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Why We Need Sports Hereos

Originally Published 23 August 2004
Sir Steven Redgrave
Sir Steven Redgrave

The 2004 Olympiad sees the return of the Games to their ancient birthplace, having grown into a very different array of sports from the running and wrestling centred disciplines that formed the ancient games. However, one constant of the Olympics is the status of the sporting superstars who compete. Philosopher Dr Angie Hobbs from the University of Warwick contends that some top athletes fulfil a vital social function, providing happiness, hope, inspiration, and release from care, while promoting a sense of national identity.

The celebrity status of some competitors is no new phenomenon; the boxer Theogenes (unbeaten for 22 years), was lauded the emerging Greek nation over 2,500 years ago. Sportsmen are invariably described as heroes, who according to Hobbs, act as replacements for war heroes in times of peace. The excellence of these few athletes raises the self-esteem of whole nations; If heroism is "doing something of outstanding benefit to one's society which most people would find impossible to perform", then certain top athletes meet those criteria.

But how can a well (or over) paid sports star share the moniker of a soldier sacrificing himself for his country? Is Beckham worthy of the kind of praise fitting for a D-Day Veteran? Dr Hobbs does not think so, but 'a community's longing for heroes to cheer, motivate and unite them will still continue in peacetime. Sport provides the chance for peacetime heroes to emerge.' She also notes that the kinds of attributes celebrated in modern athletic events - power, speed, endurance - are those fundamental to our prehistoric survival. More subtly perhaps, is the shift in hero defining criteria with societal change. If heroes are exemplars of our cultures' values and our desires, then perhaps Beckham is a modern hero in this more ambiguous sense of the word.

But some athletes do show real physical and moral courage in their sporting achievements. Jesse Owen?s triumph in an amphitheatre of race hatred in Berlin is perhaps the most striking example. Henry Olonga and Andy Flower, former cricketers for Zimbabwe, wore black armbands at a match in Zimbabwe at the 2003 Cricket World Cup to mourn the 'death of democracy' in Zimbabwe; they were ousted from the national team, and Olonga had to flee the country. While the label of 'hero' is perhaps too easily applied today, some of our sportsmen remain worthy of the title.

For more information contact: Dr Angie Hobbs, Department of Philosophy, University of Warwick, Tel: 024765 22323, or Jenny Murray, Press Officer, University of Warwick, Tel: 02476 574 255, Mobile: 07876 21 7740