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Mirror, mirror on the wall. Who is the greatest of them all ?

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By Muyiwa Adetiba

I sat up until 2am last Monday to watch Tiger Woods make history in Japan. He did it by winning his 82nd PGA title. In doing so, he tied the 53 year old record of Sam Snead, one of the legends of the golfing world. He did it ten years younger. Sam made the record at 53. Tiger is 43. He did it after multiple injuries and a personal misadventure which laid him off golf for at least five years. He did it in grand style with a three stroke lead over Matsuyama, the Japanese runner-up who was desperately trying to win the debut tournament at his home base.

A few hours earlier, a certain Roger Federer had won his tenth Swiss Indoors ATP 500 title held in Basel Switzerland, his country. De Minaur, the man he beat, was a mere toddler when Federer won his first ever ATP title almost 20 years ago. At 38, Federer is still the man to beat in tennis. Just as Woods is the main man in golf. Both have shattered records people in their sports had considered unchallengeable. But neither of them has won it all. Both still have at least one main challenge to keep them going and keep them motivated should they want. Tiger has Jack Nicklaus feat of 18 golf majors to beat. He has 15. Federer has Jimmy Connors feat of the number of ATP titles to beat. He is currently six titles short. He has 103 while Connors has 109 titles. But both have transcended their respective sports in ways very few people have done and have become worthy ambassadors for sports in general.Are they the greatest of all time in their respective fields? The jury is out on that. Many would pick Jack Nicklaus over Tiger Woods even when it is acknowledged that Tiger is playing in a much deeper field. Quite a few would also make the case for Rafael Nadal who, at a much younger age, has just one less Grand Slam than Federer in addition to having more Masters Titles. And if these two can be considered the greatest of all time in their respective fields by pundits, can they also be considered to be in that small, extremely rarefied field of the greatest of all time (GOAT) in all sports?

A week earlier, Chuka Momah had, by sheer coincidence, sent me an intriguing article that listed eight of the people considered by a sports writer to be the greatest sportsmen of all time. The article gave a brief citation on each of the sportsmen mentioned. The citations were intimidating. Starting from number 8, the names on the list were (8) Tiger Woods. (7) Michael Schumacher, the Formula 1 racing legend whose incredible record is being chased by Lewis Hamilton. (6) Sachin Tendulkar, the world’s gift to cricket who has been described by even his peers as technically flawless and revered by many as a cricket god. (5) Roger Federer. (4) Michael Phelps, the swimmer whose Olympics record will take some beating. He is aptly described as the flying fish. (3) Hussein Bolt, the flamboyant sprinter who is regarded as the fastest man on earth. A man who lives up to his name of Bolt. (2) Pele. The only man to have led his country to three World Cups. The only man to have scored over a thousand registered goals. The only man to have been declared a national treasure by his country. The man who has once been declared the footballer of the century and second to Mohammed Ali as the sportsman of the century. (1) In this pride of place of number one according to the article, was Mohammed Ali, the man who has once been declared the sportsman of the century.The man who made boxing famous. Ali’s talents and prowess extend beyond boxing however. His politics, intellect and courage will forever make him a pride to the black race. All these people have been named ‘Sportsman of the year’ at least once. Two have had the coveted title four times each.

I don’t take anything sent by Chuka lightly when it comes to sports. He is as passionate as he is knowledgeable about sports. To his credit, he is one of the few Africans to have been on the Olympics board. He is perhaps the only African to be honoured by the International Tennis Federation, ITF. He is also one of the pioneers of commercial sports broadcast in Nigeria. Still, I had to respond to the list. I told him I had reservations about the order and the omission of one or two names like Michael Jordan who raised basketball to another level. I then said that we needed to know the criteria used in the selection. He agreed but suggested we set up our own criteria and assess these great athletes in that light. He also wanted a certain Dele Adetiba brought into the picture. Dele Adetiba has been a sports enthusiast all his life and was the face of sports broadcast in the early 60s and 70s. I learnt a lot about sports, especially about the heroes past and boxing, from him. Now, well into his 70s, he still plays tennis frequently.

We met over lunch at, where else but the tennis section of the Lagos Country Club where Chuka had held sway as Chairman and perhaps still holds sway as an elder. The lunch was amala with fish, wine and beer. The conversations were as varied as they were interesting. We traversed the world of various sports like good wine tasters and socials like old friends. The hours flew and soon, it was time to go with little of what necessitated the lunch achieved.Part of the reason was that we all had our preferences and knew enough to back up our claims. But the more plausible reason was that we simply enjoyed the afternoon and the company it provided. Put in another way, the occasion ‘of simply being’ became bigger than the raisond’etre. We however agreed that those in team sports like football, cricket and basketball should not be included no matter how influential they might be in those teams. More importantly, we also agreed to do it again; the lunch I mean. Maybe this time, we will get around to addressing the issue that necessitated the lunch in the first place. But I wouldn’t count on it.


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