I need a hero
I'm holding out for a hero 'til the end of the night
He's gotta be strong
And he's gotta fast
And he's gotta be fresh from the fight ...
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 not.
"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 heroes.
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.
"There is no universal hero," says sports psychologist Richard Lustberg, PhD. "Subjectively, the hero is created within you. Heroes are created as a great way to escape from whatever you need to escape from, and they can supply for you whatever you need."
Experts say the number of sports heroes has also increased in recent years due to psychological factors.
"More and more people are growing up without fathers in the home, so increasingly they turn to other figures -- particularly sports figures -- as a father replacement and as a hero they can identify with, especially in absence of a father figure," says sports psychologist Stanley Teitelbaum, PhD.
"Second, whether we grow up in a one- or two-parent family, we start out with an ideal attachment to our parents, and ultimately along the way they fail us in some way and we experience some disappointment in them," Teitelbaum tells WebMD. "As adults when we find heroes, it's a way of trying to recapture that earlier time when we had this exquisite connection with our initial heroes, our parents."
On another level, heroes also perform other vital functions as a focal point for nationalism and builder of community and individual self-esteem, says Hobbs.
"Feeling rooted in a certain community and having that community's self-esteem enhanced by the athletic victories of one of its own will not just help unite the community," says Hobbs. "But it will help individual members of that community feel better about themselves and feel that they are worth just a little bit more than they were yesterday."
"People will feel better not only about their country but about themselves if their team wins," says Hobbs.
When Heroes Fall
Teitelbaum says people find heroes they identify with and relate to, but that relationship is nearly always built on unrealistic expectations.
"We try to connect with them in way that we think they are based on their performance on the field," says Teitelbaum. "But their real-life persona is often very much in contrast to how we think they are, imagine they are, and how we need them to be."
"We put them up on the pedestal, and then often through their off-field activities and behaviors they self-destruct in some way and then fall from the pedestal," says Teitelbaum, author of Sports Heroes as Fallen Idols.
He says fans also rise and fall in a sense with the accomplishments and failures of their heroes.
"To the extent to which we identify with our heroes, their success filters into our own self-esteem and enables us to feel good via our connection with them," says Teitelbaum. "Correspondingly, when they fail, we kind of stumble along with them in our own self-image and self-esteem."
Experts say the positive side of identifying with sports heroes is that it gives people hope and something to hold on to and connect with. The downside is that it's usually short-lived.
But Hobbs points out that sometimes that greatest sports heroes emerge from defeat.
"We talk about competition and winning, but sometimes the athlete can inspire more by losing with great courage, grace, and endurance," says Hobbs. "When you see an athlete completing their task despite huge odds, even if they're not actually a winner, that can be hugely inspirational, and that's a lesson one can transfer to other avenues in life."
SOURCES: Angie Hobbs, PhD, professor of philosophy, University of Warwick, Coventry, England. Richard Lustberg, PhD, sports psychologist, New York. Stanley Teitelbaum, PhD, sports psychologist, New York; author Sports Heroes as Fallen Idols. American Psychological Association.