Lewis Hamilton is a Formula One great but has he earned a place among sport's all-time legends like Pele, Muhammad Ali and Tiger Woods?
A place in the record books has been safely secured, although greatness should be measured by more than just victories and titles
Lewis Hamilton roared into the history books on Sunday with a victory that gave him a record-equalling seventh Formula One world title.
And his victory against the odds in Turkey again marked him out as the pre-eminent Grand Prix racer of his time and turned the volume up on growing clamour to anoint him as F1’s unchallenged GOAT – Greatest of All Time.
Others are going further still and proclaiming Hamilton the greatest sportsman of his time – and all time, across any sport.
Now that is a bold claim – to put him above the very greatest from boxing, tennis, football, rugby, athletics, ice hockey, baseball, basketball, golf, swimming and cricket.
And the list is not short. You will find thousands that will make the case for every one of these names.
To put the case you have to compare him to Muhammad Ali, Tiger Woods, Wayne Gretzky, Pele, Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi, Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher, Juan Manuel Fangio, Roger Federer, Bjorn Borg, Don Bradman, Michael Phelps, Mark Spitz, Jonah Lomu, David Campese, Gareth Edwards, Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan to name but a few.
And thousands more who will nay say that choice. How do you compare a cricketer, say, of 1920s with an ice hockey player of the 1970s, a basketball player of the ‘90s and a racing driver of the 2020s?
The west side of the planet may opt for Gretzky, known simply as The Great One who held 61 records in ice hockey when he retired in 1999 and was such an electrifying presence he is credited with making a cold, indoor sport popular in the ultimate sunny paradise, California.
If you turn to rugby there is Jonah Lomu, Campese and Edwards. To get the measure of Campese, google his 'no look' pass to Tim Horan in the 1991 World Cup. It not only made the try but also took out two All Blacks.
Lomu was the man mountain who changed modern ruby forever. He was a back built like a towering scrum second rower, 119kg of muscle that moved like a freight train. What added to his aura was his humbleness.
Talking of self-effacing legends, Zinedine Zidane is a personal favourite. Time seemed to stand still when the baldheaded French midfielder was on the ball. World Cup and European Champion winner, three time world player of the year, and scorer of a 2002 Champions League goal voted the best of all time. To cap it all off, he went into management and won three consecutive Champions League trophies.
If he was all about elegance, then other contenders such as Messi and Maradona were equally effective but scruffy exponents of the world game, the ball bobbling at their feet, seemingly on a piece of elastic, a millimetre from the boot of a rival who never quite got there.
Maradona is attributed with the World Cup Goal of the Century but his vision as a player has to be balanced against numerous controversies off the field.
There’s no such stigma with Messi. He has won the Champions League four times, been voted Ballon D’Or winner a record six times among 34 trophies in his cabinet. The only blot on his record is never having won the World Cup.
Edson Arantes do Nascimento, Pele to you and I, was the definition of elegance and execution, scoring at a rate of almost a goal a game across a stellar career.
He largely refused to take penalties because he viewed it as a cowardly way to score. Ferenc Puskac once said: "The greatest player in history is [Alfredo] Di Stefano. I refuse to classify Pele as a player. He was above that."
Voted both the World Player of the Century in 1999 and Athlete of the Century by the International Olympic Committee reflects the wider respect with which Pele was regarded for his unrelenting sportsmanship.
How about Johnny Weissmuller (of Tarzan movie fame), the first superstar swimmer in the late 1920s, only eclipsed at the Olympics by Mark Spitz and his famous moustache, and then Michael Phelps, who with 28 medals is the most decorated Olympian of all time.
Then there is the extraordinary Flying Finn Paavo Nurmi who set 22 world records in middle and long distance running. He won five gold medals over just six days in the 1924 Paris Olympics. His feats made him a fortune and he was gracious enough to let one of his fiercest rivals rent one of his properties for half price. What a man!
And so the list goes on. Although he is yet to return to the peaks of his prime, there is a major case to be made for Tiger Woods, winner of 82 PGA tournaments and 15 majors, lauded for his fearless golf who was world No 1 within a year of turning professional.
Many Americans would groan if Babe Ruth, giant of a man and baseball player, was not included or quarterback Tom Brady, playing in the Super Bowl a record nine times and winning six of them. Or perhaps NBA greats like Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Magic Johnson or Kobe Bryant.
And what about the most successful tennis players of all time: Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal joint holders of a record 20 Grand Slams. Federer wins fans with his elegance while the Spaniard for his grunting, relentless batterings.
For rivals in his own sport Hamilton faces Senna, Fangio, Schumacher and Jim Clark. How to weigh the two titles of Clark and the five of Fangio in an era of cork helmets, goggles and death against the modern professional era in which technology is king?
The comparison among racers is easier though. Schumacher’s many questionable tactics when the dice were down, notably at the 2006 Monaco, 2002 Austrian Grand Prix, 1997 Jerez finale, must hamper his claims to ultimate greatness.
So how can you measure up one against the other, lay the rule against different sportsman across disciplines and time?
How do you measure someone who has achieved greatness at the dawning of a sport, who was breaking new ground, who was actually making the rules, against another who made it big in the modern big money era and was financed from near childhood?
Federer and Nadal competed and achieved in a sport which has absolute equality. So did Muhammad Ali. Basketball players and American football players still needed their teams for their records.
But then so does Hamilton. Without his move to Mercedes driving the pre-eminent car of his time he would certainly not be where he is. Great, yes. Greatest? No.
Where Hamilton has transcended other athletes is through social media and the use of it. He is a vocal vegan and eco warrior and campaigned prolifically about Black Lives Matter campaign.
In the midst of the BLM campaigning there was an anti-Covid vaccine gaffe that saw him labelled “a fraud” by some. He back-pedalled but did not issue an apology.
In his own country, it’s not difficult to predict he will be knighted and become Sir Lewis before very long.
So how to compare modern superstars who can speak directly to an audience of, perhaps hundreds of millions, on social or cultural issues simply by reaching for the phone in their pocket?
The same could not be said for Senna, Sir Jackie Stewart, one of the greatest sportsmen I have met, or the mild-mannered genius that was Clark.
And yet Senna still transcended his sport globally. As did Ali. The boxing great refused conscription to fight in the Vietnam war, was jailed and took a gamble that could have wrecked his career and his life. All his life he was a vocal civil rights campaigner. He didn’t wait until he was famous and untouchable.
These days you can be a global campaigner by opening your Facebook, Instagram or Twitter account. Critics call it virtue signalling.
For me, personally, greatness isn’t about a mountain of wins or championships.
Shouldn’t American football player Colin Kaepernick be regarded more highly than many on this list ?
A quality player, he was the first to refuse to stand for the American national anthem in a civil rights protest against police brutality and racial inequality. It cost him his career and his livelihood. That, for me at least, amounts to more than any number of championship titles in any sport.
I contend there is a point you reach as a sportsman when you have a greater responsibility to humanity than just doing your sport well, collecting the trophies and banking the cheques.
Where you are on that scale is, for me, the ultimate measure of sporting greatness. But, of course, for you it may be different.
Updated: November 17, 2020 10:22 AM