Men who changed the world of sports
By Brandon Yip, Senior Columnist
There have been a plethora of male professional athletes who have made their mark on the sporting world, and what better time to mention them than for International Men’s Day? I have narrowed it down to a list of 10 male athletes in no particular order. In my opinion, these 10 men not only made an impact on their respective sports, but their popularity transcended sports on a global scale—endearing them to the public masses—along with influencing a future generation of athletes.
On April 15, 1947, Robinson became the first African-American to break the colour barrier in baseball, as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers. He played 10 years in the Majors, winning the inaugural Rookie of the Year Award in 1947. He was also an All-Star for six straight seasons between 1949 and 1954 and won the National League MVP Award in 1949—the first African-American player to be honoured. Robinson played in six World Series and was a key contributor to the Dodgers’ World Series championship in 1955. The baseball legend died in October 1972 at age 53. Since 2004, every April 15 is “Jackie Robinson Day,” when all Major League Baseball players wear number 42.
Owens was a star track and field athlete who won four Olympic Gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany: 100 metres, long jump, 200 meters, and 4 × 100-metre relay. His accomplishments have been recognized with an award named in his honour: The Jesse Owens Award—the award for the year’s best track and field athlete. ESPN ranked Owens as the sixth greatest North American athlete of the 20th century and the highest-ranked in his sport. In 1999, the BBC included Owens as part of a six-man short list for the network’s Sports Personality of the Century. Owens died in March 1980 at age 66.
His influence transcended sports and made him a worldwide beloved figure. After winning the heavyweight boxing title in 1964 when he defeated Sonny Liston, Ali dominated the sport of boxing. But in 1967, at the peak of his career, the US government stripped Ali of his heavyweight title—after he refused to be drafted to fight during the Vietnam War. He returned to the ring in 1970; and would have several famous bouts with Joe Frazier, George Foreman, and Ken Norton. Unfortunately, the frequent punches Ali absorbed in the ring would lead to him developing Parkinson’s disease. He died in June 2016 at the age of 74.
Howe was the first NHL superstar of the “Original Six” team era (1942-1967). Known as “Mr. Hockey,” he was the perennial power forward. Howe was big, strong, mean, tough, and often dirty—delivering elbows that would make UFC fighters jealous. Howe could score, make plays, and fight when needed. He played 26 seasons in the NHL with the Detroit Red Wings and Hartford Whalers. Howe won four Stanley Cups with the Red Wings. He was also a 23-time NHL All-Star, and he currently holds the NHL records for most games and seasons played. Howe died in June 2016 at the age of 88.
Orr was a revolutionary hockey player who forever changed the way NHL defenceman played hockey. Orr’s free-wheeling style of carrying the puck up the ice from his own zone and through the other team’s defensive zone and opposing players usually led to opposing goalies fishing the puck out of their own net. He won two Stanley Cups with the Boston Bruins in 1970, and 1972, and won a record eight straight Norris Trophies as the league’s best defenceman. He retired in 1979 due to numerous knee injuries and operations that deteriorated his level of play. Orr remains the only NHL defenceman to win the scoring title (winning twice in 1970 and 1975).
The “Great One” dominated his sport like no other athlete. During his 20 years in the NHL with the Edmonton Oilers, Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues, and New York Rangers, Gretzky set numerous NHL records. He still holds the record for most goals in one season (92 during the 1981-82 season); most assists in one season (163 during the 1985-86 season); and most points in one season (215 in the 1985-86 season). Gretzky won four Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers. He is also the NHL’s all-time point leader with 2,857 points (894 goals and 1,963 assists).
The man named “Air Jordan” played 15 seasons in the NBA, winning six titles with the Chicago Bulls. On the official NBA website, his biography states: “By acclamation, Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time.” Jordan was seminal in helping to popularize the NBA worldwide in the 1980s and 1990s—ultimately becoming a global cultural icon. The recent Netflix documentary, The Last Dance, about Jordan and the Bulls’ last NBA title in 1998—reintroduced Jordan to a younger generation of fans.
Today’s greatest NBA player started his career in 2003. James has played for the Cleveland Cavaliers, Miami Heat, and is currently with the LA Lakers. James holds the record for all-time playoff points, is ranked third in all-time points, and is eighth in career assists. Notably, James is the only NBA player in history to bring NBA championships to three teams as the Finals MVP. He has also played in 10 NBA Finals, including eight straight with the Heat and Cavaliers between the years 2011 to 2018. James has won four NBA titles, four MVP Awards, and four Finals MVP Awards, along with two Olympic gold medals.
Roger Bannister was a pioneer record-setting runner from England. In May 1954, he became the first man to run the mile in under four minutes (time was 3:59.4). He and fellow runner, John Landy, would meet head-to-head for the mile race at the British Empire Games in Vancouver, BC. The race was held at Empire Stadium and it became known as the “Miracle Mile” with Bannister winning the race with a time of 3:58:8. Landy finished in second with a time of 3:59:6. Notably, it was the first time that two runners had broken the mile barrier in the same race. Bannister died in March 2018 at the age of 88.
He is regarded as one of the greatest soccer players of all time. He began playing for the Brazilian national team at age 16 before going on to win three FIFA World Cups (1958, 1962, and 1970)—the only player to ever accomplish this feat. Pelé is the all-time leading goal scorer for his country with 77 goals in 92 games. According to the International Federation of Football History & Statistics, Pelé is the most successful top division scorer of all time—scoring 541 goals in 560 appearances. His 1,279 goals in 1,363 games (including friendly matches) is a Guinness World Record.