The Daily Telegraph has tried to answer that question. It has enlisted the help of eminently qualified judges of these things and asked its readers to vote. Unlike a host of a television talent show, I will put you out of your misery straight away. The winner, apparently by a large margin, was Andy Murray.
As it happens, I have no quarrel with that result. Mr Murray is a supreme athlete. No one could seriously dispute his claim to be the best ever British tennis player. Fred Perry was very good in his day, but he was playing at a time when changing ends was treated as a time for the players to have a cigarette and a chat with each other. The pace of the game was nothing like it is now. Balls were gently lobbed over the net. Astounding physical fitness was certainly not a requirement. That has all changed. Murray, and the other top hundred or so tennis players, are extraordinarily fit. They undertake some of the most demanding training of any sportsmen or women. The game is now incredibly fast. Players are expected to be on top form in games which last for many hours at a time. And exceptional intelligence in planning and executing play is essential.
I have a very good friend who, so besotted is he by association football, assures me that any premier league football player would, if he took up tennis, easily beat Andy Murray. That, as I have dared to tell my friend to his face, is total nonsense. But, of course, it goes quite a way to explaining why there will be howls of protest at Murray’s coronation as our greatest ever sportsperson. Football fans will say it should have been a footballer. Snooker fans will say it should have been a snooker player. Those sad people who are gripped by darts on the telly will assure us it should have been a darts player. And so it continues with swimming, rowing, running, cricket, rugger, motor car racing, riding, bicycling, croquet, golf etc. etc.
I’d better give you the top ten (the full hundred are available on the Telegraph’s website but I don’t think you can look at them unless you have paid them £1 a week). Here we go.
10. Sir Chris Hoy
9. Sir Bradley Wiggins
8. George Best
7. Sir Tony McCoy
6. Sir Steve Redgrave
5. Mo Farah
4. Sir Ian Botham
3. Daley Thompson
2. Sir Bobby Charlton
1. Andy Murray
That list raises the second possible objection to the Telegraph’s brave attempt to choose our best ever sportsperson. With the exception of George Best and Bobby Charlton (both men who continue to be well known) everyone in the top ten is a current or very recent sportsman. The great names of the past, though many of them feature in the top hundred, are notable for their absence from the top ten. That, of course, is partly due to the fact that many of the voters will, on the whole, have been totally ignorant of any sportsperson who achieved fame more than about ten years ago. But there is another problem for the great players of the past. Often, they achieved the almost unthinkable which has now become the norm. Bannister, for instance, ran a mile in under four minutes when it was thought doing so would lead to a heart attack and death. But modern runners clock in at under four minutes daily. To revert to Perry, he won endless grand slam titles, but we know he would probably not even have qualified for Wimbledon if he was playing today, unless he radically changed his training programme.
How can we fairly judge between the sporting achievements of men and women who were at the top of their sports a hundred years ago and those who are now at the top? The answer, of course, is that the task is impossible. Even so, in my typically controversial way, I will declare that I think the result of the Telegraph’s poll is correct Andy Murray is our best ever sportsperson.