Tom Richmond: Living legends? Britain's list of sporting under-achievers can't match our real heroes

THIS has not been a great week for those pundits who ply their trade in the hyperbole that surrounds contemporary sport. A sense of perspective is urgently required before the over-hype that accompanies football and cricket detracts, still further, from genuine feats of achievement.

Two examples come readily to mind. Firstly football's commentariat, including seasoned ex-England internationals like Martin Keown, were describing World Cup reject Theo Walcott's eye-catching hat-trick last weekend for Arsenal as the "greatest" performance of the 21-year-old's career. He also used countless other exaggerated superlatives.

Since when has scoring three goals against Blackpool, a team newly-promoted to the Premier League, with next to no money and down to 10 men because of the sending off of a player, justified such undeserved praise? It does not. Indeed, it could be argued that the reason Walcott

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was not picked by Fabio Capello for the World Cup was because the player had started to believe his own publicity and not look to improve his finesse on the pitch, and the simple task of crossing a ball accurately.

Ditto Gareth Bale's two goals for Tottenham Hotspur at Stoke City; the hysteria suggested that the Welshman had just scored the European Cup winner. Yet, a year ago, the same radio station was suggesting that the player had no future at the top level. He obviously can't win.

The excessive hype probably explains why the value of Leeds-born midfielder James Milner's full transfer deal to Manchester City only just fell short of the amount given by Britons to the Pakistan flood appeal; this is the extent to which football, and those working in the industry, have become divorced from reality.

Yet, while one has, sadly, been accustomed to such excessive use of language on BBC's Five Live, one had always relied upon the enduring Test Match Special for a more balanced view, and some perspective on the true state of the summer game.

However TMS was even in danger, in between the japes about the latest deliveries of chocolate cake, about falling into this trap when bestowing "greatness" about England off-spinner Graeme Swann after he took his 100th Test wicket at The Oval.

It's an achievement for a clearly immature player whose mishaps trying to rescue his partner's trapped cat ended up with a court appearance prior to the Test on an embarrassing drink-driving charge, but it pales into insignificance when compared to Shane Warne's 708 wickets at this level – or the 800 scalps achieved by the mercurial and recently retired Muttiah Muralitharan. That, in my opinion, deserves the adjectives that were being offered to Swann.

Next Walcott and Swann will be described as "legends" – another horribily over-used term that should be reserved, in my opinion, for genuine national heroes like the Battle of Britain fighter pilots, The Few, whose bravery 70 years ago is now being celebrated.

It is also becoming abundantly clear that this misuse of the English language is not just confined to sport, and that it has a potential to have a damaging effect on society.

I'm amazed when I hear supposedly well-informed individuals respond to the latest policy pronouncements at Westminster. The proposals are either brilliant – or a scandal. There's no middle ground; and very little perspective. It is illustrated by the continuing debate on immigration levels, and the inability of many to accept that the NHS could not function effectively without migrant labour.

It's a fact, but it doesn't help those who try, vainly, to offer a balanced view. A politician is either excellent or a disgrace; when was the last time that you heard a pundit say that Mr X or Mrs Y was doing a competent job? You don't because it simply is not fashionable for commentators to hold such views.

Take Gordon Brown. Brilliant one moment at the start of his premiership and then, within weeks, a liability to the nation. Yet what changed? Certainly not his approach to the public finances; as Chancellor, he always spent beyond the country's means.

Yet, listen to youngsters speak at a sports match or when they are out with their family. They are, invariably, repeating the extreme phrases used by football commentators and political players by either extolling or lambasting the virtues of a particular player – and that's before they start imitating the on-field antics of those sports competitors who are supposedly role models.

This struck me the other day when a friend, knowing my enthusiasm for horse racing, said that she had just watched Seabiscuit, the Hollywood film about the rags-to-riches racehorse who did so much to lift the morale of ordinary Americans after the great Depression.

"Why haven't we got a horse, or a sportsman, who is capable of inspiring the nation?" she asked. I pondered as I considered my reply. I said that the country had some potential "greats", like tennis

player Andy Murray and golfer Rory McIlroy, but that they were still unproven at the highest levels of their respective sports. For, despite the hullabaloo, Murray has yet to win a Grand Slam title compared to

Roger Federer's 16 corresponding titles – again, showing that people have to achieve little to be placed on a pedestal.

Scratching my head still further, I then ventured confidently that Britain did have an equine hero that she so desired. His name was Don't Push It, the unheralded racehorse who provided the champion jockey Tony McCoy with his first Grand National win at the 15th attempt.

It was also the culmination of the 36-year-old's enduring career that has seen him be crowned champion jockey for 15 – yes 15 – successive years and amass more than 3,000 winners, whether on a wet Wednesday at Wetherby or on his sport's greatest stage.

"That's a sporting legend comparable to Lester Piggott," I added before pointing out, with embarrassment, that this extraordinary achievement will have passed most people by because of the BBC, and the nation's, obsession with overpaid and under-achieving footballers, cricketers and such like who are only winners in the mediocrity stakes.

For, when Theo Walcott scores a hat-trick in a World Cup final, or Graeme Swann spins England to victory in successive Ashes series, they might just have earned greatness – the over-used term that was wrongly applied to their endeavours this week.