Best. Column. Ever.
Do we live in an age filled with the greats, or are we just great at superlatives?
Greatest hurling final ever?: Pádraic Collins and Aaron Cunningham celebrate Clare’s win in last weekend’s replay. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
It was the greatest week – or, at least, a week of the greatest. It had the greatest hurling final ever, which had followed soon after the previous greatest hurling final ever and was considered a fitting climax to the greatest hurling season ever.
It was the week of the greatest television finale ever – Breaking Bad’s – which was considered a fitting climax to the greatest television series ever. There was the greatest comeback in America’s Cup history, when the US came from 8-1 down to beat New Zealand 9-8.
And Wilson Kipsang ran the greatest marathon in history, beating the world record by 15 seconds, even if few paid attention to it in this part of the world, where athletics has become about personal achievement over public achievement.
Yes, it was the greatest week ever. Just like the week before. And the weeks before that. Because we live in the greatest age for the superlative, with a constant need to rate, to ratify, to list, to define, to greet highs as if they are peaks.
Journalists are taught to avoid superlatives, just as they’re supposed to avoid cliche like the plague. No sooner will you write that something is the biggest, tallest, first or only than a letter or 12 will arrive with information to the contrary.
Instead, unless it is verifiable and beyond doubt, it is best to write “one of the biggest”, “among the tallest”, “one of the first” and so on.
In the America’s Cup (a surprisingly excellent television spectacle, by the way) and the Berlin Marathon, the measurement of greatness was a straightforward shout. The US pulled off statistically the greatest comeback in 162 years. Kipsang’s marathon was undoubtedly the fastest. Each holds true to the yardstick of Guinness World Records, by which the greatest isn’t the greatest unless it has been ratified by an official holding a clipboard.
In the judgment of the hurling final, you’ll find journalistic language placing the notion out there without necessarily endorsing it. “Some are calling it the greatest final ever.” Radio broadcasters posed the question: “Was it the greatest final ever?”
But what matters is that the idea has been slapped on and left there to see if it peels away with time.
Here’s a prediction. Having just had its greatest ever final, followed by its greatest ever final again, hurling will now enter a grander phase: the Golden Age. Why? Because after years of one-team domination, the competition has opened up at pretty much the same moment as fitness and skill levels have taken a quantum leap, aided by sports science and increasingly sophisticated training methods absorbed from other codes.
Players are reaching levels of speed and consistency that previous generations were not in a position even to contemplate.
Trying to compare the present with any previous era is a questionable task. Comparing Brian O’Driscoll, whom some believe to be Ireland’s greatest ever rugby player, with Jack Kyle, whom many consider to have been Ireland’s greatest ever rugby player, will prove to be futile, if fun, as the former plays out his final season.
Perhaps, then, measurement of the greatest can only come down to the subjective. Was he the greatest player you have ever seen? Was it the greatest match you have ever been to? Was it the greatest ending to a TV series you’ve ever seen? (To which your answer is yes only if you’ve never seen the Star Trek: TNG finale.)
It is not that superlatives are new. In 1951, Bobby Thomson’s home run for the New York Giants was declared “the shot heard around the world”, even though its whispered echo reached these shores only 45 years later, through Don DeLillo’s Underworld.
But exaltation seems a particular symptom of modern culture, a symptom of a world in which everything must be approved, rated and, occasionally, held up for ridicule or glorification. Which is why, when avoiding the absolutes, journalists instead reach for glorification.
Instead of the greatest or the best, matches become “epic” and people “legendary”.
And there is one adjective many consider to be the most overused in modern journalism, a word attached to sporting results that are even mildly out of the ordinary – to any achievement that is kind of noteworthy enough.
It is the term “historic”. That truly is the worst word. Ever.