8 Unforgettable Athletes to Break the Boundaries of Sport
The rigid cultural, political and social boundaries that have traditionally framed many sports around the world are beginning to dissolve. Sports should not be defined by gender, race, sexuality or disability – and such labels are extremely limiting.
So, it’s time to break the rules. Here are the revolutionary sportspeople of the last century to get you inspired.
1. Jesse Owens: An Unexcepted Athlete
Jesse Owens was pivotal in paving the way for ethnic equality in sports, long before popular culture idolised black sports heroes. Son of a sharecropper and grandson of a slave, Owens was breaking athletic records in his youth and racial boundaries at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
The Berlin Games were hijacked by Hitler to promote his Nazi agenda. Alas, the sight of a black athlete winning four gold medals poked a few holes in his insane Aryan ideology. Owens won more than any other American track and field athlete in a single Olympic Games. In this case, sport speaks louder than words in defying the very core of Hitler’s claims to a “physically superior” race.
Owens returned home to a country where he wasn’t allowed to sit at the front of a bus, let alone vote. Sadly, his outstanding achievements remained unrewarded until 1950 when he was voted the greatest track and field star of the first half of the century. From there, Owens became a public speaker and opened a PR firm. He finally received recognition from the US government when President Ford honored him with the Medal of Freedom in 1976, just four years before his death.
2. Trischa Zorn: The Swimmer With Blind Strength
Trischa Zorn is the world’s most successful Paralympic athlete. Born in the US with aniridia, she’s legally blind but can see shadows immediately in front of her, allowing her to follow markers on the bottom of the swimming pool.
Zorn first swam in the 1980 Paralympic Games at the age of 16 and has since won an astounding 55 medals in total – 41 gold, 9 silver and 5 bronze. She was named one of the top 10 female athletes of 1994 by the US Olympic Committee, which serves as a reminder that disabled athletes should be honored no differently to their able-bodied counterparts.
Zorn has swam beyond boundaries by inspiring countless others. She teaches disabled children in an inner-city Indianapolis school, where she tells students that their disabilities should never stop them from setting and reaching goals. It’s a case of mind over matter, as she explains, “My motivation lies in the fact that I truly love what I'm doing.” This woman is living proof that with the right attitude, anything is possible.
3. Sara Cox: Britain’s First Female Referee
Sara Cox is the radical referee that’s making history. She’s the first female to be handed a full-time contract from the Rugby Football Union, taking charge of men’s matches in National League One and second tier domestic games.
Cox trains in Twickenham, alongside male counterparts such as Wayne Barnes and JP Doyle. She refereed at the Rio 2016 Olympics and has travelled the world to referee at the Women’s Rugby World Cup, all by the young age of 27. She even reached England’s U21 trials during her late teenage years, but had to pull out due to injury.
This is the woman who’s paving the way for females in sport by showing that gender is not a limitation. “I want to push as high as I can possibly can,” says Cox. “I’d like to leave behind a legacy where there is a clear pathway for other females to be involved.” She has already set the trend for other women, with Alhambra Nievas and Joy Neville following in her footsteps and becoming the first women in Europe to take charge of men’s international matches.
4. Stanisław Kowalski: An Extremely Athletic Grandad
Stanisław Kowalski, born 1910, is the oldest living man in Poland, who also happens to be the world’s oldest athlete. On competing at the Polish Veterans Championships in 2015, he ran the 100m in 34.50 seconds, threw the shotput 4.27m and the discus 7.5m. At 105 years old, he’s still got it.
The World Masters Athletics even created a new age division for him, as he fell above the highest age bracket. He was initially the only member to compete, making all his performances world records. Kowalski demonstrates that age is just a number, crediting his longevity to never going to the doctor and doing whatever he wants.
The man has a keen sense of humour too. In 2014 (aged 104), Kowalski competed at the Youth Olympics 100m dash, finishing in 32.70 seconds. He’d only started running 12 years previously, but still managed to get crowned the oldest person in Europe to run a 100m race. After the sprint, Kowalski said, “I feel like a new man.” So take a leaf out of this Grandad’s book, because it’s the taking part that counts.
5. Tom Daley: The Diver Who Outdid The Media
At just 14 years old, Tom Daley was the youngest competitor in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and went on to become the greatest LBGT icon of the Games. The loss of his father, criticism from his synchro partner, bullying at school, and continual hounding from the tabloids, made for tough teenage years.
In the face of adversity, Daley demonstrated physical and mental strength by breaking free from his burdens. He won two golds at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, a bronze at the 2012 Olympics as well as the BBC’s Young Sports Personality of the Year award three times over.
Daley’s greatest feat came in 2013, when he beat the media at their own game. He came out about his sexuality on his own terms, redefining what it means to be a sportsman. Hardly a rarity in modern day Britain, homosexuality remains a predominantly closed door in the world of sport. But the admiration and love Daley received for his statement may be the very thing that’s inspired others to follow suit. Daley has since become an LGBT campaigner in his own right – and won another Olympic medal.
6. Muhammad Ali: The Boxer Who Broke Boundaries
Muhammed Ali was not just an athlete who embodied the times in which he lived (1942-2016), he shaped them. He pushed the boundaries in all areas of his life to show that skin colour is totally irrelevant when it comes to sport, and society as a whole.
As a boxer, Ali’s technique was unique. He was agile and nimble on his feet but brash in style, breaking all the traditional rules of the ring. Nonetheless, he won a gold medal at the 1960 Olympics and became three-time world heavyweight champion, winning the crown from Sonny Liston in 1964, which he was later stripped of for his conscientious objection to the Vietnam war.
Outside of the ring, Ali pushed racial boundaries by speaking out for civil rights, and even throwing his Olympic medal into the Ohio River after being refused service at a “whites only” restaurant. He adopted Islam as a religion and became a strong advocate for peace and equality, inspiring numerous minorities to challenge the prejudices placed upon them by the government.
7. Renee Richards: Transcending Gender Through Tennis
Renee Richards, born 1934 as Richard Raskind, made a huge leap forward for transsexual rights in the world of sport. At a time when transsexualism was considered to be a perversion and classified as a form of insanity, it was not easy to be both man and woman.
As a man, she achieved great success on the court, reaching the 35-and-over men's tennis championship in 1972. But as a woman, it was a whole other story. After being invited to play in her first female tournament, 25 of the 32 women competing withdrew to form an alternative competition. Television hosts joked that she was her own mixed doubles team, and crowds were rooted against her. To win the right to play as a woman, she had to sue the United States Tennis Association.
Despite the continual discrimination, Richards peaked at a ranking of No. 20 over a four-year career as a female tennis player and won the 35-and-over women's championship. She used tennis to show a patriarchal America that skill will always triumph over segregation.
8. Magic Johnson: The Basketballer Who Bared It All
His name is “Magic” for a reason. This LA Lakers superstar played a key role both in basketball history and in challenging preconceptions around HIV. Over the course of his career, Johnson scored 17,707 points and became the all-time leader in NBA assists per game – a title that he continues to hold today.
In 1991, Magic was forced to retire from the Lakers at the peak of his career, after discovering he had HIV. At the time, the virus was believed to affect homosexuals or intravenous drug users, so there was a lot of fear and judgement regarding how it could be transmitted. Despite severe backlash, Magic decided to go public to help raise awareness about the disease.
He returned to basketball in 1992, only to be forced out again amidst fear from other players about playing with an HIV-positive competitor. In 1996, he made a brief but extremely powerful comeback to the Lakers, leaving behind a legendary legacy. At retirement, he became a prolific campaigner to educate people about HIV discrimination, and established his own foundation to support research into the disease.
Paving The Way
These pioneers just go to show that in the eyes of sport, everyone is equal. Differences in ethnicity, gender, sexuality and disability should be left at the sidelines, because once you’re on that pitch, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you’ve come from. In diversity there is beauty, respect and strength – and that will always win.
Read more: 6 Women To Break The Mould