The sporting greats of today all have at least one story to tell of legends who inspired them on their path to glory. These are a selection of truly iconic forces in the world of athletics, along with redefining moments in their careers.
Bannister became the classic iconic sports legend not so much because of his athletic prowess, but because he took on what many experts thought to be impossible. This fascinating idea of the time was the breaking of ‘the barrier’. Many men have covered a mile in under 4 minutes since, but when Roger Bannister did it for the first time in 1954, it moved the boundaries for what was possible for humanity. The news sent shockwaves around the world, opening up future floodgates to inspire generations of athletes to conquer the unconquerable.
The Olympics conducted before World War II saw a lot of political agenda being played out on the field. Hitler famously used the 1936 games to try and showcase Aryan superiority and highlight the inferiority of the African race. Added to this, America was also deeply embroiled in racial tensions. Jesse Owens went to the Olympics facing political turmoil on all sides. Regardless, he sealed his destiny as an Olympic legend with his pace and determination, leaving Berlin with gold medals the 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump, and 4 × 100-meter relay. The power of politics through a single athlete’s achievement would never be forgotten.
Having just won the 5,000m, the 10,000m in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Emil Zatopek was about to become a sporting legend in possibly the most daring way imaginable. With remarkable personality and a grueling training regime as his recipe for success, the Czech decided to take on the marathon, a distance of 42km - over than four times further than the 10,000m. The catch being that he had never run a marathon in his life! Naturally, he was considered a rank outsider. What’s more, he was also up against Jim Peters, a British runner who had shattered the world record just weeks earlier.
Zatopek caught up to Peters halfway through the race and asked him if the pace was too fast, Peters falsely replied that it was too slow to break his confidence. In a what would seem corny even in a movie, Zatopek immediately responded by accelerating away to coast to victory. It was probably the greatest ‘newbie’ sports victory ever, or since.
Setting a new world record in any sport requires a tremendous amount of hard work in order to just nudge past the previous record. Bob Beamon made history at the 1968 Olympics with a leap so epic, it happened like a bolt out of the blue. Soaring through the Mexico stadium his jump smashed the previous record by nearly two whole feet. He leapt so far that the Olympic measuring system could not cover it, and a new method had to be devised on the spot.
A testament to any great record, nobody could match Beamon’s jump for well over a decade, and it has barely been improved on half a century later. Listed in the National Track and Field Hall of Fame, Bob Beamon is the epitome of record breaker.
The phrase ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ couldn’t be any truer for Dick Fosbury. He’d spent years using the scissor jump method, then struggled trying to adapt to the newer and more preferred ‘western roll’ technique of jumping over the bar face first. Rather than go back to the scissor jump he innovated his own revolutionary technique. The effects were dramatic. In a single afternoon, he improved his personal best by half a foot.
The ‘Fosbury Flop’ came to fame in the 1968 Mexico Olympics, when he revealed his seemingly bizarre technique to the world and snatched gold in a nail-bitingly close final. The feat set the ultimate standard for what it means to be truly creative in the pursuit of victory.
With an almost ungainly and lackadaisical running technique, Johnson defied stereotypes of a super athlete. Even though he gathered a slew of Olympic and world championship gold medals throughout his prolific career, it was his rise to legendary greatness on home soil at 1996 Atlanta Games which made his mark in history.
Johnson became the only man to win both the Olympic 400m and 200m in one Games. The crowning glory though was the stunning 19.32sec world record he set. Not only had he broken his own world record time, he had broken it by more than three-tenths of a second, the largest ever chunk taken off the 200m world record. As world records are rarely ever set in championship finals, Michael Johnson’s performance was a genesis moment for defining the ultimate performer.
Enjoyed this blog? Look out for a follow-up going beyond athletics to tackle epic moments in basketball, football, soccer, ice hockey, swimming, and gymnastics!
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