Bradley Wiggins’ storming victory in the men’s time trial secured his place as Britain’s greatest ever athlete. Don’t believe me? Just look at the facts.
His victory in front of Hampton Court Palace placed him amongst a truly elite group of British Olympians with four or more gold medals, joining Matthew Pinsent, Sir Chris Hoy, Sir Steven Redgrave and Paulo Radmilovic, who dominated the sport of water polo between 1908 and 1920. It also moved him to first place on the list of British medallists, with a total of seven medals since making his Olympic debut in Sydney back in 2000. In World Championships in both track and road racing, Wiggins has collected 11 medals, six of them gold.
Wiggins’ impact on his sport in Great Britain extends beyond mere medals, having won arguably the toughest race on the planet at this year’s Tour de France. Though some detractors put his success down to the performances of Chris Froome and the rest of Team Sky, Wiggins’ dominance in the time trials and his willingness to attack the likes of Vincenzo Nibali in the Pyrenees proved that his victory was fully deserved. Unlike most cyclists, such as Mark Cavendish and Mick Rogers who have made the transition from track to road racing, Wiggins has become a powerful all round cyclist, capable of matching the very best in the world over huge distances and up steep inclines. Though Wiggins was an outstanding track cyclist, he has swiftly become the very best road racer in the world, a fact underlined by his 40 second winning margin over German time trial World Champion Tony Martin.
Wiggins’ remarkable success in 2012 takes on a far greater significance when we examine the history of British cycling. Prior to Wiggins, Britain’s best road cyclist was Chris Boardman, who won gold in the time trial at the 1994 World Championships, but struggled with crashes and medical issues throughout his career. This statement depends on your perspective of course: Mark Cavendish is a brilliant sprinter but as an all rounder he falls well short of Boardman, Wiggins and even lesser British names like Froome and David Millar.
The issue with declaring an athlete the greatest ever often comes down to how greatness is defined. For some, greatness is about medals and wins. For others, it is about one off feats – records and milestones that no other athlete in their generation could achieve. My argument rests on Wiggins’ success across all definitions. Roger Bannister was an incredible athlete and set the first ever four minute mile, but he only won medals in European and Commonwealth competitions. Daley Thompson competed in one of the hardest Olympic events and won the decathlon twice between 1980 and 1984. He was undefeated in the decathlon between 1979 and 1987, but his total medal haul of three in world competitions in this period is far less impressive than many of his contenders to the title of Britain’s greatest athlete. His arrogance and refusal to consider others athletes as being on his level even to this day may cloud my judgment, but humility and sportsmanship is one of the many factors I felt obliged to consider when making the decision to crown Wiggins the greatest.
In all honesty my decision came down to a choice between Redgrave and Wiggins. Sir Chris Hoy is a remarkable athlete and has the opportunity to overtake Redgrave on the all time Olympic medal table (a gold in London would move him ahead of Redgrave by virtue of his one silver medal). Hoy’s brilliance is tempered, however, as his successes have come at a time when Britain has enjoyed a plethora of world leading track cyclists – Wiggins among them. The Scotsman is not the trailblazer Belgian-born Wiggins is. Perhaps this is an unfair way of measuring greatness, as it prejudices against those who through no fault of their own compete against other brilliant sportsmen and women. However, had Hoy won gold in 2000, or been able to take more medals in 2004, then there might be no need for this debate and the fact remains that road cycling is a much more gruelling, yet equally competitive sport as track cycling. Wiggins’ ability to compete and dominate in both places him above Hoy in my eyes.
Redgrave is the only athlete who matches Wiggins for medal success and beats him for longevity. Anyone who wishes to declare him our country’s best ever athlete will not find me arguing with them - it is hard to deny either of them the right to the title. For me though, Wiggins just shades it, simply because Redgrave’s medals came whilst competing as a team with the likes of Matthew Pinsent and James Cracknell, who in their own right were truly exceptional rowers. As a man, as an icon, as a shining example for young British sportspeople, Wiggins is unparalleled. He is the champion of the world’s most physically exhausting event and now the owner of seven Olympic medals. Is he the best ever British athlete? It would be very hard to disagree.