The dictionary defines “hero” as “a person of distinguished courage or ability admired for brave deeds and noble qualities.” Fair enough. But how is greatness determined in the sporting context, asks Bill Lothian
ONe way, surely, to achieve such an accolade would be to achieve something unique or which has not occurred for a long time.
And it can also be recognised in someone who has shown a persistence and a refusal to be beaten until their goal is attained.
Into the latter category, surely, comes Katherine Grainger the oarswoman who, after silver medals at three successive Olympic Games, broke through and won gold at London 2012.
Among the former I’d place Ken Buchanan, Allan Wells, Sir Jackie Stewart, Stephen Hendry and, of course, Sir Chris Hoy.
What they all have in common is that they are Scots but, in the pantheon of our nation’s all-time sporting greats, there is undoubtedly a case for the new US Open men’s singles champion Andy Murray – and maybe even as the rank of greatest of all.
Why? One factor that has to be taken into account is the sheer size and popularity of the sport that has to be transcended.
In the case of tennis it is played by millions worldwide both professionally and recreationally, which adds enormously to the profile and competitiveness. It is also a ferociously physical sport at the highest level and in the case of Murray, he has found himself chasing titles in a golden era dominated by Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
Here it is worth pausing to point out that to win his first slam, each of that trio defeated a player who hadn’t previously reached that pinnacle.
Further perspective can be drawn from the fact that the legendary Bjorn Borg never won a US Open, while so many up-and-comings fall by the wayside.
Example: only the true tennis aficionados will relate to Ukraine’s Sergiy Stakhovsky. Sergiy who? Well, he’s the lad who Andy Murray defeated in straight sets to win the US Open junior title in 2004.
In the immediate aftermath of Murray’s victory over six times grand slam winner Djokovic I wrote that finding a way to win had long been Murray’s trademark and if sometimes the toys weren’t exactly thrown out of the pram, then a few were certainly hanging over the edge.
Actually it’s more than that; after four final defeats he found a way to win a slam as well. That journey had seen him, early on, place a premium on acquiring the appropriate physique and latterly take on board the services of as shrewd a coach as exists in Ivan Lendl to introduce a mental cutting edge for getting over that finishing line when it truly matters, which is the hardest thing to do – as any sportsman at any level will testify.
What must be acknowledged is how this debate can militate against team sport players whose exploits can be much harder to quantify.
Jim Baxter or Kenny Dalglish or Gordon Smith, with his three Scottish league championship medals with three separate clubs. Might they be contenders?
In the case of Smith, many will tell you the legend that is Sir Stanley Matthews would not have been so pronounced had Scotland’s own wing wizard been born south of the Border and more caps would have accrued had his career embraced the Old Firm rather than Hibs, Hearts and Dundee. But how much of these team players’ successes was entirely down to individual abilities and how much was due to the support of colleagues on the pitch?
Impossible to quantify and it’s the same with rugby which produced Finlay Calder, captain of the winning British and Irish Lions in Australia in 1989, Andy Irvine who remains the Lions’ all-time top points scorer from a remarkable three tours and Gavin Hastings, a leader of immense charisma and awesome abilities.
No, the accolade of Scotland’s greatest-ever sportsman must come from the ranks of those who have made their mark – or are making their mark – in an individual sport if only because success is easier to quantify. In nominating Murray as the greatest ever Scottish sportsman I am convinced that, having broken, through there is so much more to come because it does not appear in his nature to sit back on any laurels.
Here I recall the immortal words of the late Scotland football manager Ally MacLeod who, when asked what he would do if ever he succeeded in guiding the team to the World Cup replied with a stunning yet appealing remark: “Defend it!”
The facts on Andy Murray
May 15, 1987: born to parents Judy and Willie with an older brother, Jamie.
APRIL 1994: wins his first match in a tournament aged six by beating an Aberdonian opponent at the Waverley Junior Open in Edinburgh.
1996: was present during the Dunblane school
atrocity when Thomas Hamilton killed 17 people. Murray took cover in a classroom.
1999: Wins British junior under-12 title and junior
Orange Bowl title in Florida.
2000: Wins British junior under-14 title.
2002: Moves to the Sanchez/Casals tennis academy in Barcelona after turning down the chance to pursue a football career with Rangers.
2004: Wins the US Junior title; first Futures tour title in Xativa, Spain as well as BBC Young sports personality of the year award.
2005: Becomes the youngest Briton to play Davis Cup at 17 when facing Israel in Tel Aviv, beating the previous record by 18-year-old Roger Becker in 1952.
Defeats 14th seed Radek Stepanek in straight sets to become first male Scottish player to reach the third round at Wimbledon.
FEB 2006: Wins first ATP tour title in San Jose, beating Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt along the way. Becomes British No 1.
2008: Beats Rafa Nadal to reach his first slam final – the US Open – where he loses to Roger Federer.
2009: Becomes first British player since 1938 to win Queen’s Club title, beating James Blake in the final.
2010: Loses to Federer in US Open final.
2011: Straight sets defeat by Djokovic in Australian Open final.
2012: Reaches Wimbledon final where, although beaten by Federer, wins a set for the first time. Wins Olympic singles title beating Djokovic and Federer in successive rounds while finishing runner up in the mixed event with Laura Robson.
Beats Novak Djokovic in US Open.
Bill Lothian’s shortlist for top of the sporting Scots
The first British boxer to win the world lightweight title since 1917, Edinburgh’s Buchanan did it the hard way by triumphing in an American ring. In 1970, he was voted America’s boxer of the year and, to put that into perspective, a certain Muhammad Ali was also on the scene. He lost his
world title to Roberto Duran on a low
blow and it can be taken as a sign of Buchanan’s majesty that the Panamanian successfully ducked out of any
Quite how 37-year-old Grainger, who represents Edinburgh’s St Andrews Rowing Club, found the desire and tenacity to come back for more after successive Olympic silver medals in 2000, 2004 and 2008 is one of the great tales to emerge from London 2012 where she finally took gold partnering Anna Watkins. As well as talent, Katherine has proved to have a resilience of which even Robert the Bruce would have envied.
You can argue the merits of a sport like snooker where, until the smoking ban, it was possible to have a fag and a pint between shots, but what can’t ever be denied is the lad from Queensferry’s utter dominance at one time. A world champion seven times and the youngest-ever winner of that accolade, Hendry was also world No. 1 for eight consecutive years. A misspent youth? I think not.
SIR CHRIS HOY
Deserves to be up there on grounds alone that he makes keeping feet on the ground look easy despite being Britain’s greatest ever Olympian in medal terms. The Edinburgh cyclist has six golds and one silver. Oh, yes there is also the small matter of being an 11-time world champion with a finely-tuned sense of humour. Once said when asked what Chris Hoy thought of Chris Hoy: “Chris Hoy thinks that the day Chris Hoy refers to Chris Hoy in the third person is
the day that Chris Hoy disappears up his own a***!”
SIR JACKIE STEWART
A WORLD motor racing champion in 1969, 1971 and 1973, Sir Jackie also posted a remarkable 27 wins from 99 starts. Shrugged aside learning difficulties linked to undiagnosed dyslexia to become a successful businessman and inspirational public speaker. No mention would be complete without reference to his committed work in improving safety records, but his indefatigable refusal to tarnish a legend by resisting attempts to lure him out of retirement was pretty good also.
The Liberton lad transformed himself from a long jumper to become 1980 Olympic 100 metres champion. Although these Games coincided with a US boycott, within a fortnight, Wells had proved his credentials by taking on – and beating – such luminaries as Carl Lewis, Mel Lattany, Stanley Floyd and Harvey Glance. He then went back to work in a university laboratory. Never had the recognition his awesome achievement of following in the spikes of other Olympic sprint champions such as Jesse Owens truly deserved. His middle name of “Wipper” is interesting, too!
• Who do you think is Scotland’s greatest sportsman and has Andy Murray’s US Open victory changed your view?
Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.