the sport and built in its place, brick by painful brick, the edifice from which all those who followed her have taken much pride and an awful lot of money.

As winner of a record 20 titles at Wimbledon (six singles, 10 doubles and four mixed) Billie Jean inscribed her name as the most prolific player in the history of the greatest tournament. As a competitor whose exuberance frequently outshone her genius, she may not stand atop that exclusive league table, which also includes Lenglen, Wills Moody, Connolly, Court, Evert, Navratilova and Graf, but in terms of sheer achievement she is incomparable.

Never more so than on a September night in 1973. A winner of 38 Grand Slam titles, her most memorable match and the one of most significance to women's tennis was a grudge encounter in the circus atmosphere of the Houston Astrodome. Bobby Riggs, Wimbledon champion of 1939 and, at 55, capable player and supreme self-promoter, challenged Billie Jean, the leading tennis feminist. At first she refused and instead, on Mother's Day, Riggs routed Margaret Court 6-2 6-1. So Billie Jean agreed to face Riggs in what is remembered, by those who knew or cared little about tennis, as the greatest match ever. In front of 30,472, still the biggest crowd to watch a tennis contest, she triumphed 6-4 6-3 6-3 in "The Battle of the Sexes". She picked up the winner-take-all $200,000, but more important, her ambition was achieved. Women's sport was on the map.

Having taken up tennis at the comparatively late age of 11, she had soon done enough on the concrete public courts of California to earn invitations to the private clubs. Her first glimpse of the sport's elitist bedrock brought a private promise that she would change it. Billie Jean was 12 at the time and by 17, already a Wimbledon doubles champion, she was "pretty fidgety with the whole scene".

Seven years on, that fidgety feeling had worsened. Wimbledon led the way in 1968 by openly paying prize money, bringing the comment from Billie Jean: "Finally, our sport was honest." She was delighted to be declared champion that year alongside Rod Laver but incensed that he was paid pounds 2,000 while she collected pounds 700.

Striking out the only way she knew, vociferously, in pursuit of her beliefs and parity for women, she suffered suspension, bans and vilification. In 1970 she and eight others signed a contract for one dollar each to play a women-only circuit backed by Virginia Slims. Ann Jones, one of the founding nine, recalls: "Billie Jean pulled it together, kept it together and put them on the right road." As the star and spokeswoman, as well as winner of most of the early tournaments despite knee problems, Billie Jean slogged on until she had proved the truth in the tour slogan "You've come a long way, baby."

In 1965 Billie Jean Moffitt had married Larry King and together they started World Team Tennis, an inter-city vaudeville version of the sport which has been called "the moustache on the Mona Lisa" but which still flourishes. More suspensions followed and though Billie Jean survived, her marriage didn't after the outing of a love affair with her hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett.

What changed everything was beating Riggs. "It had nothing to do with tennis but everything to do with social status," she said later. "To try to change the hearts and minds of people, to persuade parents their daughters should have equal opportunity with their sons." That attitude remains unchanged. "I would like every child in the world to have the chance to play tennis," she says, "to be able to run and jump and feel the wind in your hair."

The explosion of TV interest and contracts ensured women's tennis would indeed go a long way, baby. Billie Jean, though, always preferred the doubles game. "You share it with somebody, and I like collaboration. Winning in singles is much more lonely. Performing is temporary, friendship can be everlasting." Eventually, after a final triumph at the age of 39, she turned to administration and coaching, helping Martina Navratilova to come within one title of her own Wimbledon record and captaining the American Fed Cup team to world victories in 1996 and again this year.

Even the onset of skin cancer could not diminish her zest or trim the workload of this much-honoured woman. My own abiding memory is of her at the French Open, swathed in protective clothing and towels against the sun, cheering on a member of her Fed Cup team.

RONALD ATKIN

SEVERIANO BALLESTEROS

Pied piper

of Europe

WHEN SERGIO GARCIA, apparently stymied behind a tree, played one of the shots of the season during his run-in with Tiger Woods for the US PGA Championship, Seve Ballesteros was sitting at home, shouting at the television screen. It was almost a mirror image.

It is possible that Garcia, who has everything, will go on to become one of the game's masters, surpassing the exploits of Ballesteros, but he can never be described as the next Seve.

What Arnold Palmer did for golf in America, Ballesteros did for Europe. To what can be a staid old game he brought a touch of glamour, imagination and a swashbuckling approach. He also had the killer instinct and there was something of the matador and the escape artist. People not only loved watching him, they wanted him to win. And win he did. And being self-taught, he did it his way.

Ballesteros was born in 1957 in a farm house overlooking the Bay of Santander in the village of Pedrena in northern Spain, a short walk from the local course. When he was seven he received his first golf club, the rusting head of an old three iron. He equipped the head with sticks which served as shafts. He used pebbles for golf balls and practised on the beach or in the fields. At eight he began caddieing at the Real Club de Golf de Pedrena, where his uncle, Ramon Sota, was the professional.

He earned 40 pesetas for the first bag he carried. In his first caddies' tournament he made 10 on the opening hole. At 11 he was runner up in the same event and a year later, when it became an 18-hole tournament, he won with a total of 79. "He had a love of golf you could almost touch," Manuel, one of his brothers, said. "You never saw him without a club."

In 1974 Ballesteros, at 16 years eight months and 21 days, became the youngest professional tournament player in the history of Spanish golf. With a $1,000 loan he took a bus to Santander and an overnight train through the mountains to Madrid.

His appearance in the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale in 1976 was sensational. He finished joint second with Jack Nicklaus behind Johnny Miller, and it was the style with which he finished that not only captured the public imagination but helped to establish his trademark. On the final hole in the final round his approach shot missed the fairway and came to rest in trampled yellow grass, 15 yards from where a path rode the crest of two bunkers and ran up to the green. There seemed only one shot available, pitch over the bunkers, although the chances of getting it close to the flag were zero. With a nine iron, Ballesteros bounced the ball on to the path and it navigated the mound, evaded the bunkers and rolled down on to the green to finish four feet from the hole.

The same year, at 19, he became the youngest player to finish top of the European Tour Order of Merit and for the next 13 years he was never out of the top 10. "When I was small," Ballesteros said, "I never thought about winning. I was never even thinking about the majors. I was just thinking about being a champion. I was thinking I'd like to be the best in the world."

His major breakthrough came in the Open at Royal Lytham in 1979, in a victory which was marked by spectacular recoveries, none more so than his shot from a car park at the 16th in the final round. The following year he dominated the Masters at Augusta National and, at 23, became the youngest wearer of the green blazer. He won it again in 1983 and seemed destined for a wardrobe full of jackets. He has not won at Augusta in 16 years.

He recaptured the Open in 1984 at St Andrews and won it for a third time when it returned to Lytham in 1988. Holding a one-stroke lead over Nick Price, Ballesteros missed the green at the last but his chip from 60 feet nearly went into the hole. The faces of the spectators tell their own story. Since then such moments have been few and far between.

At the age of 42 Ballesteros, who has been at war with the authorities on both sides of the Atlantic, who has changed caddies and business managers almost as often as he has missed the fairway and a man who has amassed a fortune has disappeared from the rankings, a slide mirrored by the decline of Nick Faldo.

Ballesteros has won 72 titles worldwide but he has not won a major championship for 11 years. Indeed he has not won anything for four years.

"For all of us good swings come and good swings go," he said. "Everyone suffers a slump. Nicklaus did, Palmer, Watson, everyone. Why should I be the exception?" Because he's exceptional.

TIM GLOVER

KEN SCOTLAND

The master of all trades

IT HELPS when our boyhood heroes have heroic names. Even before I had seen him, K J F Scotland had a fan. My first sighting of him was from the Murrayfield terraces in 1957 on the foulest of days. Scotland were playing Ireland and 10 minutes before the kick-off a blizzard reduced spectating to a battle for survival. No matter, I stuck it out to the bitter end, if only to make sure that my man would come through unscathed. He looked so pale and frail one feared for his life.

Scotland was a magnificent footballer, blessed with exquisite balance and such natural skill he could play anywhere in the back division. On the 1959 British Lions tour to the Anti-podes he occupied every position behind the scrum except wing, and starred in all of them. The New Zealand writer T P McLean perfectly captured him when he wrote: "He floated like summer down through the New Zealand defence."

Although he began his rugby life at school as a stand-off, but despite the fact that he occasionally occupied that position at the highest levels, it was as a full-back that his reputation was made. His versatility was not restricted to the rugby field either. He was a first-class wicketkeeper, playing once for Scotland, an opportunity which he claimed he conspicuously failed to take with both hands. He played off a golf handicap of six and three years ago he won the Scottish Rugby Union pro-am over the formidable Dalmahoy course with a gross 73.

If Scotland was not the original running full-back he certainly lifted the art to new heights through his instinctive awareness of time and space. From nowhere he would materialise between the outside centre and wing and with such stealth that opposing defences were almost invariably caught unawares. Slight of build and tipping the scales at no more than 11st, Scotland was, nevertheless, a robust defender, employing his uncanny sense of position and his speed into the tackle to great effect.

Seldom do we get closer to our heroes than mere worship, but on an autumn Saturday in 1963, fresh out of school, I found myself in opposition to my idol, playing for the Scottish Midlands against the North of Scotland in a district trial.

Scotland was by then getting to the end of his career, although he was still the country's first choice full-back, despite the fact that he was playing his rugby with the least fashionable of the leading clubs.

On this occasion Scotland was playing stand-off and, occupying the same position, I had the comforting presence alongside me of Ronnie Glasgow, a deadly assassin of a flanker and the scourge of opposition half-backs, particularly if they were French or famous.

Scotland most definitely fell into the latter category, and when he took up his position behind the scrum almost within touching distance of our back row, Glasgow began pawing the ground in anticipation of the carnage. But it was Scotland who was the destroyer. Not once during that game, I swear, did either Glasgow or I lay as much as a finger on Scotland, whose mastery of angles and deception was out of this world.

Scotland could never be accused of self-advancement and never by a word or deed did he seek to benefit from his talent. But those who truly knew their rugby understood his sublime skills. Tom Kiernan considered him to be the finest full-back he had played against and that redoubtable Welshman and scribe Vivian Jenkins, who could genuinely claim to be in the vanguard of running fullbacks as early as the 30s, believed him to be the best player in Britain.

The style, elegance and sportsmanship with which he played his rugby are the precepts by which he lives his life, combined with an enduring modesty and a wonderfully dry wit. A newcomer to the district side came over to introduce himself. "I'm Arsol Rhind", he said a little nervously. "Well, Arsol" replied Ken slightly taken aback but ever anxious to please: "It's my belief that every good team needs one."

CHRIS REA

GARY SOBERS

Excitement unlimited

FROM THE moment the Sixties really began in 1963 there were two major issues of the day for those who were growing up back then. The first was whether The Beatles' latest single had reached number one already, and the second was whether England had managed to dismiss Gary Sobers yet. The answers were usually yes and no.

It seemed then, and time has done nothing to diminish the notion, that the West Indies were always here beating England and that Sobers was always batting. They weren't and he wasn't, of course, but for at least one of the four series they played on these shores in the Sixties, a decade which did not end until 1973, it was a close run thing.

He had first come here in 1957, a player with three years' Test experience, but he was not yet fully formed. When he returned in 1963 he was the most alluring player in the world, playing in the most exciting team in the world. They were led by the great Frank Worrell, but it was Sobers, by that time, who held the record of all records: the highest single innings in a Test match, the 365 not out he had made against Pakistan in 1958. It was the stuff of schoolboy dreams, and Sobers was the object of schoolboy worship.

It went without saying that you wanted England to win and that to achieve it they had to get Sobers, yet whenever he was out you died a little inside. If that was all there had been to the man, that and the fact that he made it all look so ridiculously simple, it would have been enough. But this man bowled as well, and by then he was bowling all sorts: fast medium swing, orthodox left- arm spin, wrist spin. They were all there at his command and all as languid as his batting.

Sobers finished the 1963 rubber with more than 300 runs at 40 and 20 wickets. He was back in 1966, he was 30 that July and he was at the top of his game. If any series could be put forward as an exemplar of what made him the best all-rounder there has ever been, it was that one. "Have we got Sobers out yet?" became less a straightforward question than a plea of desperation.

Nothing like this had been seen in the game before. Test cricket then flew somewhat against the nature of the times. It was the only thing that didn't swing. England and Australia were regularly slugging each other to a standstill in pretty tedious, seemingly endless draws, most of the rest were not as competitive.

Sobers and his boys came to town and it was party time again. This was the essence of his approach to cricket. In any terms he was a great player but it was the way he played which made him so extraordinary. Bradman, The Don, had scored more runs, his feats were never less than Herculean, he won matches on his own, scored freely and frequently to a level never before witnessed. But few who saw him seemed to say how much they were thrilled by him or talk about the level to which their hearts were lifted by his cover drive.

Sobers was never less than compelling. His scores in that series were 161, 46, 163no, 3, 94, 81 and, to end it all, 0. His bowling figures were not quite so spectacular: 0 for 16, 3 for 87, 1 for 89, 0 for 8, 4 for 90, 1 for 71, 5 for 41, 3 for 39 and 3 for 109, but they still added up to a total of 20 wickets at 27.5 each. Oh, and he took 10 catches to boot, and most of them were snorters.

He had a leaner time when he returned here in 1969 but there were to be other great innings, most notably the 274 he made for the Rest of the World against Australia, Dennis Lillee and all in 1971-72. The Don himself paid homage to the great all-rounder. In 1973, when the knees were seriously wonky, he had one last hurrah against England. In the final Test of three he made an unbeaten 150.

Sobers went on to become Sir Garfield and to spend most of his time on the golf course. He does not have much to say about cricket these days. But then he doesn't have to. Career totals of 8,032 Test runs and 235 wickets speak for themselves. When pressed, he will tell you that his best innings, the one he rates at the top of his 26 centuries for West Indies, was at Lord's in his vintage summer. The side were 95 for 5 and seemingly doomed. He and his cousin, David Holford, who was making his debut, put on 274 for the sixth wicket and secured the draw.

But the way he ended the 1966 summer was unforgettable too. He shaped to hook John Snow and succeeded only in chopping the ball into his nether regions from where it rebounded to Brian Close at short leg. Sobers departed the stage and threw back his head laughing. Boy, he was fun.

STEPHEN BRENKLEY

PRETTY POLLY

A classic of high breeding

WHEN I was about nine my grandpa McKee, a Belfast bookmaker, gave me two volumes about the history of the English Turf in the early part of the century. They were the first racing books I owned and, instantly absorbed, I read, re-read, indeed almost learned by heart, the exploits of the giants of the sport: mighty Bayardo, brave Humorist, globetrotting Papyrus, flying Mumtaz Mahal.

It was the horses who were, and still are, the magnet. But one above all of those long-dead champions attracted. A strong-quartered dark chestnut filly stood dutifully to attention looking left, like all the others in the book, as she posed with her jockey, Billy Lane, on her back. But her countenance, as she gazed with kindness and curiosity from the page, ears pricked, seemed to own something extra. And the more I read showed that the white diamond between her eyes was the perfect marking for her. She was a gem.

As a racehorse Pretty Polly, foaled in 1901, set standards for the century that will now not be surpassed. She was the best two-year-old filly of hers or any generation since. Ditto three-year-old filly, and older racemare. And not many would argue with her being broodmare of the century as well.

She was bred in Ireland by Major Eustace Loder at his family's renowned Eyrefield Lodge Stud in Co. Kildare. As a young horse she was physically precocious and, although she inherited her dam's gentle temperament, there was mischief in her too; on one occasion she escaped from her lad and raced twice round a narrow path surrounding a quarry, with a 40ft drop on one side and a high wall on the other, before she consented to be caught.

She was sent to Newmarket to be trained for racing, to Peter Purcell Gilpin at his newly built Clarehaven Stables. In her first race, over five furlongs at Sandown, most people assumed there had been a false start when she was seen romping clear after two furlongs. The judge estimated her winning distance at 10 lengths, but a contemporary photo shows it was more like 20. She went through the season unbeaten and unextended in nine races, including both the Cheveley Park and Middle Park Stakes, two days apart.

The question of whether she would transfer her brilliance to Classic distances as a three-year-old was soon answered. She won the 1,000 Guineas in record time in a canter, strolled home in the Oaks (at 100-8 on, the shortest ever price in a Classic) and thrashed the 2,000 Guineas and Derby winner, St Amant, in the St Leger. At four her victories included the Coronation Cup, Champion Stakes and Jockey Club Cup and at five she won another Coronation Cup.

She had an inseparable companion, a cob called Little Missus, who would accompany her in parade rings and sometimes to the start. After a race Pretty Polly would rush to greet her friend in the winner's circle, with much whinnying and rubbing of noses. She became a heroine of the Edwardian age and would have been a marketing man's dream today; before the St Leger 15,000 postcards bearing her image were sold and people wore ties in the blue-and-yellow Loder colours.

She retired to stud at Eyrefield the winner of 22 of her 24 starts, owing nothing to anyone. But she continued to give as a broodmare, though producing nothing like as good as herself, but it's a rare horse who does. She had nine foals and her direct descendants, for the Loder family and other breeders, include such as St Paddy, Brigadier Gerard, Court Harwell, Great Nephew, Luthier, Northern Taste, Park Appeal, Desirable, Donatello, Psidium, Supreme Court, Sigy, Tenby, Marwell and Marling. And her great- great-great grand-daughter Lady Angela became dam of Nearctic, the sire of Northern Dancer.

Pretty Polly died in August 1931, but through her descendants her name will live on into another century. The brilliance and generosity of the high-class thoroughbred, and the continuity of the breed, is a constant fascination, and Pretty Polly sums it all up.

SUE MONTGOMERY

JIM PETERS

Forerunner of a new world

I ONLY got to see Jim Peters in full flight the once. Despite his 78 years and his failing health, he came running out of his house in Thorpe Bay to return the book I had left with accidental purpose on his dining room table. "No, please keep it," he insisted, when I implored him to accept Lore of Running as a token of gratitude for an afternoon spent reflecting on his running life.

On page 278 of that definitive tome on long-distance running, Tim Noakes, the eminent South African physiologist, describes Peters as "The greatest mara-thon runner ever". Reading the tribute for the first time on that spring afternoon two years ago, the great man had been overwhelmed. "Well, I'll be blowed," he said. "That's lovely." It also happened to be true.

When Jim Peters passed away in January it was perhaps inevitable that the image which accompanied the news was that of him famously failing to reach the finish line in the Empire Games marathon in Vancouver in 1954. But Peters was no failure. Quite the opposite. He was one of the giants of 20th Century sport, the man who transformed marathon running from a plodding battle of endurance into a high-speed race against the clock. He pushed the world record through the 2hr 20min barrier, taking it from 2:26:07 to 2:17:39.

He did so in a pair of Woolworth plimsolls ("Twelve and six, they cost me"), though Peters almost hung up his racing shoes for good after being lapped by Emil Zatopek in the 1948 Olympic 10,000m final. Instead, coaxed by his mentor Herbert "Johnny" Johnston, the Essex Beagle turned to the marathon and pioneered distance running as we have come to know it. While running an optician's practice in Mitcham, he pushed his body through two long training runs every day, clocking up to 130 miles a week.

No British runner had broken 2hr 30min before Peters announced his arrival on the marathon scene by winning the 1951 Polytechnic Harriers race, the London Marathon of its day, in 2hr 29min 24sec. In the three years that followed he won the annual Windsor to Chiswick event in world record times, clocking a best of 2:17:39 in 1954. On each occasion he finished in financial, as well as oxygen, debt. "It cost me 10 shillings to enter," he recalled. "I got nothing for winning."

An autographed photograph of Peters running past the stand on to the Polytechnic Stadium track, en route to his 1954 record, will always remain one of my treasured possessions. I passed precisely the same spot in 1994 in the process of breaking three hours in a marathon for the first time. As a sprinter in my youth, my boyhood hero had always been David Jenkins, and though his subsequent fall may have been a lesson that heroes are not necessarily what they seem, my admiration of Jim Peters will never diminish.

Anyone who has taken up the challenge of the marathon will know what an exceptional man he happened to be. While it is difficult for the recreational runner to measure Maurice Greene's achievement in running 100m in 9.79sec, Michael Johnson's in running 400m in 43.18sec or Haile Gebrselassie's in churning out 25 laps in 63sec, as he did in his world record 10,000m run last year, what Peters achieved almost half a century ago now will be appreciated by the 30,000 souls who fail to match his times in the London Marathon each spring. In my own case, the finishing time I was proud to record in the 1994 Polytechnic Marathon was 38 minutes slower than his world-record run in the same race 40 years earlier.

It was fitting that after Peters' ill-fated Vancouver run in 1954, when he pushed himself too hard for too long in the mid-day sun, remeasurement of the course should discover that he had actually completed the official marathon distance (26 miles 385 yards) before he collapsed. It was fitting too that when he was told he had terminal cancer in 1993 he should battle on for another six years. There were no barriers to the great Jim Peters, no limits. He may have passed beyond the ultimate finish line now, but his inspiration lives on.

SIMON TURNBULL

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