Alan Hubbard

There is nothing like a good dollop of nostalgia to start a sporting argument. We have been wallowing in it since Pelé passed away and the healthy debate universally concludes that he is the greatest player who ever kicked a football.

But it set some of us thinking.

As I wrote here last week in my view Muhammad Ali pips him to the post of the greatest figure in sporting history. However, after some 60 years of sports watching from the world’s press boxes, embracing a dozen Summer Olympics, half-a-dozen Winter Games, more than 20 Wimbledon’s, numerous football World cups and fistfuls of world title fights. It is certainly more than I care to remember and I acknowledge that there have been many virtuoso performances worthy of global acclaim.

I have always tried to avoid being one of those rheumy-eyed old codgers who, insist that things were better in the "good old days". Sometimes they were but more often than not, Like the people who graced the playing fields and arenas in those bygone eras. Of course, there were exceptions. I have always maintained that Ali, at his zenith, would have beat any heavyweight boxer around today, including Tyson Fury, just as Pelé outshone Diego Maradona, as he would Lionel Messi and always has the likes of Franz Beckenbauer, George Best and Bobby Charlton.

And begging the pardon of Messrs McEnroe, Borg, Sampras. Nadal, Djokovic - even Federer - I remain convinced that the greatest tennis player I have ever seen was Rod Laver. Red haired and left-handed, the power and variety of his game back in the 60s and early 70s was devastating. A meeting between the Aussie known as the "Rockhampton Rocket" and any of the aforementioned would have been a tennis match made in heaven - and I am sure "Hot Rod" would have triumphed.

I wish I was more into golf to appreciate the giants of the game, such as Jack Nicklaus Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Lee Trevino. 

I also wish I had been around to savour the dazzling talent of boxers Sugar Ray Robinson, whom even Ali acknowledges as the greatest ever ring craftsman, Joe Louis and Jack Johnson.

Rod Laver remains history's greatest tennis player, Alan Hubbard believes ©Getty Images
Rod Laver remains history's greatest tennis player, Alan Hubbard believes ©Getty Images

And what of the "nanny" GOATS (the female Greatest of All Time)? I was still, at primary school when the "Flying Dutchwoman" Fanny Blankers Koen took the 1948 Olympics in London by storm, sprinting and hurdling to four gold medals. She has to be a contender for the title, as does tennis czarina Martina Navratilova-and the phenomenal American all-rounder "Babe" Didrikson, a double gold medallist at the1932 Olympics in track and field and went on to become a professional golf champion and also who excelled in basketball and baseball.

Over the years I have witnessed scores of wondrous performances from the superstars of today and yesteryear. Far too many to catalogue, particularly when it comes to the Olympic Games. 

Time and time again, I have turned over in my mind who might be the greatest Olympian of all time. Restricting it to the Olympics I have seen it is almost impossible to choose, Carl Lewis perhaps? What about decathlete Daley’s Thompson, Ethiopia’s amazing marathon man Abebe Bikila, rower Steve Redgrave, Fidel Castro's "right-hand man", the great Cuban boxer, Teofilo Stevenson, Finland’s long-distance runner Lasse Viren, long jumper Bob Beamon, four-time Olympic gold medallist Emil Zatopek or the delightful Eastern European gymnasts Vera Caslavska and Nadia "Perfect Ten" Comaneci.

They say there is nothing like a Dame - and Britain now has an Olympic foursome - Mary Peters, Kelly Holmes, Jessica Ennis and Denise Lewis.

All great in their own way. 

Was Nadia Comaneci the greatest female Olympian of all time? ©Getty Images
Was Nadia Comaneci the greatest female Olympian of all time? ©Getty Images

But to nominate the greatest Olympian of them all surely, we must go back to the 1930. Is there anyone more suited to the role than the incomparable Jesse Owens? Grandson of an Alabama slave, James Cleveland "Jesse" Owens will, go down in history as the athlete who won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin, and in doing so as an American Negro, enraged Adolf Hitler.

To reach the international heights Owens, the youngest of 10 children, battled poverty and bigotry.

Alas, I never saw him in action, but I was fortunate enough to interview him at his pleasant home just outside Tucson in Arizona, a couple of years before he died in 1980.

A charming, gentle man in every sense of the phrase.

He told me that he was duly concerned about the Hitler snub. "What I wanted no part of politics," he said.

"I didn’t go there to shake hands; I went there to win."

Jesse Owens is the greatest Olympian in history, according to Alan Hubbard ©Getty Images
Jesse Owens is the greatest Olympian in history, according to Alan Hubbard ©Getty Images

Which he did with some style, four gold medals in all, in sprints and long jump, setting new Olympic records. 

"I owed everything to the Olympics," Owens told me.

And the Olympic owe much to Jesse Owens, the greatest of them all.