5 Iconic Athletes You Need To Know

by Coach Reiss
November 13th, 2019

How many times have you been talking about sport with friends and family and the topic of folklore athletes come up? The lines always start: Have you heard of …..? Did you know that back in the day…? My parents used to play against…

The list goes on. This article is here to help you look smart in front of your peers. It is your time to drop some sporting history knowledge and get looks of awe reflected back at you. Without further ado, here are 5 iconic athletes from 5 different sports from back in the heyday.

Football: Eusebio 

The ‘Black Panther’ was born and raised in Mozambique in 1942 which, back then, was still a colony of Portugal. Eusebio was one the first worldwide African football superstars and is still the greatest player to come out of that continent. He started the Africa to Europe movement, blazing a path from poverty to prominence that many young African footballers would follow, think Drogba, Toure, Eto’o etc. He averaged almost a goal a game (he scored 733 times in 745 professional matches), and in his only World Cup appearance in 1966 won the Golden Boot scoring nine times in six appearances. However, the true mark of how good an athlete the ‘Black Panther’ was, is when Inter Milan wanted to buy him for $3 million (quite a lot of money in the 1960’s). Eusebio meant so much to the country that Portugal’s dictator at the time, Salazar, had to issue a decree forbidding Eusebio to leave the country. He was so good that a country introduced a law to keep him. If ever there was a mark of respect towards towards and iconic athlete, surely that is it?!

Cycling: Eddy Merckx 

Some say Merckx is the greatest cyclist to grace this planet. Edouard Louis Joseph Baron Merckx won Le Tour de France five times between 1969-1974. Fascinatingly, he won it as many times as names he has! He also won the Giro d’Italia five times, the Vuelta a Espana once – and all the major classics at least twice. As incredible as that sounds, Merckx also managed to win over 500 career races. To put that in perspective, Lance Armstrong did not even win nearly half that number of races in his career. As statistics are the foundation of all sport in North America, let’s outdo that one… Throughout Merckx’s entire career he won an astounding 35% of all the races he took part in, a number which topped at a ridiculous 41% for the 1971 calendar year. Merckx won one out of every three times he heard the BANG of the starter gun… He won 34 stages throughout his Tour de France career, six more than his closest rival Bernard Hinault. Adding all the stage wins from Le Tour de France winners, you would have to go from Chris Froome in 2015, back to Jan Ulrich in 1997 before the sum of all usurped Merckx’s total. He was a truly exciting rider to watch.

Golf: Bobby Locke

Arthur Locke (nicknamed ‘Bobby’ due to his admiration of Bobby Jones) was the greatest golfer in the post WWII era. He won The Open Championship four times between 1949-1957, and won 11 times on the PGA Tour between 1947-1949. How did someone so good not win another tour event from then onwards? The PGA of America in fact barred Locke from competing on the PGA Tour. Superficially this was because Locke had defaulted on some commitments to tournaments immediately after his first Open triumph in 1949. However, common consensus was that disgruntled US Tour players pushed for the ban to occur due to the fact that Bobby Locke was taking all their potential winnings. Poor Bobby holds the not so sought after accolade of being the only golfer to ever be banned from the PGA Tour for being too good at putting the little white ball into the hole! The ban was eventually lifted but Locke never felt comfortable enough to return, so stayed playing around the lochs, links and lack of sun that encapsulate Europe. Swingers and hackers alike know that golf techniques can tell you very personal things about a man, and this was true with Locke. But it was on the greens that this man truly shined. Gripping an old trusty and very rusty putter, with a shaft made of hickory, taking an age and more to hit the ball, he rarely missed. Gary Player summed this up fantastically when he said, “One six-foot putt, for my life? I’ll take Bobby Locke. I’ve seen them all, and there was never a putter like him.”

Tennis: Evonne Goolagong 

Goolagong was one of the best female tennis players during the 1970’s ‘Golden Era’ of women’s tennis. Names during that period included Navratilova, Evert, Jean-King, Wade and Court.  She is of an Australian Aboriginal family who grew up in the small Australian country town of Barellan. Aboriginal people at the time encountered widespread discrimination, so Goolagong was fortunate and brave enough to get to play in her town. With that opportunity she never looked back! She won 4 consecutive Australian Opens (1974-1977) and for good measure also won The French Open and Wimbledon twice. She is 8th on the list of all time Grand Slams with 7 and has 12 overall including doubles and mixed doubles. What made Goolagong such a competitive and tough opponent to face was that she was so consistent. With a total of 84 career singles titles on the WTA, she was at the top of her game week in, week out. Almost 40 of these titles came from 1971-1973. Goolagong reached an incredible amount of finals. At the US Open she reached four in a row, while at the Australian Open she reached a record 7 straight finals. This shows just how consistent Goolagong was at competing at a high level.   During the most dominant era of women’s tennis, to have such a great record speaks volumes for the type of player she was. In another era, Goolagong would have totally dominated the sport. But she will say that she wouldn’t have it any other way. A true competitor!

Boxing: Jack Johnson 

The Galveston Giant was the first African-American heavyweight champion of the world, a feat he achieved by defeating Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia in 1908. Growing up, Johnson moved around many labour jobs throughout Texas. It was during this time he fell in love with boxing. For years Johnson tried to get a title shot but to no avail due to the fact that he was ‘a black man’ and the champion at the time, Jim Jefferies, refused to fight him. Jefferies eventually retired without giving The Galveston Giant a shot at the belt. And so Johnson followed the new title holder, Tommy Burns, around the world on his global tour until eventually an Aussie business dangled an amount of money that was too big to refuse. Johnson won comfortably. The retired Jefferies returned to the ring to claim back the title off Johnson, much to the delight of the boxing fraternity back then. However, Johnson won with ease in what was dubbed ‘the fight of the century’ to crush any illusions of superiority within the sport. Many were not happy about this and Johnson eventually had to flee the U.S. only to return after 7 years later and still be imprisoned for misdemeanours. However, to sum up The Galveston Giant, his boxing strategy was far from exciting, but out the ring Johnson was his own man, he insisted the world tolerate who he was. He did not pretend, but unfortunately, society was not ready for “blunt and authentic Jack”. And it wouldn’t be for many more decades.

I strongly suggest you research these athletes more from here. They have absolutely fascinating history, not all glorified too. It is near on impossible to encapsulate their story in less than 300 words each and do it justice. If you have any other amazing people who might be forgotten over time, or who have flown under the radar from years gone by, post a comment of them, or even better, a bit of background as well. Here at PlayyOn we are always fascinated to hear about interesting sporting characters!

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