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Unquestionable greatness

World Champion and Great Briton

World Champion and Great Briton

I thought long and hard about whether I could get away with writing a blog about the athletics World Championships, whether I was informed enough. But then that particular concern has never stopped me with tennis. I’ve watched all week a sport which is beset with drug concerns, as the sport I love appears to be lumbering into a doping crisis. Or at least it will be if Francophone media have their way. Not content with having eventually been proven justified in their pursuit of Lance Armstrong, they appear to now want to say that any enforced absence or retirement from tennis is down to doping. Nadal, Serena, Bartoli, Clijsters, Henin. 5 Champions. All having their names dragged through mud. This is the sport that chucked Martina Hingis, a five-time major winner, out on her ear for recreational cocaine use, something the Swiss always denied. But the facts are there for me. Tennis does not do cover-ups.

Anyway, the athletics. That is a sport where you cannot trust much of what you see. You have Russians who arrive at major championships and knock three seconds off their personal bests, in the 1500 metres. You have people like LaShawn Merritt who has served two drug bans in the past winning the 400 metres by a full 10 metres and you’re supposed to admire that. No, you can’t. You watch it and you suspect immediately. Shelley-Ann Fraser=Pryce has served a suspension in the past too. How many of the host nation’s athletes have served suspensions in the past five years? How many deserving athletes have been denied their moments on the podium due to cheats initially prospering at their expense. A sport which is currently having to do without Tyson Gay, Asafa Powell, Veronica Campbell-Brown, Kelly-Ann Baptiste and Sherone Simpson. All established stars that fell afoul of regulations for an assortment of reason, none of which are acceptable for top sport stars. I’m just glad that I can watch the sport that I love and not see it through those suspecting eyes, no matter what L’Equipe or the Belgian gutter press say.

What I initially wanted to write about before I got so rudely interrupted by those libellous stories was how we measure greatness in sport. Christine Ohuruogu became World Champion for the second time this week, a full six years after her maiden victory. She followed up her first World title by winning the Olympic title 12 months later, but it has taken her five long years to get back on top of the podium. Yet we didn’t proclaim her a great athlete in 2008, no we waited until this week’s triumph ended her barren spell a couple of Relay gold medals and another Olympic medal, this time silver!). Usain Bolt is on for yet another clean sweep and now there is little doubt that he is the greatest short sprinter that ever competed. It’s because he is going out there and doing it time and time again. Mo Farah was not content with winning the 5000m and 10,000m double in just the Olympics, but has gone and repeated it in Moscow. By doing that, he inches closer to the real greats like Kenenisa Bekele and Haile Gebreselassie. Only by sticking around in a sport do you achieve greatness. By consistently being close to, if not on, the top of a sport for a sustained period of time.

You can have barren spells, injuries, times when a flash in the pan comes along and beats you to medals. But if you stick at what you do best and you look to continually improve, you’ll be back on top more times than you’re not. That’s why Sir Alex Ferguson was the don of British football. Arsene Wenger may have outwitted him on occasions, Mourinho may have trumped him a couple of times but Ferguson was the best for 20 years at United. That’s what made Michael Johnson the greatest athlete of all time, he was at the very top of his sport for nine years. And he doubled up in that time. That’s what makes Roger Federer the greatest tennis player of all time for me. That consecutive grand slam quarter-final record, the amount of time he’s spent in the Top 5. The way others have had to raise their games to challenge these legends of their sport. By being good, you can win. But by having longevity, you can achieve greatness. Whilst it would be a little exuberant to suggest Christine Ohuruogu is one of the greatest athletes in the world, her victory in Russia this week makes her, for me, one of Britain’s greatest ever. It puts her above the likes of Kelly Holmes and Linford Christie.

Welcome to Club Longevity Christine, you’re a fully paid-up and deserving member.

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The Greatest Year: most competitive SPOTY in history

The prize

Next weekend sees the climax of the British sporting year, as the best of the best compete to be crowned the BBC Sports Personality of the Year. It’s always hard to predict, and later even harder to justify, how the public vote but I wanted to pay my own personal tribute to the 12 on the list and offer some words of recognition to a few who amazingly missed out on the shortlist when any other year they would have probably been crowned the winner.

Nicola Adams created Olympic history by becoming the first ever woman to claim a gold medal in the Olympic boxing ring and what an amiable character she appears to be. Always smiling and joking out of the ring, her persona obviously changes when she steps inside it. If women’s boxing needed a poster girl, this Leeds lass ticks all the required boxes. She will inspire many other girls to put on a pair of gloves, but I would think that the sport does not yet possess the wider appeal to make her a candidate for this award.

Ben Ainslie has been at the very top of his sport for twelve years. He has delivered gold medals in every Olympic Games there has been in the 21st Century. No mean achievement, he is out there on the water on his own and every time has found the inner strength to find a way to beat his opponents. His mean streak came to the fore going into the last day of his race this year after his opponents had made him angry. Big mistake. There’s certainly a case to describe Ainslie as Britian’s greatest ever Olympian but, as with Adams, his sport is not mainstream enough even in an Olympic year to win a public vote.

Jessica Ennis is the darling of British athletics. She’s the girl with the pretty face and adorable personality who just happens to possess tons of Sheffield steel in her track-and-field persona, which meant that she was always likely to succeed in 2012. Doubtless she would have won Gold in Beijing four years earlier but for a cruel injury. But the expectations were massive on Ennis’ shoulders; more pressure was put on her than any other British athlete in the London Games. She triumphed and we all shared in her success. She has an outside chance of winning this award but there are greater champions this year.

Mo Farah became the first British athlete to win the 5,000m-10,000m Olympic double, in the same year that he became the first man in history to defend a European 5,000 metres crown. All this whilst his heavily-pregnant-with-twins wife watched on nervously. The Somalian-born immigrant made the Olympic stadium his own by winning Gold medals on consecutive Saturday nights and is a triumph for multi-cultural Britain. For these reasons, I think he will come out on top of the public vote. The personal sacrifices he has made with his career are all worth it now as he stands as one of the finest athletes in the world today.

Katherine Grainger. Pleased with rowing silver in Sydney. Less so with silver in Athens. Absolutely crestfallen with silver in Beijing, after which she considered giving up for good. Then along came Anna Watkins to create a perfect pairing ahead of the London Games. They went out hard, they went out strong and won by an absolutely huge distance. The tears were real alright, personal redemption. A message to all kids worldwide not to give up on your dream. It ranks as great an achievement as there has been in British rowing history and for a nation which produced Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent, that is praise indeed. She has a shot at a top 3 placing here but produced my personal moment of the Games, one which will always ranks as one of my favourite sporting moments.

Sir Chris Hoy is like Fedex when it comes to the Greatest Show on Earth; he always delivers. He secured two more Olympic titles this summer to reach six in total. And yet, he is not expected to feature amongst the top 3 next week. Why? Simply put, he is a victim of his own successes and expectations in the eyes of the public. We expect him to deliver and he does so, so we almost think it’s too easy. It is far from so. But he has won this award in the past and does not need it to add anything to his career. His perfect swansong will hopefully come in his home Commonwealth Games in 2014.

Rory McIlroy has had another superb year in his sport and is worthy of his spot on the shortlist, the only competitor who didn’t step foot in London this summer. He added another major to his maiden one from last year and has had spells as the world number one. At his age, he could well go on to dominate the sport and win close to ten majors. There I will stop, as I haven’t got a clue about golf!

Andy Murray would be a shoe-in for this award in any other year. He ended Britain’s 76-year wait for a Grand Slam champion, to add to the Olympic Gold and Silver medals he won five weeks earlier. In doing so, he defeated two of the greatest players to have ever played tennis in the finals. His will-to-win has shone through this year, but his lack of popularity when compared to the others on the shortlist will still count against him. Top 3 is an outside bet.

Ellie Simmonds is still a teenager and has four Paralympic swimming titles to her CV. Not bad, not bad at all. She is probably the face of the British Paralympic team and delivered again, just as she did in Beijing as a 14-year-old. Her two gold medals this summer were accompanied by a silver and a bronze, meaning she will have to pay hefty luggage fees if she plans on travelling with budget airlines anytime in the future.

Sarah Storey now has 22 Paralympic medals across two sports, swimming and cycling. An incredible achievement. Four Gold medals this summer puts her at the very top of the deserving list. She has 11 Gold medals in her Paralympic career and the recognition that being on this shortlist brings will possibly mean just as much to her as any of those individual titles. In my reckoning, she would be top three but I think she may fall short. For me, her career matches anything anybody else has ever achieved in sport.

David Weir added four Paralympic titles to the sixth London marathon he won earlier this year and received as much fervent home support as any British sport star. The Weirwolf masks went down a storm and, along with the successes of stars like Storey and Simmonds, Weir’s achievement helped the Paralympics reach almost- parity with the Olympics in terms of media exposure and recognition. This is the greatest success for those three this year. Simmonds has the best chance of getting on the SPOTY podium but, whatever happens, there are three Paralympians on the shortlist, unimaginable in the past.

Bradley Wiggins is the apparent no-brainer for victory in this contest. He was the first British man to win the Tour de France and followed it up with yet another Olympic Gold medal a few weeks later. Sporting immortality. His feet appear firmly on the pedals as he refuses to let celebrity take over his life. However, I think his dour personality may just count against him in this award, and maybe the public won’t want to see another cycling champion after Mark Cavendish in 2011.

So, if I am to predict the public vote I will go for Mo Farah-Bradley Wiggins-Ellie Simmonds. If I was to be given the sole responsibility of choosing the victor, I would go for Katherine Grainger-Mo Farah-Sarah Storey as my preferred trio. But I suppose every sport fan in Britain would choose a different three. What is for sure is that no other British sporting year has ever come close to matching this one. There are Olympic champions galore who have missed out on even being nominated. Every single name is deserving of being on the list. Spare a thought for the likes of Jade Jones (Britain’s first ever Olympic Taekwondo champion) , Victoria Pendleton who ended her stunning career with another Gold and silver medal to add to her haul, and double Olympic champion Laura Trott who claimed Gold in the most difficult cycling event, the Omnium. As well as those ladies, spare a thought for all of the athletes who gave their very best and achieved to the best of their ability this year. What is for certain is that all of these athletes put the Great in Great Britain and Northern Ireland this year. Let’s all celebrate them next Sunday and relive those great memories from Great Britain’s greatest sporting year one last time before it comes to an end.

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