19 Jul

The Greatest Ever?


With all the debate around the world's greatest ever sportsperson following Roger Federer's latest record-breaking triumph, Chris Broadbent ponders who is the greatest runner ever.

The hysteria around Roger Federer’s recent Wimbledon male singles win was understandable and – probably – justified too. In winning one of sport’s most prestigious titles a record eight times and at the age of 35, it is one of sport’s great stories and it prompted debate about the greatest sportsperson ever.

Federer, Ali, Pele all bear consideration and even running’s own Usain Bolt is spoken in the same vein as he nears his competitive farewell at the London-hosted World Athletics Championships. If the debate over sport’s best-ever is fraught, then the debate over the world’s greatest ever runner should be more straightforward.

Or is it? As winner of eight Olympic gold medals, 11 World Championship gold medals, three world records and the unofficial title of the coolest man in sport, Bolt has a strong claim. But is the world’s greatest runner necessarily the world’s fastest sprinter?

What makes the world’s greatest runner the greatest? Is it speed? Or is it stamina? Should the world’s best ever marathon runner have a stronger claim? Should it be Olympic champion Eliud Kipchoge, also a former World 5000m Champion and the fastest man ever over the classic distance. Is the marathon enough?

There’s a bloke who lives up the road from me in Devon, Kevin Carr, who holds the world record for running unaided around the world, achieving the feat in 621 days two years ago. Some would regard that as running’s most super-human achievement. I find that difficult to argue with.

Or is it Paula Radcliffe who reset the boundaries of possibility in female sport with her marathon world record of 2:15:25, a time still untouched 14 years on? Instead should it be less about raw speed and stamina and more about having a broad range? Mo Farah is a double double Olympic gold medallist at 5000m and 10,000m, but also world class from every distance from 1500m to half marathon.

Perhaps we should even delve further into running history? What about Emil Zatopek, the Czech strongman who won 5000m, 10,000m and marathon gold at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952? The only athlete ever to achieve an Olympic distance triple.

Or for the ultimate trailblazer, how about the Pheidippides who ran from Marathon to Athens to announce the victory over the invading Persians before collapsing and dying? There’s no easy answer even within the confines of one sport. Yep, this is a debate that will run and run.