By Shane Thomas
In sport, it's easy to position its practitioners in the narrowest of pigeon-holes. Especially in this current era, in which top level sport is big business, many look upon sports stars the way they look at celebrities. Dim-witted, vacuous, self centred and avaricous, no better than the faces of those who adorn the covers of Heat or Us Weekly.
Now of course controversy and scandal sells publications quicker than tales of hard work and subsequent success (those kind of stories take years to ferment), but that doesn't mean that the likes of Michael Vick, Danny Cipriani or Ron Artest are representative of sports stars any more than Lindsay Lohan is symptomatic of actors or all pop stars are replicants of Selena Gomez.
So for the uninitiated, or those who simply haven't pondered such a topic for whatever unknown reasons (I imagine those people have those weird things called "lives"), here's the list of the many different type of sports star:
This is the high-roller, the over-achiever. The one who wins. The one victorious. The person who succeeds as a matter of course. But it's not just in their triumphs that makes gods of these people. It's the manner in which they attain these successes. They shape events by their very presence, wielding their cricket bat, golf club or football boots as if they were Zeus himself. The sporting God is acknowledged by pundits and peers alike as the very best in their field. They elicit devotion and fealty from their fans, simply because their way is the one that all should follow and attempt to emulate. Their omnipotence has their opponents beaten before they even take to the field of play. The sporting God wins because they can. The sporting God wins because they must.
Which makes it all the more difficult to reconcile when they lose. Here's the rub. Not everyone's a member of the church of the sporting God. After a while, an atheist comes along and shows that there is no God, just a supremely talented and hard working individual for whom the bell has tolled. Sometimes the atheist in question is a rival who leaves their deference at the door and proves that the sporting God can be cut. More often that not it's the nemesis that can never be vanquished; time. It gets them all in the end.
Examples - Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Zinedine Zidane, Sir Donald Bradman
Unlike the sporting God, the opportunist is someone who wasn't born with the talent coveted by all competitive animals. They're the type to had to fight and scratch just to be able to compete. They understand the meaning of hard graft. Getting out of bed before the sun comes up to get that little bit of extra practice in to perfect their skills. Eschewing late nights out with friends during their adolescence because they know how important the fine margins are that determine success or failure in sport. That's not to say they have no ability, but not enough to see them into the land of milk & honey. The opportunist can't coast on natural intuition. They're one of the bottle, looking for an edge in sport's version of the rat race.
But every now & then, fortune smiles on them, if only for the briefest of moments. All that hard work, those repetitions upon repetitions that bring about nothing better than 3rd & 4th place finishes coalesce to offer up more tangible reward. But this window is not infinite. Anything but. And it stays open once, and once only. Ask Tim Henman. Ask Eddie Irvine. That drawbridge gets pulled up and you're left on the outside of the castle, staring up longingly at what might have been.
But the opportunist doesn't have to worry about what might have been. They took their chance when it came along. They saw the window of opportunity and vaulted straight through it. And on the other side of that window is everything that the opportunist desires. At worst they will be remembered fondly for their Carpe Diem moment. But at best, seizing their chance is a launchpad to even bigger things.
Examples - Rebecca Adlington, Eli Manning, Graeme McDowell, Ricky Burns, Dame Kelly Holmes, Lennox Lewis
THE MERCURIAL WONDER:
While the opportunist knows the sweet because they've tasted the sour, the mercurial wonder has known nothing but sweet. For them, their respective sport is never a chore. That's what happens when things come to you easily. The wonder has such a natural aptitude for what they do, they can make bystanders jaws drop with the sheer ease at which they display their talent. This can be a hindrance at the top level of sporting success, as never needing to practice means that the wonder can always be toppled from their perch by someone who understands the benefits of hard work. Sometimes perspiration can supersede inspiration.
However, the mercurial wonder doesn't always seem to care. They perform with a carefree joy. While sport is a lucrative job in the professional era, the wonder is forever stuck in the amateur mindset. They are sport's Peter Pan, never growing up, playing for the senseless joy of playing. And people love them for it. The mercurial wonder has the beautiful naivete discernible in children. They have an optimism that's infectious, and to some, the joyful memories they leave behind matter more than any trophy or award.
Examples - Ronnie O'Sullivan, Shane Warne, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, George Best, Severiano Ballesteros, Jimmy White, Sir Vivian Richards, Ayrton Senna
While the aforementioned mercurial wonder is oft beloved by sports fans, the machine is less so. If the wonder is reminiscent of the amateur days of sport gone by, the machine is forged from the professional era that we now live in.
These days, the objective in sport is simple. Win. So what does the machine do? They win. Every bit of their preparation is geared to them ending every contest out on top. Entertainment, showboating, flair? These are extraneous things that get in the way of winning. But despite these successes, they'll always be respected rather than loved.
I can only imagine that the lack of warmth comes from an inability to relate to this type of sports star. While most are guzzling turkey and wine on Christmas Day, the machine is outdoors training in the snow. They operate with a robotic coldness and are the object of criticism as a result, often derided as boring.
It's a pejorative I can never understand. Excellence is boring, is it? Then sport truly isn't for you. The only crime the sporting machine is guilty of is being a success. Maybe it's a constant reminder to ordinary people of their own personal failures in life? Well the machine doesn't have time to worry about that, they're too busy winning.
Examples - Pete Sampras, Sir Steve Redgrave, Edwin Moses, Nick Faldo, Daley Thompson
As I've already stated in this post, the world of sport has changed. We're in the age of professionalism. Sport is more than a hobby, it's a career choice. Sponsorship and advertising deals are as much a part of the world in which these people inhabit. And as the money they earn has increased, so has the press scrutiny they're under. This environment is one that is perfect for the sporting icon.
The icon isn't always the most successful in their sport. In fact, it's not even a necessity. The icon's sporting prowess is only a conduit to their earning potential. This isn't to say that they're lacking in sporting proficiency. After all, mediocrity isn't going to generate much cash.
But what makes the icon so...well, iconic, is that they often transcend their sport, due to more ephemeral qualities such as good looks or media spin. Indeed, they often transcend sport itself. Even if you hate what they do, chances are you've still heard of these people.
Examples - David Beckham, Muhammad Ali, Anna Kournikova, Mike Tyson
THE NATIONAL EMBLEM:
The emblem is alike to the icon, with one clear difference. While the icon is famous worldwide, the emblem is only a part of the consciousness of their own nation. They reap a lot of the same spoils as the icon, but this is dependent on them sustaining their sporting success. The emblem is regarded as a paragon of all that is great in their respective country. This is of course, complete twaddle. But it's a veil of ignorance that suits all concerned.
Examples - Joe DiMaggio, Sachin Tendulkar, Usain Bolt, Wayne Gretzky, Liu Xiang, Chris Evert
THE NATIONAL DISAPPOINTMENT:
Closely tied in with the national emblem is the national disappointment. Think comic-book geeks are enthusiastic? Sports fans are as ravenous and febrile as any of them. They expect and demand a level of conduct from the sportspeople they love that no sane person can expect to live up to.
But the fans don't care. If a sportsperson doesn't embody what they believe one should be, they'll turn on them in a second. They want their sporting heroes to have ambition, but not ruthless ambition. They must win, but always sportingly. They must show a fidelity to their respective nation that borders on the demented. And of course the children, won't someone please think of the children! Fail to be a strong role model for kids and your name is tarnished. It seems in the eyes of some, winning is never enough.
Examples - Lewis Hamilton, Ben Johnson, Barry Bonds, Lance Armstrong
All areas of life need their Nikola Tesla, their Alexander Graham Bell or their Wright brothers. Sport is no different. It needs people who re-invent the wheel, the person who does something that makes everyone think, "Why aren't we all doing it like that?" The revolutionary is seldom given their due, at least not until decades later. But the revolutionaries are probably the most important set of people in this list. They push sport's very evolution. And if something doesn't evolve, it becomes extinct. Without the revolutionary, the same fate would befall sport.
Examples - Dick Fosbury, Adam Gilchrist, Rinus Michels, Jackie Robinson, Vince Lombardi
This person is often disliked earlier in their career for their continued success. Many in this list could have earlier slotted into the category of "the machine".
But after a while they transcend into an endurant. This is to say, they perform in their sport for so long that eventually the public end up liking them. It's probably a case of not knowing what you have until it's gone. It's only when these people come to the end of their career that all of a sudden the public begin to recognise just how great they were.
Examples - Jack Nicklaus, Carl Lewis, Tom Watson, Martina Navratilova, Steve Davis
THE UNDERAPPRECIATED ONE:
Some of these people may end up graduating to the category of endurant or opportunist. But for now, these people remain underappreciated. They win, they do so with class, dignity and understatement. But they often have the misfortune to be brilliant in a sport that doesn't garner many column inches. Most sections of the press and sport-watching public tend to forget that not everyone can kick a football, throw a baseball or bounce a basketball.
Examples - Ben Ainslie, Rebecca Romero, Javier Zanetti, Beth Tweddle, Graeme Pollock
I thought it best to end this on a high note. The NBA have an annual award that they give out to the league's best "6th man". This is a player who doesn't start games, but still makes an invaluable contribution to the team.
This is something that can also exist across all team sports, not just basketball. The auxilary will never be the marquee name, or the person who has the most followers on their Twitter page. But their teammates know how important they are to the overall balance of the side. They never complain about having to start on the bench, they never display any prima-donna like behaviour. They show up on time, work hard, give 100%, and are worth their weight in gold to their team. You may not have heard of many of them, but trust me, no team succeeds with a good auxilary.
Examples - Toni Kukoc, David Fairclough, Rubens Barrichello, Ole Gunnar Solksjaer
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