The American Dream Is Personified In Our Champions
Sports illuminate and transform a society. Sports change lives, affect politics, fuel our economy, and shape our culture. The American Dream is personified in our champions, in the records they set and the barriers they break. The dynamic interaction of athletes, fans, and the media produces inexplicable loyalties, lasting legends, and revered heroes. The greatest champions stand for more than the records they break. They stand for the barriers they shatter-physical, social, psychological, racial, cultural-and change the way we think about our world.
To be first takes the imagination to attempt the impossible, the courage to go where others have never ventured, and the strength to succeed. Records can be broken, but to be first is a permanent distinction. Pioneering athletes bring monumental change to sports and beyond. They transform the world by changing minds.
John L. Sullivan fought his way to the heavyweight championship and charmed his way to truly national celebrity. The bare-knuckle prizefighter personified the masculine, aggressive spirit of the era, and the fans who loved him vastly outnumbered his detractors. After capturing the 1882 championship, the "Boston Strong Boy" toured the world defending his title and burnishing his image. This son of poor Irish immigrants rose above the prejudice of his day, and his celebrity demonstrated a national shift towards the acceptance of Irish Americans. Though boxing was illegal in most states, the press-savvy Sullivan won fans from every walk of life, including the president of the United States. At the high point of his career, Sullivan's supporters bought him a diamond-encrusted belt which was presented to him by the mayor of Boston. "The Great John L." lost only one of his nearly 50 career fights, falling to James "Gentleman Jim" Corbett in 1892.
Roger Bannister's impact on America-and the world-was immediate. The young Englishman changed the perception of human limitations when he broke a seemingly insurmountable barrier: the sub-four-minute mile. The Oxford University medical student used intense interval training, an innovative distance running and sprint technique, to fine-tune his speed. On May 6, 1954, at the British Amateur Athletic Association in Oxford, Bannister brought in a time of 3:59.4, hailed around the world as the "miracle mile." Bannister's performance and new record captured the imagination of people around the world-especially Americans. "The Running Doctor" was the first international sports star celebrated in this country for his heroic accomplishments. He was Sports Illustrated's first Sportsman of the Year in 1955. A psychological barrier was shattered. What once was impossible became standard. In a post-war world where technology was on the rise, Bannister's feat was viewed as an exhilarating testament to the power of the human body and spirit.
Olympians never fail to inspire. Despite scandal and political differences, the athletes provide a glimpse of a world where competition can bring out the best in every participant. As they shatter records, Olympians break barriers. Since 1896 they broke down walls for women, racial and ethnic groups, and impoverished nations. The Games endure as a symbol of global community. The athletes embody that symbol.
Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin assembled the first International Olympic Committee and organized the first modern Olympic Games, held in Athens in 1896. Coubertin was inspired by the ancient Greek games-dating back to 776 B.C.-where competition was honored above winning. He sought to capture that spirit in the modern Olympics and made the Games an international celebration of sportsmanship and peace. All participants in the first modern Olympics received a bronze medal designed by Belgian sculptor Godefroid Devreese (1861-€"1940). First-place winners were awarded silver medals and olive wreaths, while the second-place finishers received copper medals and laurel crowns. At the 1904 St. Louis Olympics, gold, silver, and bronze medals were awarded for the first time.
Bobby Morrow blazed a trail from Texas to Olympic gold and back, and changed the way the world thought about all Olympians. He was one of the fastest American sprinters ever. Training on a Texas farm, Morrow honed his lightning starts and sharpened his skills to dominate the 100- and 200-meter dashes in the 1950s. He qualified for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, joining an American team with an established pedigree. Between 1896 and 1952, American men won 44 Olympic medals in the 100- and 200-meter dashes. In Melbourne, Morrow continued the tradition. He captured gold in the 100- and 200-meter dashes, tying the world record in the latter. He won a rare third gold in the 4x100-meter relay, propelling the team to a world record. Morrow was the first man to win three gold medals at an Olympics since Jesse Owens' 1936 Berlin performance.
Some athletes change the game for everyone. They possess style and ability so novel and striking that they set a new standard against which every other player is measured. In their exemplary careers and great moments of achievement, they do more than set records, they challenge everyone around them to excel. Game makers leave a legacy of electrifying events exalted by the media, relished by fans, and studied by generations of athletes and coaches to come.
Sandy Koufax was not only one of baseball's greatest pitchers, but he was also a man of principles. Koufax was signed to his hometown Brooklyn Dodgers in 1955 and started pitching regularly for them when they moved to Los Angeles. In 1961, with hard-won control and a wicked curve ball, Koufax won 18 games and triggered one of the most exciting five-season performances ever seen on a mound. This included three seasons of 25 wins, the lowest earned-run average in baseball for five straight years, a no-hitter in each of four consecutive seasons, and three World Series championships. In 1965, Koufax racked up 382 strikeouts-a tally only bested by Nolan Ryan. Koufax's influence went beyond the mound. In 1965, he chose not to pitch the opening game of the World Series because the game fell on Yom Kippur, a Jewish holy day. Some criticized him for missing such an important game, however, Koufax came back to play in three of the remaining six games, pitching a shut-out victory in the seventh and deciding game to win the Series. Stricken with a debilitating arthritic condition, Koufax retired after the 1966 season at the age of 30.
Terry Bradshaw quarterbacked his way into the record books by setting the career Super Bowl mark at nine touchdown tosses and 932 yards passing. Bradshaw propelled the Pittsburgh Steelers from last place in 1969 to the team's first Central Division Championship in 1972. He led the team to four Super Bowl wins in 1974, 1975, 1979, and 1980. At Super Bowl XIV in 1980, the Steelers met the Los Angeles Rams at the Rose Bowl for what experts predicted would be an easy Steelers victory. Instead, the Rams fought hard. Three times the Rams pulled ahead of the Steelers. In the fourth quarter, Bradshaw unleashed a 73-yard touchdown pass for a 31-19 victory. After injuries hastened his retirement in 1983, Bradshaw became a television sports commentator, pre-game host, and popular pitchman.
Some of the greatest sports heroes are inventors and innovators. They remove barriers to sports by extending opportunities for everyone. As sports became a hallmark of the American way of life, more Americans advocated for a chance to play and excel. Inventors refined or created equipment to make sports safer, easier, and more accessible. Others contributed by proving that disease and disability need not stand in the way of the will to compete and win.
In the pantheon of sports stars, a few individuals possess transcendent ability and charisma. Through the media, popular culture, and commerce, these larger-than-life stars command worldwide attention. As athletes they inspire imitation. As super-celebrities, they capture the public imagination. As historical figures, they become symbols of their times.
Babe Ruth is, without question, the single greatest presence in the history of American baseball, the one player who will always define "the slugger." Ruth created a sensation. In his 15 seasons with the Yankees, Ruth and his team won seven pennants and four World Series. Aggressively compiling records, Ruth glamorized baseball. "The Sultan of Swat" hit more than 40 homers per season in 11 seasons-a record never equaled-and 60 in one season. Before he retired in 1935, Ruth hit 714 career home runs, a record few players have even approached. Fans loved Ruth. Newspapers chronicled his home runs and the printable aspects of his personal life. He made the game livelier, perfect for the new medium of radio. The Ruth-dominated 1922 World Series was the first to be broadcast. The uninhibited superstar gave regular interviews, posed for advertisements, acted in movies, and barnstormed the country showcasing his dazzling ability and flippant personality. He was the athletic embodiment of his times, the speakeasy-flapper-Jazz-Age hero. During the Depression, many Americans identified with his rags-to-riches story. When the "Bambino" died in 1948, the nation mourned the passing of the world's greatest baseball player.
Pelé, the world's greatest soccer player, electrified the world's most popular sport. At age 15, he joined the Santos soccer team in Brazil, the youngest member of the team. He led the national team to World Cup championships in 1958, 1962, and 1970. With dazzling skill, speed, and ball control, Pelé set every scoring record in Brazil. In international matches, he posted an unprecedented average of one goal per game. In 1969, Pelé scored his 1,000th career goal and gave the roaring crowd his trademark salute, a moment fixed in soccer history. Pelé left Brazil and joined the New York Cosmos in 1974. Although soccer was the most popular sport in the world, it was barely acknowledged in the United States.
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