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Why We Need Sports Heroes And Why Sporting Superstars Deserve the Title of 'Hero'

Sir Steven Redgrave
Sir Steven Redgrave
Originally Published 13 August 2004

The Olympiad kick off marks the return of the Games to their ancient birthplace. In Ancient Greece the land's best athletes would test their skills in events like wrestling, and running. However, one constant of the Olympics is the significance of sporting superstars. Philosopher Dr Angie Hobbs from the University of Warwick contends that some top athletes fulfil a vital social function, as they can provide happiness, hope, inspiration, release from care and a sense of national identity.

Today, the Games are transformed into the world's premier sporting event, but the ancient world also had huge sporting stars, just as we do now. In the next few weeks at least a few of the Olympic victors will be treated as heroes, particularly by their own nations. Likewise, their Ancient Greek Olympic forbears, such as the great wrestler Milo or the boxer Theogenes (unbeaten for 22 years), were lauded by their cities and the emerging Greek nation over 2,500 years ago.

Sports heroes act as a replacement for war heroes in times of peace. A community's longing for heroes to cheer, motivate and unite them still continues in peacetime, and sport provides the chance for peacetime heroes to emerge.

Sporting achievements provide hope, inspiration and a sense of national identity for a society. As spectators identify with that nation, the raising of communal esteem through sporting prowess also raises the self-esteem of individuals. These benefits result from physical skills, endurance, mental determination and focus on a scale most people could never achieve.

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 can sports people be real heroes? If the exemplar hero is someone who sacrifices or risks their life to save others, then how can an athlete compete with the holder, say, of the Victoria Cross? Certainly, Steve Redgrave or Jonny Wilkinson or the footballer who scores the winning penalty is often called a 'hero', but some argue that this is too casual a use of the term. After all, athletes may be called 'heroes', but they are not often said to display 'heroism'.

Dr Angie Hobbs, from the University of Warwick, said: “A sportsperson cannot be a hero on the same scale as a D-Day veteran, yet 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. And many sporting events - such as running, jumping, swimming, throwing and wrestling - celebrate skills which humans originally needed to hunt and fight - in short, to survive.”

The people a culture selects as its ‘heroes’ reflect that culture's values, needs and desires. Not all ‘heroes’ are considered as such for very long. Some cynically exploit the economic and political opportunities such popular heroes, including sporting heroes, provide.

But some athletes do show real physical and moral courage to produce their sporting achievements. For example, they may endure racist abuse, such as Jesse Owens at the Berlin Olympics. Some have used sports events as opportunities to make political gestures requiring both moral and physical courage. Henry Olonga and Andy Flower, former Test Match cricketers for Zimbabwe, both wore black armbands at a match in Zimbabwe at the 2003 Cricket World Cup to mourn the ‘death of democracy in our beloved Zimbabwe’. Both were then ousted from the national team, and Olonga had to flee the country. Athletes, then, can undoubtedly and deservedly be heroes.

For more information contact: Dr Angie Hobbs, Department of Philosophy, University of Warwick, Tel: 024765 22323/ 01926 421 275, Email:a.h.hobbs@warwick.ac.ukor Jenny Murray, Press Officer, University of Warwick, Tel: 02476 574 255, Mobile: 07876 21 7740