Words by Charles Odugbesan
14HQ continues Black History Month with an ode to the great sportsmen and women past and present. A truly great professional athlete is measured not only by their talent, but also for their character and the ability to inspire others. There are so many I could’ve picked but only 4 will be selected. However, I must acknowledge the likes of George Weah, Florence Griffith Joyner, Usain Bolt, Lewis Hamilton, Simone Manuel, Carl Lewis, Arthur Wharton, Benjamin Odjeje and Jackie Robinson among others for their sporting contributions. Now let’s consider the chosen ones!
How do you know someone is for real? Because they can talk the talk and they damn sure can walk the walk and Muhammad Ali was a perfect example of such an individual. He gave us 19 years of brutal honesty and did it with charisma, style, charm and a champion’s mentality.
The sad truth about 1960’s America (which you could argue is true even today) is that no matter what a person of colour may achieve athletically, at the end of the day, you’re ethnicity can still class you as ‘inferior’. An Olympic gold medal winning Cassius Clay learned this when he was denied entry at a restaurant in his home town fresh from his triumph in Rome, 1960. He couldn’t gain equality in the world he was in, regardless of his success. Four year later he would win the Heavyweight Title, shocking Sonny Liston in the process. He would then shock the world by announcing both his conversion to the faith of Islam and the adoption of a new name; Muhammad Ali.
In 1966, Ali refused to serve as part of the armed forces in the Vietnam War. His famous words were the following:
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”
Ali was an incredible talker as we all know, and made his voice heard as an activist amidst the civil rights movement in the US in the early 60’s. Ali was convicted of draft evasion, sentenced to five years in jail, stripped of his title and given a 3 1/2 year boxing ban.
What was to follow on his release? More talking. More walking. His wars with Smokin’ Joe Frazier and George Foreman, saw Ali cut some of the greatest promos and produce some of the most memorable performances in all of sporting history. He retired in 1979 with a 56-5 record and a storied career that many believe to be the ‘greatest of all time’.
A political figure, an activist, a revolutionary. A smooth talking, stiff jabbing once in a lifetime artist. Ali was indeed The Greatest.
Jesse Owens from Oakville, Alabama is one of the most famous and important sportsmen in black history. Similarly to Ali, he was born in a time period where racism and segregation in America were at large. To this day his legacy is both well known and synonymous with boldness and brilliance in the face of great adversity.
Owens boasts 2 eternal moments in athletics. The first was in 1935, a year before the Berlin Olympics, at the Big Ten track meet in Ann Arbour, Michigan. Owens equalled the world record in the 100 yard dash before setting 3 world records in the long jump, 200 yard dash and 200 yard low hurdles… ALL WITHIN 45 MINUTES!!! Since then it has been hailed as ‘the greatest 45 minutes ever in sport’. Brilliant.
Fast forward to August 1936 and in the midst of Nazi Germany, where Chancellor Adolf Hitler reigned and wanted to use the Olympics to showcase his theory of a dominant Aryan Race in which his German athletes of Aryan descent would dominate the track and field medal tally, Jesse was defiant. He would go on to win gold in the 100, 200, long jump and 4×100, cast aside Adolf Hitler’s bold statements and achieve greatness despite the racial hardship he suffered his whole life in the same country he now represented. Bold.
Carl Lewis mirrored Owens’ achievements almost 50 years later at the Los Angeles, Olympics. But his feats pale in comparison to Jesse. Jesse Owens was the pioneer. The great man. Bold and brilliant. Without him we would have never seen the likes of Christian Coleman, Justin Gatlin, Maurice Green, Michael Johnson and so on.
The arrival of two sisters from Compton, California in the late 90’s were revolutionary to the game of women’s tennis. Venus and Serena Williams have been raising the bar, dominating with their speed, strength and accuracy for nearly 20 years now. But even as dominating as 7x Major Champion Venus Williams is, it is her younger sister Serena who stands as one of THE all time greats of the sport.
In 1999, an 18 year old Serena won the US Open and in doing so became the first black woman to win a Grand Slam in 41 years (since Athea Gibson). $80 million and a further 22 Major titles later, Serena is the highest earning female, most successful ACTIVE tennis player (more so than Federer) and 2nd most decorated female athlete in singles competition ever behind Margaret Court!
We can also add 16 doubles titles and 4 Olympic gold medals to her list of honours while we’re at it!
Perhaps the most testing time of her playing career and her life was between 2009 and 2012. Banned for two years for swearing at an umpire in November 2009, she would suffer a serious tendon injury to her right foot the following year and in February 2011 undergo surgery to remove a blood clot in her lung. Though her career and even more importantly, her life was hanging in the balance, things turned out fine in the end – she would go on to win at both Wimbledon and Flushing Meadows in 2012 and reclaim her position back at the top of the sport.
Her frequent charity work, appearances in tv shows and music videos along with a high sense of fashion are all well known besides her physical dominance. Serena is a barrier breaker who conveys style, beauty, strength and excellence in all her endeavours.
Now surely in the twilight of her tennis she faces the inevitable… her emphatic stamp on the game inspiring a new wave. Serena must now see herself in young, exuberant, hungry sensations like Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff who have gone from being young girls marvelling at their idol to rubbing shoulders and trading backhands with a direct rival.
When you talk about Basketball in the modern day, a large part of the conversation will be about The King, Lebron James. Coming out of High School and straight into the NBA, James was dubbed ‘The Chosen One’ as people looked to him to take the reigns from a retired Michael Jordan and an ageing Kobe Bryant. In the 17 years to follow, Lebron boasts 3 Championships and as many Finals MVP, 8 consecutive final appearances, 4 MVP’s, 16 AllStar appearances, 2 Olympic Gold medals and 1 Scoring title – and this is barely scratching the surface in terms of his on court contribution. In 2010 his well documented move from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Miami Heat caused a shift in power from organisations to players going forward and his blueprint and ideology has been emulated by several current players in the league
Off the field Lebron supplemented the global appeal of his on court exploits with incredible business savvy and philanthropy. He has taken on an ‘executive producer’ role in Vince Carter’s ‘The Carter Effect’ documentary and 2 Chainz ‘Rap or go to the League’ studio album to name a few. He owns a digital video company known as Uninterrupted, backed by Warner Bros. Entertainment and Turner Sports as well as boasting joint ownership of SpringHill Entertainment with business partner Maverick Carter. And FUN FACT: Lebron James also owns shares in Liverpool Football Club. He’ll be expecting some nice returns after this season for sure! Frequent charitable donations, political standpoints and the opening of his ‘I Promise’ elementary school in Akron, Ohio demonstrate that this man’s influence has gone way beyond the sport of Basketball. Similar to his playing style on the court, Lebron is looking to be a facilitator of greatness and achievement.
Lebron James is great example of a combination of sporting and business excellence. He carried on bringing the NBA to the attention of the world and is influential in the way that players now conduct their business. Many thought we would never see another like Mike in Basketball for a very very long time… and we haven’t! Lebron on and off the court adopts a very different approach to Jordan, but one could argue that he is equally as classy as his predecessor.