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Britain's Greatest Ever Athlete

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    Deanouk
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    Who is the Greatest British athlete ever?

    Having read the recent article in AW (17.11.16) by Mike Dagg-Jenden, ‘Who is the best British athlete of all time’, I feel compelled to question his choice of criteria.

    As a big athletics’ fan and follower of the sport since the late 70’s, I disagree with his assertion that, “Olympic Games titles, then World Championships titles, followed by the season’s rankings are the key factors to consider and then you would look at world records,..”

    This seems to me a strange weighting of the criteria given, and one that many statisticians and athletics’ writers would disagree with. It also appears to be one that has been purposely skewed to put Farah to the top of the pile.

    My understanding is that most experts of the sport believe the pinnacle for any athlete is to become Olympic champion or break the World record in their event. If an athlete manages both, then they are an ‘All Time great’. These are the ONLY 2 criteria that can be used to judge an athlete from any era over the last 100 years.

    Ranking points were only introduced in 1947, thus they are only of relevance for comparing athletes since that point. World Championships were only introduced in 1983, meaning that anyone competing before that time cannot have accrued any medals in that category. Moreover, they were only held every 4 years until 1991, when they then became bi-annual. Thus anyone competing in the last 25 years, e.g. Farah, had twice as many opportunities for acquiring medals.

    The only fair way to compare athletes from different eras is with a level playing field, and that requires using criteria that all had access to. The World Championships, while important to modern era athletes, cannot be used to infer a current athlete’s achievements as superior to those from athletes prior to the 1990’s. As an example, Coe & Thompson had 2 World Championships during their careers, whereas Farah has had 7 opportunities to compete in World Championships during his career.

    While all world records are impressive, the inclusion of Christie into the select group of athletes with Olympic, World, European, Commonwealth titles AND a world record, based on an indoor best time in the 200m, is a tenuous one. Really, it is outdoor world records, more particularly in standard Olympic events that really count. For this reason, until such time as he breaks an outdoor World Record, preferably at an Olympic distance, (even 3000m or 2000m will do), Farah shouldn’t be in the same conversation as Coe, Thompson, Edwards or Gunnell, as Britain’s greatest athlete. All of those have won Olympic titles and broken world records in recognised Olympic events.

    For me, and I know that Mel Watman also stated as such in his book, “All Time Greats of British Athletics”, Coe and Thompson stand alone at the top of that illustrious pile. For they are the only 2 who have successfully retained an Olympic title and broken a world record. The lack of a WR, in a sport that ultimately is judged on time and distance, is a serious omission from Farah’s CV.

    In addition, Coe is the only British athlete in the frame who has set world records in more than one event: 2 Olympic distances, 800 & 1500m, in addition to 1000m and the Mile. At one time he held 4 world records simultaneously. It also mentioned in the article that he broke 1 indoor WR, well it was actually 3: – 800m twice (1:46.00, 1:44.91) and 1000m (2:18.58).

    In terms of World Rankings, yes, they are important, however, there are somewhat subjective, and only recognising the Top No. 1 ranking doesn’t tell the whole story. I have no idea why the author of the article did not use total ranking points for each athlete in consideration, as T&FN awards 10 points for a No. 1 ranking, down to 1 point for a No. 10. Based on this, we find Thompson acquired 71 ranking points during his career in 1 event, Edwards 101 from 1 event and Coe has 136 points from 2 events. Farah currently has 79 points in total from his 2 events, and even if/when this year’s rankings come out, and he is ranked top in both events, that will bring his total to 99; still a long way off Coe’s total.

    Another point which I feel should be pointed out, is that as impressive as Farah’s Olympic double is, it has been done by several other athletes in the past. Moreover, when Viren and Yifter won their doubles, they had to run a heat of the 10000m before the final, Farah just ran a 1 off 10k final.

    In terms of British athletes, those contending for ‘Greatest Ever,’ have to be both Olympic champions and an outdoor World record holder.

    The next group would be those who are World Champions and World record holders, or those who have won World and Olympic titles, but are missing a World record. That would include athletes such as Jackson, Whitbread, Cram, Christie, Rutherford, Ennis – Hill and Farah. The argument for Mo as the best within that group is a good one, based on the sheer number of medals he has won, but he is not in that top group until he breaks a world record outdoors.

    Today’s athletes have more opportunities to win medals than any other group in history. Not only are World Champs held every 2 years, but also the Europeans are now bi-annual. You also have indoor World Champs, something relatively new and not an option for many athletes from former eras.

    In concluding, as great an athlete as Mo Farah is, and he is certainly the most successful British athlete at Championships (of which there are many opportunities) ever, he is not the greatest athlete Britain has ever produced. He needs a couple of world records to be in that conversation.

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