Sporting hero is a term that should be handled with discretion

ONE of the occupational hazards of a veteran sportswriter is the scorn that historical perspective raises in an advancing generation. Things may be better than they were, maybe not, but how many sports performers today will be remembered as genuine heroes?

Beginning last night, Sky Sports 3 is broadcasting a series of 20 interviews with great figures from Britain's sporting past conducted by the old ITV hand Dickie Davies, who was big on the box when some of today's star presenters were in nappies.

First up was the 1980 Olympic 800 metres gold medallist, Steve Ovett, to be followed by his great middle-distance rival, Sebastian Coe, and such notables as John Charles, Tom Finney, Colin Cowdrey, Mary Peters, Stirling Moss, Willie Carson, Roger Bannister, Gareth Edwards and Henry Cooper. Davies's personal choices, all qualify as sporting heroes.

I'm certain, anyway, that the status ought not to awarded lightly. It has as much, maybe more, to do with presence as achievement, a matter of people confronting fame and time and themselves.

A friend, Tom Cushman, who writes sensitive sports columns for the San Diego Union-Tribune recalls the thrill he felt as a college freshman track athlete when hearing of Bannister's four-minute mile. "It was unbelievable," he said. "From that moment Bannister was, and still is, one of my sporting heroes."

The fact that Bannister did not win an Olympic gold medal is irrelevant. Henry Cooper didn't make it to world class, his only attempt at the heavyweight championship ending in bloody defeat by Muhammad Ali in 1966, but the years since then have not diminished his popularity. Stirling Moss failed to win the drivers' world championship but he remains unquestionably a hero of motor racing.

Last year I attended a dinner at which Charles was given a lifetime award for his great feats in football. Most of those present had never seen the Welshman play, not even on television, but they knew a hero when they saw one. Many footballers today state the desire to be with a club that offers them a chance of winning championship and cup medals. A brilliant England international, all Finney has to show for a club career spent entirely in Preston North End's colours is a loser's medal in the 1954 FA Cup final.

Recently, I was recalling for some young people (this happens all too frequently these days) a period through which I lived as a goggle-eyed boy. Television was only a rumour so a sense of sporting heroism could only be gained from newspapers and radio. Importantly, I later discovered that one or two of the heroes who thrived in my imagination, Stanley Matthews and Denis Compton for example, were heroes to many millions.

I still find sport a better area than most to look for truth. Without question we stand in the middle of a national sports boom: growing attendances, better-prepared performers who in some case get more for their labours than people are paid for running countries. Precisely where we stand in the matter of heroes is less apparent.

If Davies had come a little further forward in time he could have found other candidates. Ian Botham was a natural hero of cricket. For all his technical limitations Frank Bruno was, in a curious way, heroic. Lennox Lewis may be the most accomplished heavyweight out there but somehow heroism doesn't fit with him.

Sporting hero is a term that should be handled with care and discretion. Nick Faldo has climbed higher in golf than one of Davies's heroes, Tony Jacklin, and is unquestionably a hero but Jacklin's success was totally unexpected and therefore more heroic.

Once you get into something like this, I frankly don't know where you stop and how the leading figures in British sport today will be looked upon by historians of the future. Nobody will have to think twice about Steven Redgrave, but it's difficult to imagine that Paul Gascoigne will qualify as an all-time British hero and, despite his prowess, Alan Shearer may never be spoken of in the same breath as many illustrious figures in the fairly recent history of football.

All the heroes Davies has selected relished personal success and took pleasure in the honours that came to them. Circumstances saved their greatness from the modern carnival vulgarity that would have debased it. That was good for sport and good for the concept of heroism.

Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special
tvCould Mrs Brown's Boys have taken lead for second year?
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
news
Sport
footballLive! Chelsea vs West Ham kicked off 10 Boxing Day matches, with Arsenal vs QPR closing the action
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in Tim Burton's Big Eyes
film reviewThis is Tim Burton’s most intimate and subtle film for a decade
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
Sport
football
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all