Is it wrong to mention the poll being run by a website almost as cutting edge as this one? The Telegraph are inviting views on the question of the UK’s greatest sportsperson. It’s impossible to see who’s in the running because of their extraordinary policy of charging people to read their stuff, but it’s safe to say they’ve got it wrong.
This is because the UK’s greatest sportsperson is Chrissie Wellington.
The trouble with Wellington is that you’ve either never heard of her (most people), or you see her as, well, the greatest sportsperson quite possibly in the world ever, but certainly in the UK. No Brit has dominated their sport like Wellington.
But first, that sport. It’s Ironman Triathlon, the daddy of all the triathlons, a 2.4-mile open-water swim, followed by a 112-mile bike ride. And then you run a marathon. Next to that, chasing a football around for 90 minutes just doesn’t cut it as a test of greatness. Remember Jonny Brownlee all over the place recently in a triathlon less than quarter the distance? That kind of incontinence is the norm in Ironman.
And on to the stage of vomiting, staggering mortals strode Wellington in 2007, a girl-next-door type who’d just turned 30. Her friends knew her as “Muppet”. She’d recently discovered by accident she had a talent for this triathlon lark, so she took a break from her job as civil servant to give it a proper go. Suffice to say, she’s not now working on Brexit.
Her Ironman career lasted just over four years, before she retired unbeaten, but it tore up every preconception the sport held sacred. The annual World Championships takes place on the barren, brutal lava fields of Hawaii. No rookie has ever come close to winning, but Wellington did at the first attempt, seven weeks after her first race.
She went on to win four titles out of five, missing the 2010 event through illness. She’s the only triathlete of either sex never to have lost an Ironman. She holds nine sub-9hr times, which, when she retired, was five more than the next best woman, the legendary Paula Newby-Fraser, whose career lasted 18 years.
Her world record of 8hr 18min is more than 27 minutes faster than the previous holder’s. To set it, in Bavaria 2011, she ran a marathon of 2hr 44min, bettered only that day by the winning male, who smashed the men’s world record. Turned out she’d done it with a broken wrist. And the story of her last, great triumph in Hawaii that same year, with injuries that would floor the rest of us, is a study of talent and inhuman determination that would be laughed out of Hollywood were it not true.
In the cut-throat, aggressive world of the Ironman, her competitors, even the American ones, hold their hands up, shake their heads and defer to the smiley girl from Norfolk they now call “The Chrissinator”. If Telegraph readers know their sport they will too.
You might be interested in listening to episode 1 of a recent series on BBC Radio 4, Everything You Thought About Sport Is Wrong.
Photograph by Larry Maurer