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Health, Sports & Psychology

Three reasons why sports people are worthy icons

Updated Tuesday 18th December 2018

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

Sport has been described by Clare Balding as ‘this great triviality’1, so how can people who run fast, jump high or kick a ball around compare to people who have found a cure for a medical illness, invented the internet or led their country in wartime?


Well, sport has the ability to bring people together in shared experiences unlike few other events. In America eleven of the twenty most watched programmes were sports events (ten of which were Super Bowls), in the UK the 1966 World Cup final is the most watched programme ever and in Germany ten of the eleven most watched programmes are football matches2. Sporting metaphors are everywhere with Prime Minister Theresa May recently comparing her style of leadership as being like Geoff Boycott’s style of batting saying, ‘he got stuck in there and got on with the job’.

There are three main reasons why sports people are worthy icons:

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.

Jesse Owens at Olympics summer games 1936 Creative commons image Icon Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R96374 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 under Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0 license Jesse Owens jumps to victory at the 1936 Olympics Jesse Owens showed this when winning four gold medals in six days, including two world record performances, at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Jesse Owens, a black athlete, ruined Hitler’s attempt to maximise Nazi propaganda and his success was an affront to idea of the superiority of the Aryan race. While Hitler was embarrassed by Owens’ success it did not deviate him from his racial ideology or path towards World War 2. But Owens’ achievements echo throughout history and provide inspiration for many athletes, not least Carl Lewis who repeated his feats at the 1984 Olympic Games.

Another example is Billie Jean-King who, as well as winning thirty-nine Grand Slam titles, campaigned energetically for equal pay for female tennis players. In 1973 King spearheaded the formation of the Women’s Tennis Association after a meeting of 63 female players in London and achieved equality of prize money at the US Open. The other Grand Slam events followed suit even though it took until 2007 for Wimbledon to offer equal prize money for equal achievements. King also was involved in ‘The Battle of the Sexes’ tennis match against Bobby Riggs which was watched by 100m viewers and she said that after the victory:

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. In addition she experienced racial intolerance from her fellow Americans. Yet at the age of 20 she won three gold medals in sprint events at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. She also had to fight off the advances of one Cassius Clay in the Olympic Village. She later summed up her philosophy of life saying:

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

Wilma Rudolph wins the 100 m sprint at the 1960 Olympics Wilma Rudolph wins the 100 m sprint at the 1960 Olympics

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.

Plaque commemorating the four-minute mile Creative commons image Icon Jonathan Bowen under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license

Sports people are often to referred to as artists, as sport offers us majestical possibilities of physical style, beauty and grandeur. Bannister had a wonderful flowing style to his running, maybe not stylish to the same extent as Carl Lewis or Florence Griffith-Joyner, but still graceful. In the 1970s the world was mesmerised by the physical perfection in movement as shown by gymnasts Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci as they achieved perfect scores. Equally in watching the flair of Brazilian football teams of 1970 and 1982, the floating style of boxer Muhammed Ali and the breath-taking elegance of Jane Torville and Christopher Dean we see artistry to match that of other 20th Century icons, such as James Joyce, Andy Warhol or Michael Jackson.

When we look back on the 20th Century, sports events and the achievements of sporting icons will be at the forefront of many people’s memories. This is because sport offers so many possibilities for self-expression, achievement, emotional experiences and social change.  While watching and playing sport may not necessarily save lives, it certainly enriches lives by entertaining us and bringing us together to share joyful, dramatic experiences.


1Sport and the British (2012) BBC Radio 4, 9th March.
2Collins, T. (2013) Sport in Capitalist Society, Abingdon, Routledge.
3Mandela, N. (2000), Laureus World Sports Awards, Monaco.
4Harman, N (2013), ‘King can be well pleased with the health of the WTA. The Times, 20th June, p.68.
5Rudolph, W. (n.d). Retrieved December 13, 2018, from






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