‘Enery & Seve – Sporting Legends…

10 05 2011

Muhammad Ali, Pele, Garfield Sobers, Jack Nicklaus, Gareth Edwards, Olga Korbut, Bjorn Borg, Red Rum…

What do they all have in common?

They are all sporting legends from my lifetime. I could, of course, go on adding to the list.

Those  named above have, I think, deservedly and undisputably acquired legendary status. But as with the terms ‘world class’ and ‘superstar’  the ‘sporting legend’ tag is now too readily banded about.

So what constitutes a sporting legend?

SportsCliche.com suggests, “A legendary player will usually have a career of above average length with some significant accomplishments in the form of individual statistics….performing well over an extended period is usually enough to earn the ‘legendary’ tag.”  

That’s not a definition that sits too easily with me. Surely true sporting legends have that x-factor which sets them apart. It’s not just a case of high achievement or longevity is it?

There are those that I would class as sporting legends who were not necessarily the best of their generation and some that had relatively short careers but somehow captured the public imagination with one or two unforgettable performances.     

I’m not altogether sure what the magic ingredient is but in part it involves the individual’s ability to transcend their sport and enter the consciousness of those who would not normally consider themselves sports fans.

Yes, much of it has to do with top drawer performances, but it is also wrapped up with  personality traits as diverse as dogged determination, flamboyance and old-fashioned sportsmanship, and frequently involves a certain indefinable charismatic quality that draws the casual observer in.

Anyhow, two sporting legends sadly passed away last week and, who between them, serve to prove the point I’ve just tried, but probably failed miserably to make.

Sir Henry Cooper (03.05.34 – 01.05.11) was a south London heavyweight boxer. Steve Bunce in the Saturday edition of ‘i’ begins his obituary with the line, “Our ‘Enery was like the Queen Mother of sport,” which sums him up brilliantly. There is no doubt Henry did, also, readily fell into that other over used pigeon hole, ‘national treasure’.

He was a good heavyweight boxer, but not great. His sporting fame, in many ways, is down to glorious bloody defeat against ‘the greatest’ of them all, Cassius Clay (as was) later to become Muhammad Ali, and one moment in the fourth round of their 1963 World title bout that will always remain in the mind’s eye of those who saw it (or the subsequent black and white press photos) – a short, sharp, left hook that momentarily sat his opponent on the canvas, something that nobody else on the planet ever achieved!

It was all over in the fifth, when the fight was stopped with blood pouring from the cuts around Cooper’s eyes. A 1966 rematch between the two ended in similar fashion and in 1971 Henry’s career was over when he controversially lost his British and Commonwealth titles, on points, to the young up and coming Joe Bugner.     

Following retirement, Henry’s popularity and legendary status grew, as he became known to many who had never really followed his boxing career, through the “Splash it all over” Brut advertisements and as a genial team captain (1970-77) in a new TV quiz show, A Question of Sport !      

Severiano Ballesteros (09.04.57- 07.05.11) the Spanish golfer, known universally as ‘Seve’ even to those who do not know one end of a golf club from another, died on Saturday, at the tragically early age of 54, following a  brave fight against cancer.

It surely goes without saying that if a sportsperson is instantly recognisable from a single shortened version of their first name or a nick name (similarly ‘Tiger’) then they must be guaranteed automatic legendary, nay iconic, status!

Golf is a sport I have never played, or had any great interest in, and very rarely watch it on TV, with the exception of the Ryder Cup which always manages to conjure up sporting drama of the highest order.  

Seve was a charismatic, cavalier figure who played his sport with passion, flair and without fear. He was undoubtedly a true sporting superstar.      

His reputation as great entertainer was born in the 1979 Open, at Royal Lytham, where he estaablished himself in golfing folklore with a miraculous shot from the car park, to birdie the 16th hole, enroute to winning his first major. It was this type of erratic, unpredictably which made his play equally compelling for both the golf enthusiast and the casual observer, such as myself.  

He went on to win a further four major championships in the ’70s and ’80s and helped the European team to five Ryder Cup wins as a player and then captain.     

Sports Writer of the Year, James Lawton’s thought provoking article in Saturday’s ‘i’, “Why don’t the stars of today burn as brightly as Seve did?” suggests that the kind of emotional force that he generated, which transcended the parameters of the golfing fairways, is not so readily achieved in today’s age of massive sports celebrity and over inflated material rewards.

Seve simply sought to beat the world, on his own unique terms, and in so doing touched a chord with even the most sporting illiterate.

Could that be, in essence, the x-factor which ultimately determines whether a player is worthy of being heralded a sporting legend?        






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