A question category that comes with the territory of being a member of the human race – springing from its abilities to rationalise, acquire and then pass on knowledge to its future descendants – is “What if?”
Henry Ford may have dismissed history as “bunk” – and arguably to an extent he was correct in that too slavish a devotion to what has gone before before may hinder technological advance and/or limit the imagination and “blue sky thinking” – but so often the outcome of historical events in the affairs of men seem to have turned upon random happenings or chance.
Shortly after the Battle of Waterloo (18th June 1815) kicked off at 11.35am, for example, with the Duke of Wellington observing “Hard pounding this, gentlemen, but we will see who can pound the longest …” and later confiding to an aide “Give me Blucher, or give me night”: he knew that if Blucher’s promised Prussian reinforcements didn’t arrive then Napoleon would prevail.
It was only at 4.30pm that the vanguard of Blucher’s troops joined the eastern flank of Wellington’s position and not until 8.15pm that the final advance of the Imperial Guard was repelled and the battle won.
How different might have been the history of 19th Century Europe if Blucher and his men had not turned up?
For lovers of sport everywhere an eternal issue remains “Who was/is the greatest of all time?”
It arises because there are many different yardsticks by which to measure athletic brilliance – e.g. the stop watch (the clock cannot lie, can it?); the number of “Major” or “Open” championships won; the number of Olympic gold medals won; the length of a boxing word champion’s reign or number of undefeated bouts; in tennis the ability to win on every surface; in football the “artistry” of outstanding dribblers and/or creative players … to list but a few of a near-infinite number.
And then comes the conundrum “How can, or do, you compare the great sportsmen and women of different eras?”
This begins with the inevitable gulf between times before and after the arrival of professionalism, which both enabled athletes not only to earn their living from their sporting ability but also to devote more and more time to training and improving their skills.
Some hold that it is impossible to compare sporting greats from different eras – each has to remain “of their time”.
I once asked a writer of a book upon Edwardian rugby union how its leading players might have fared in the professional era.
He belonged to the “each is of their time” argument, suggesting that very few players of 120 years ago would have wanted to devote themselves full-time to sport. They viewed sport as something they did in their spare time, never as a means to an end.
There is another side to that thrust, of course.
How many 21st Century athletes would have been prepared to run, or play games, in their spare time if they had first had to complete a working week of six and a half 12-hour days, as was the lot of their Edwardian forebears?
For another thing, take athletics as an example.
There’s a world of difference between eras when track and field events took place on grass, or the most basic of unforgiving artificial surfaces, and the joys of modern sporting stadia in which perfectly-laid technologically-advanced equivalents almost enable runners to “bounce” along the track.
And consider the modern availability of “warm weather” and “high altitude” training to even the humblest county-level or international runners and, of course, the advances in the “sciences” of sports nutrition, conditioning, weight-training and all the “preparation” that coaches and their charges can undertake to ensure that the athlete “peaks” at just the right moment for a major event.
All of these might have been “nice to have” pie-in-the-sky for the equivalent sports stars of a hundred years ago, who instead had to travel to their games or events on foot, by bicycle or just possibly on the same train or omnibus as any spectators who happened to be attending.
I was drawn to this topic and line of thinking today by the new that the relatively-unknown 26 year-old Elliot Giles has just broken Seb Coe’s British men’s indoor 800 metres record of 1 minute 44.91 (set in 1983) at a meeting in Torun in Poland where he crossed the line in a time of 1 minute 43.63, the second-fastest indoor 800 metres time in history.
Here’s a link to a report on the achievement by Sean Ingle – mentioning that Giles appeared to have been wearing a pair of Nike’s controversial Air Zoom Victory indoor spike running shoes – that appears today upon the website of – THE GUARDIAN