Three reasons why sports people are worthy icons

Simon Rea outlines three reasons why sports people are important and iconic figures throughout our history.

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Bobby Moore holds aloft the Jules Rimet trophy after England’s victory in 1966 World Cup. Image: copyright Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty Images from The Guardian.

1. Sporting icons have the power to produce political and social change

Let’s turn to a true political icon, Nelson Mandela, who said:

Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. Sport can awaken hope where there was previously only despair. 3

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Nelson Mandela handing the Webb Ellis trophy to Francois Pienaar in 1995. Image: copyright Philip Littleton/AFP/Getty Images from The Guardian.
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Jesse Owens jumps to victory in the 1936 Olympics. Image by Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R96374 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 under Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0 license

I got letters from women saying they were afraid to challenge their male bosses at work but when I beat Bobby that day, their lives changed. They demanded raises and better working conditions. 4

2. Sporting icons are symbolic of the struggle of life and overcoming setbacks

It is an inconvenient truth that in sport, as in life, there are many more losers than winners. However, sometimes the underdog does win, and people can rise up from the humblest of backgrounds to achieve iconic status. Take the example of Wilma Rudolph. She was an African-American born the 20th of 22 children into poverty in the deep South, she suffered from polio as a child and wore leg irons between the ages of four and nine.

Winning is great, sure, but if you are really going to do something in life, the secret is learning how to lose. Nobody goes undefeated all the time. If you can pick up after a crushing defeat, and go on to win again, you are going to be a champion someday. 5

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Wilma Rudolph wins the 100m sprint at the 1960 Olympics. Image: copyright-free from Wikipedia.

3. Sporting icons represent the peaks of physical achievement

One of the iconic moments of the 20th Century was Roger Bannister becoming the first athlete to run a sub-four minute mile. This was a great physical and psychological achievement. Scientists were concerned that it was not physically possible and that the body would collapse under the pressure. Bannister’s chance came on May 6th, 1954 when having spent the morning working at a hospital, he raced in the evening just as the wind fell at the Iffley Road track in Oxford. When Bannister’s time of 3:59:4 was announced news quickly spread across Britain and the world of this phenomenal achievement.

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Roger Bannister shocked the world when he ran a mile in three minutes 59.4 seconds. Image: copyright Getty Images from The BBC.

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