4000 wins for A.P McCoy: but is he really the greatest sportsman of his age?

a.p mccoy

Image courtesy of Paul.

A piece for Forge Sport’s regular Matchdebating feature, arguing that A.P McCoy can’t be judged the greatest sportsman of his generation, even after 4000 race wins. Must be mad.

There is no doubting the enormity of A.P McCoy’s achievement, his 4,000th win this month merely allows people to celebrate what we all already know, that he is one of the the greatest race jockeys of all time.

But anointing him as the greatest sportsperson of his generation, let alone of all time, is much more problematic. For starters, to make a rather obvious and blunt point, McCoy’s successes are never truly just his own. His skill of powering horses towards victory is undoubted, but he is blessed with being the main jockey of the most illustrious stable in British hunt racing.

The horses on which he rides are the best of their kind, bred to race and trained by the incredible Jonjo O’Neill. Just as Sebastian Vettel would struggle in a moderately sized hatchback, McCoy couldn’t have won the Grand National on a tired old nag.

So is it not true that the winner of all of those 4,000 races has been the horse, the trainer and the owner, just as much as McCoy?

Horse racing is also undoubtedly an exciting and dramatic sport with fans all over the world. But, really, McCoy is only well-known in Europe, not in America or Australia, where racing is a game governed by different rules and with its own fans. He is only really a hero in Britain and Ireland.

Which really raises the issue of what makes a great sportsperson anyway. There are those, like McCoy, who stand head and shoulders above their competitors – literally in the case of Usain Bolt, figuratively for Lionel Messi.

But these two men transcend the sport in which they are so accomplished and are recognised globally simply for their excellence.

Big companies fall over themselves to associate their brand with Messi and Bolt, and most importantly, kids aspire to emulate them.

Their stories are so well known across the globe – Messi overcame a growth hormone deficiency to become one of the greatest footballers of all-time; Bolt had to be persuaded away from playing cricket to concentrate on his sprinting.

They are not simply great with a ball at their feet or with 100m of track in front of them, they are role-models to children from Buenos Aires to Kingston and beyond. McCoy may well be great, but his reach is somewhat more limited.

But of all of this begs a good question. Does the fact that more people know who Messi, Bolt or Floyd Mayweather are mean they are any better at their sport than McCoy is at his? Not really.

A truly great cricketer in Sachin Tendulkar retired this week, and rather than reflecting on his immensity as a player and a man, the debate has already begun on where he sits in the mythical rankings of all-time greats. Debasing the Little Master’s career to mere numbers is perhaps just as much a zero-sum game as comparing jockeys with footballers, sprinters or boxers.

To watch a mazy run from Messi, a booming overhand right from Mayweather or a sumptuous cover drive from Tendulkar is a joy in its own right. Watching Usain Bolt and AP McCoy roar free from a tight crowd to take glory in the last few seconds similarly. To begin comparing them is almost impossible, as to do so detracts from their unique, one-off brilliance. Let’s just enjoy them while we can.

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