LONDON (Reuters) - Britain invented a string of sports that others now excel at. So it surely must be a struggle trying to draw up a list of 100 British sporting heroes?
Not at all, argues veteran journalist Jon Henderson who agonised over his choices before composing “Best of British: Hendo’s Sporting Heroes.”
“Cynical friends thought it would be a struggle. Not a bit of it. I had plenty to choose from. The problem is that the British have a tendency to do themselves down. We keep concentrating on what we are bad at,” he said.
After much soul-searching, Henderson left out cricketer Len Hutton and there was no place for Wimbledon champion Virginia Wade or former England football captain David Beckham. The next edition could well have a place for Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton.
He clearly has a soft spot for flawed heroes who fought addiction — snooker’s Alex Higgins makes it into the book alongside darts player Jocky Wilson and football players George Best and Paul Gascoigne.
“Having to battle a flawed personality elevates them to heroism,” says Henderson, a sports journalist for more than 40 years with five Olympics, two football World Cups and every Wimbledon since 1969 under his belt.
Henderson, now associate sports editor of The Observer newspaper, concedes that British sporting heroes are thinner on the ground in the 21st century.
“It is much harder to excel than it used to be. Sport is now so much more universal, it’s truly global,” he told Reuters in an interview to mark the book’s publication this month.
Dogmatic sports fans may in turn be enraged or supportive, amused or outraged, scornful or incredulous and Henderson readily admits: “My list is not better or more correct than yours.”
The book avoids jingoistic flag-waving but is typically British in one quirky way — four-legged heroes are included along with two-legged ones.
So triple Grand National winner Red Rum and greyhound champion Mick The Miller keep company with jockeys Lester Piggott and Tony McCoy.
Robin Hood launches the book as one of Britain’s finest archers.
King Henry VIII gets an honourable mention as a cracking all-rounder who jousted, fenced and wrestled as well as he played tennis until he became very large.
The poet Lord Byron wins his place as a great long-distance swimmer who notably warmed up for his four-hour swim down Venice’s Grand Canal by having sex beforehand.
Henderson singles out Welsh rugby player Gareth Edwards as his all-time hero — “He came from a very humble background and truly was a supreme athlete.”
Boiling down the essence of a sporting hero to 600 words a time was a tough assignment for Henderson but a good discipline.
Larger-than-life characters have to be summed up in a sentence. Often the pithy quote or telling anecdote give the portrait depth.
Henry Cooper’s left hook was said to travel 15 times faster than a Saturn V rocket.
Motorcycling champion Barry Sheene was “a magnet for women who fancied men zipped up to the throat in leathers.”
Henderson sees showjumper Harvey Smith as an outstanding self-taught horseman but also as an irascible, irreverent and irritating personality. Golfer Tony Jacklin was renowned for his precocious talent as well as his grating cockiness.
A striking number of Hendo’s heroes died tragically young, such as “Chariots of Fire” Olympic runner Eric Liddell who died of a brain tumour in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. Duncan Edwards died after the Manchester United plane crash in Munich.
These tales of lives cut short give added poignancy to the book that Henderson has dedicated to his son Charlie who died aged 22 as a result of diabetes.
The proceeds from the book are being donated to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.