An all-time top ten — almost impossible to choose

Sitting in an Irish pub late on a Saturday evening in New York in the fall of 1984, a few sports journalists in conversation found themselves suddenly switching from Hollywood blockbusters to sports – which most sports journalists don’t when not at work. The culprit was a senior photographer called Richard who suddenly reeled off ten names and told us that they were the ten greatest sportspersons of all time.

As all of us were professional sports journalists, and Richards’s attempt to steer the conversation to an endlessly debatable question may have sounded school-boyish; but after our tongues were loosened up by the golden beverage, some of the best long-time professionals in the business suddenly seemed passionately enthusiastic — even more so than children in a primary school.

I put on my best smile and tried to impress on them that at least one Indian athlete must be good enough to make the list.

It was a happy coincidence that the only American was Jim and the rest of us agreed that we would come up with a Top Ten list choosing from six categories: boxing, football, tennis, Formula One, cricket and the Olympics.

And what you are going to read is purely subjective. It is a tricky business too, for the writer can be accused of committing blasphemy if people find that their favourite athletes are not on the list.

But when you restrict the scope to five sports and the Olympics, the exercise becomes slightly easier.

I have kept updating my list from an Indian perspective approximately every five years and what you find below is the latest one, thanks to a new entry – Usain Bolt.

Muhammad Ali: Ask most knowledgeable people in the business of sport who the greatest athlete of all time is, and they might think you have just landed from Mars. Muhammad Ali was not just the The Greatest in his own words. Anyone who follows sport thought so too. The great man hated to spend time in the gym. But he knew what was good for him.

“I hated every minute of my training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion,”’ said Ali. What a tragic irony it is that the most part of the “rest of the life’’ was spent battling Parkinson’s.

Don Bradman: He was twice as good as any batsman of his time and this is almost true of all time too. Only a last innings duck saw him average less than 100 (99.94). Wisden celebrated him as “the greatest phenomenon in the history of cricket, indeed in the history of all games.”

Roger Federer: Classical music critics and art critics might even believe that it is ridiculous to include the Swiss maestro in a sports list. For, isn’t Federer loved for composing rather than merely playing tennis and holding a record 17 Majors?

Nobody in the history of tennis ever played like Federer: his effortless mastery of his craft saw him match a ballet dancer-genius’s graceful, innovative, and passionate performance – it was all pure melody.

Michael Jordan: Most basketball fanatics believe that Jordan is the greatest player of all time. A few fans of LeBron James might disagree; but then we live in a world where a lot of people believe that it is flat and that god created all living beings about 6000 years ago! “There is Michael Jordan and there is the rest of us,” said Magic Johnson, himself an all-time great.

Garry Sobers: Arguably the most versatile and the best all-round cricketer of all time, Sobers was a pure one-off. “Sir Garfield Sobers is the best cricketer I have ever seen,” wrote Ian Chappell on ESPNCricinfo. “And if you are not convinced, then accept the opinion of the next best all-rounder, Keith Miller, who once declared: ‘Best batsman of all time – Bradman. Best cricketer of all time – Garry Sobers.”’

Michael Schumacher: What a random cruelty of fate it is that the most successful Formula One driver of all time should have almost lost his life in a seemingly innocuous skiing accident! Michael’s speed, energy, drive and talent were unmatchable.

Michael Phelps: What a phenomenon! Twenty-eight Olympic medals, 23 of them gold, when added to 39 world records give you a swimmer whose achievements may never be surpassed.

Pele: The Maradonas have come and gone. The Messis and the Ronaldos are still around but you can bet your bottom dollar that nobody will match the great Brazilian, winner of two World Cups, and the scorer of incredible goals in the World Cup at age 17.

Sachin Tendulkar: Unless you have just arrived from Jupiter, I don’t think I need to impress upon you the status this man enjoys in the second most populous nation on earth. Maybe the Jupiter-man will want to take him away to show earth’s sporting potential to his mates!

Usain Bolt: “There is something in the Olympics, indefinable, springing from the soul, that must be preserved,” said the athlete Chris Brasher in 1968. Through three Olympics, Bolt, in his customary fashion, brought us closer to the soul of the Olympics better than most others.

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2022 11:43:14 PM |

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