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For as many songs that have been written about heroes, there
have been heroes of sport who have proven themselves on the playing field only
to later falter and fall from grace.
Will today's Olympic champion become tomorrow's Ben Johnson?
When do sports figures earn the title of hero, and why do we still crave them
even when they let us down?
Like the Olympic games, the tradition of regarding sports
figures as heroes goes back to ancient Greece. The Greek term for hero
literally meant someone who was semi-divine and born from one mortal and one
divine parent, and eventually Greek society went on to view sporting champions
as "born of the Gods."
But today experts say heroes not only sell newspapers and
magazines, they also perform a vital psychological function in helping us cope
and come together as a nation and a people.
What Defines a Hero?
"The word hero is used far too freely," says Angie
Hobbs, PhD, professor of philosophy at the University of Warwick in England.
"All sorts of athletes are called heroes, and then two weeks later they're
"Heroism is doing something of outstanding benefit to one's
society that most would find impossible to perform, and some athletes do meet
that criteria," says Hobbs, who is researching a book on heroism, courage,
fame, and the role of sports in creating heroes.
Throughout history, Hobbs says heroes emerged from war and
gained their title of hero by sacrificing themselves or risking their lives to
save others. But sports allow heroes to emerge in times of peace.
However, in order to be truly heroic, she says athletes have to
do more than just show physical prowess on the playing field.
"Only if you have those two components together -- that
your society thinks you're doing something of outstanding benefit, plus what
you're doing is something most people couldn't offer either through mental
ability, physical skill, or quality of character-- then you've got the
possibility for heroism," says Hobbs.
In addition, Hobbs says many of the athletic traits revered
most in sports heroes such as speed, strength, and endurance were traits that
were necessary for success in battle and found in traditional wartime
An example of a sports hero who fits that bill in her mind is
Jesse Owens. Owens displayed not only great physical strength and endurance,
but also mental determination and courage in defiantly winning four medals
before Hitler at the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin.
Why Do We Need Heroes?
Psychologists say people grow up with a need for heroes, and
the media constantly pumps up and publicizes candidates for the choosing. But
whom someone looks to as a hero has more to do with their own needs than the
accomplishments of the hero.