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Sir Steve Redgrave Must Light the Olympic Flame

Posted: 05/07/2012 00:00

When I learned that David Beckham had not been picked for Britain's Olympic football squad, two thoughts hit me. The first was disappointment: had the squad been mine to choose, Beckham's would have been the first name in it.

There are three key reasons: he is good enough, he is fit enough and, in an era cursed with overpaid and feckless footballers who seem to struggle to motivate themselves to play for their countries, Beckham's desire to compete at the Olympics is an inspiration to anyone who supports Team GB. And, more importantly, it would have been an inspiration to the young players who would have lined up alongside him.

Beckham's leadership alone is enough to see him selected for a squad that by its nature - only three players over 23 can be included - lacks experience and wisdom. No football player has given as much, or has as much left to give, to London 2012 as David Beckham. It diminishes our Olympic team that he is not in it.

The second thought that hit me was whether Beckham's chances of lighting the Olympic flame at the opening ceremony have now increased.

Bookmakers had the same thought: The Washington Post reports that the odds on Beckham lighting the world's most famous flame have shortened since the announcement of his omission from Team GB because of the suspicion he will be given the honour as a consolation.

I hope that suspicion is unfounded. Because, while Beckham deserves to compete at London 2012, he does not deserve to light its flame.

Lighting the Olympic flame is not a consolation prize: it is the greatest honour British sport will be able to bestow for perhaps a hundred years. And it deserves to go to Britain's greatest living athlete.

Britain's greatest living athlete, and possibly the world's greatest living Olympian, is of course Sir Steve Redgrave.

The benefits of being a sportsperson always come easier to footballers than to other British athletes. Aside from the money and celebrity footballers are given from the moment they first play in the Premiership, they win honours more easily too.

In 2000, Steve Redgrave won BBC Sports Personality of the Year for winning five gold medals at five Olympic Games. The following year, David Beckham won it for scoring a goal that meant England drew 2-2 in World Cup qualifier against Greece.

Beckham's fame cannot be allowed to so easily purchase the right to light the Olympic flame.

Beckham is a tremendous footballer, and a true superstar, but he is hardly an all-time great. Were we picking an all-time Manchester United team, he would not be in it (its number 7 shirt surely belonging to George Best).

Were we picking an all-time England team, he would not be in that either (its number 7 shirt surely belonging to Sir Stanley Matthews). And were we picking an all-time World XI, Beckham would not even come into consideration.

But if we were picking an all-time Olympic rowing crew, the question we would ask would not be whether Redgrave should be in it but who should be in it with him.

Redgrave is a champion of champions. Within his sport, he is peerless. Within the Olympics, his peers are the likes of Michael Phelps and Carl Lewis. Outside it, they are the likes of Pele and Sir Donald Bradman. David Beckham hardly merits comparison.

Of the other potential flame-lighters on bookies' shortlists, few have claims that can compete with Redgrave's.

Sir Roger Bannister's name is deservedly legendary. Running the first sub-four minute mile was an achievement that made him immortal. But it was an achievement many others have since surpassed: his world record was broken just 46 days after he set it and his greatest Olympic achievement was a fourth place finish in 1952.

Lord Coe has done more for the London Games than any other ex-athlete, and probably more than any other person, but as chairman of the organising committee he can scarcely appoint himself to light the flame. And, what's more, his two gold medals at two Games hardly equal Redgrave's five at five.

Dame Kelly Holmes, Dame Mary Peters, Sir Chris Hoy and Daley Thompson are all truly great British Olympians. But, though they are great, Redgrave is the greatest.

And there is another achievement, besides his unequalled medal record, that, combined with it, ought to earn Redgrave the right to ignite the Olympic flame.

Many people, including my friend the prominent health journalist and Type 1 diabetic Miriam E. Tucker, yearn for Redgrave to be the star of the opening ceremony because of the way he has battled diabetes. Perhaps, as someone who suffers from a disabling chronic illness, I am biased but I agree.

When Redgrave refused to retire having been diagnosed with diabetes aged 35 and instead resolved to manage the disease to the extent that he was able to become the first person to win gold medals in an endurance event at five consecutive Olympic Games, he displayed the Olympic spirit at its purest.

Having Redgrave light the flame at this summer's opening ceremony would not only give the right reward to him but also send the right message to our athletes, their opponents, and the youngsters who will represent Britain at future Olympic Games.

It would announce that, despite Britain's silly obsession with celebrity, and despite the plaudits we often award athletes (chiefly footballers) who do not deserve them, we reserve our greatest honours for those who accomplish the most.

Lighting the Olympic flame is a privilege that should be given only to the very best. And Sir Steve Redgrave is the very best of British.

 
 
 

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