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What is sporting greatness?

Published:Tuesday | June 16, 2015 | 6:00 AMOral Tracey, Contributor

The concise Oxford Dictionary defines greatness as having the size, amount, extent or intensity considerably above the normal or average. A search of Google spewed up the Wikepedia definition of greatness as a concept of a state of superiority affecting a person or object.

It is clear from these academic definitions of greatness that subjectivity and relativity are integral to the determination of greatness, certainly in terms of sporting greatness. If these definitions are to be taken literally, then every other person is great.

A man who runs 10.5 seconds for the 100 metres would be classified as great relative to the man who runs 13 seconds flat, because by the definitions, the 10.5 sprinter is considerably above and superior to the 13-seconds flat sprinter.

Likewise, in cricket, if a batsman makes 25 runs, and another batsman makes 50 runs, the one who scored 50 is great, relative to the one who made 25 runs.


varying degrees

This is the premise that feeds much of the ridiculousness that dominates much of the sports debates relating to sporting greatness. By strict interpretation of these definitions, almost every human being is great, since he or she is superior to or has something above some other human being somewhere.

The reality of the varying degrees of greatness also fundamentally muddies the water with the parameters of precise distinction being unclear, which in essence lowers the bar for greatness. The adornment of true sporting greatness ought to be reserved for the ultra-elite performers and champions of sport. The notion of a list of 250 or 300 all-time greatest footballers is ridiculous. Likewise, a list of 150 all time greatest batsmen or bowlers in cricket. That spread is just too wide and effectively devalues the status of true greatness.

Greatness must be a hard-earned accolade and highly valued status not to be lightly foisted onto every Tom Dick and Harry at someone's abstract whim and fancy. A list of not more than 10 top performers per sport seems quite appropriate for the status of great.

Tough break for the very good performers who would have effectively fallen short of true greatness, but the standard has to be maintained.

Another contentious aspect of this revolving greatness debate is the criteria for greatness. One popular line of argument is that production as manifested in individual statistics is "the be all and end all" of sporting greatness, implying that context, conditions, and relativity, and other intangibles should not matter. This theory stretches to the spurious conclusion that the winning of titles and trophies should not factor in the assessment of the greatness of individual players in a team sport. Numbers are good enough for greatness, nothing else matters. So they say.

In evaluating sporting greatness, though, a multiplicity of factors must be considered. The greatness package must consist of all contributory factors inclusive of individual numbers, titles and trophies won, consistency, impact of performances, context of performances, entertainment value, relative quality of opposition, results, etc.

At the end of that thorough process, the best of the best can then be heralded as truly great. The others will simply have to 'wheel and come again!'.