Brian Viner: Owens, the Olympic colossus, outruns all to the summit of sporting greatness

Sport, in its truest form, should be a test of speed, agility, endurance
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The Independent Online

My illustrious colleague James Lawton on Tuesday wrote a characteristically elegant piece in these pages asserting that Tiger Woods is the greatest sportsman of all time. I disagree, although I concede that it's a difficult week to argue against the proposition, with the memory still fresh in the mind of Tiger's almost royal progress round Hoylake, the regality of it punctured only by a lone Scouse voice shouting, "Go on, Woodsy, lad!" I don't suppose he'd ever been called Woodsy before he landed on the Wirral peninsula.

Without doubt, Woods is an amazing piece of work. It is my privilege to have watched both him and the Wimbledon champion Roger Federer at close quarters in the past month, and I can't think of any two sportsmen, certainly none that I have ever seen, who have come nearer to perfection. I don't just mean perfection in the sporting sense, either, but also in the way that they conduct themselves away from the crucible of competition.

To attend a Federer or a Woods press conference is to sit in on a masterclass of charm and humility. At the Open, when an Italian journalist who admitted to not being a golf writer asked Woods a long-winded question about tennis, and finished up by asking him his opinion of Italy, there were barely suppressed sniggers around the room. But in reply Woods was polite, articulate and thoughtful.

He has been known to let loose the odd expletive on the course; indeed, the American networks, terrified that someone might introduce the F-word to an impressionable nation in the same degenerate decade that it glimpsed Janet Jackson's nipple, some time ago felt compelled to introduce a four-second delay whenever Tiger was playing. Similarly, Federer in his younger days was occasionally guilty of streaks of petulance on the court. But that just goes to show that they are not automatons.

Rather, they are human beings blessed with almost unbelievable talent, and for the most part, with impeccable style.

But the greatest sportsman of all time? That's a mighty claim and - though far be it from me to contradict Jim - I would contend that Woods is not yet even the greatest golfer of all time. For my money - a small amount of which went west at Hoylake because I preposterously thought that Thomas Bjorn at 50-1 was a better bet than Tiger at 6-1 - Jack Nicklaus still sits top of the list.

That's partly because Nicklaus won 18 majors and Tiger is still seven behind; partly because Nicklaus was still leaving Young Turks in his wake at the age of 46, when he won his sixth US Masters. It is true that, at 30, Nicklaus had won a mere eight majors, whereas Tiger at 30 has amassed 11. It is also true that Tiger, given continued health and a following wind, will probably, in Jim's evocative word, "engulf" Jack's record. But not yet he hasn't. Moreover, by 1986, the year Nicklaus added that last Green Jacket to his wardrobe, he had played in 100 major championships as a professional and finished in the top three 45 times. Even Tiger should let out a long, low whistle when he considers that remarkable statistic.

But my main bone of contention is that I don't think any golfer should be anointed the greatest sportsman of all time. Golf is a wonderful game, unique in the mental demands it makes of top players, but by no means in the physical challenges it sets them. That's not to say that I'm with those who nod laughingly towards John Daly, Craig Stadler and even Nicklaus in his rotund years and ask how any self-respecting sport can yield to such fatsos.

Because, a few fatties notwithstanding, fitness manifestly helps in golf. Gary Player still does 100 press-ups before, after and, for all I know, during breakfast. And I'm aware from experience that it's hard not to go slightly weak-kneed in the sheer physical presence of Nick Faldo, Greg Norman and, of course, Tiger Woods.

But history's greatest sportsman, I suggest, should be someone who has huffed and puffed his way to the mountain top. Competitive sport, in its truest form, should be a test of speed, strength, reflex, agility, mental fortitude and physical endurance. And I don't think that the greatest sportsman of all the ages should come from a sport prey to the vagaries of the bounce of a ball, which rules out Pele, Don Bradman, Michael Jordan and Bob Latchford. Nor should he come from a sport vulnerable to the whims of a referee, which rules out Muhammad Ali, Rocky Marciano, Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson.

No, I think that the greatest sportsman of all time, not least because he bestrode like a colossus the most primal of all sports, was Jesse Owens. He was, unless there was some Kalahari tribesman who'd never heard of the Olympic Games, the greatest runner and jumper on the planet. And by winning an unprecedented four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, he made a mockery of the sick notion of Aryan supremacy. The world of sport has produced nobody greater. And knowing Tiger Woods, which I don't, I think he might agree.

Who I Like This Week...

Niall Quinn, for his sheer optimism in becoming manager as well as chairman of Sunderland, and for his honesty in admitting that media punditry - at which he is far better than most former footballers - is no substitute for direct involvement in the game. "I could play golf and be on television talking about football until the cows come home but it does nothing for me," he said. "Seeing this club back where it should be ... would eclipse anything I have done in my career." And so it should, for Quinn has taken on an almighty task which will stretch him to the limit, even though there are those in Sunderland who consider him roughly on a par with God in the almighty-task department. I wish him luck.

And Who I Don't

Gary Player, who expressed his sadness at the way his beloved game of golf is going, citing the example of Tiger Woods hitting irons off the tees at Hoylake last weekend. Player (below) wants the balls modified so they don't go as far, and many distinguished golfers agree with him. Player says spectators want to see the leading players gripping and ripping it with their drivers. He might be right. But he's wrong to pick on Woods as an example of golf's decline as a spectacle. The Tiger is one of the most thrilling sights in sport, and it was marvellous to see him subduing a great course by guile rather than power.