Fact and Fantasy, Hope and Pride: Sports Myth and Legend

M MacDonald Hall@@DocMacHallSenior Analyst IAugust 21, 2008


21st Century American Olympic hero Michael Phelps (main), Canadian 1920s speed-demon Percy Williams (on shoulders) and misfit British ski-jump champion Eddie the Eagle (inset).  Great and small, each have and will be woven into the colourful pattern of sports folklore.

Myth and legend. An endlessly interesting realm which explores everything from the magic of sport to the nature of life. Though the explanations of nature’s greatest wonders are known to us all, as sports fans we revel—and sometimes help create—the legends and myths that surround our athletic heroes. Olympic dreams, athletic feats, and sporting glory give the world irreplaceable inspiration in the guise of such moving tales.

Even George Washington, who held a broad-jump record which stood for more than a century, inspired through fictionalised ‘truth’. Apparently, his famous and proverbial encounter with a cherry tree is essentially invention.

This article began when I heard the story of Percy Williams, an Olympic runner who found his place in history in the late 1920s. Hailing out of the then sparsely-populated west coast of Canada, the lanky sprinter really seemed to appear out of nowhere when he hit the international scene.

It’s just a tiny fable, but it’s one of countless like it which help highlight and emboss our beloved world of sport. So, bear with me. The story I was told about the Canadian cruiser goes something like this:

Percy is running trials for a school track and field coach somewhere in Vancouver, British Columbia. Making the kid repeat the run and rechecking his stopwatch over and over, the coach watches in disbelief. This scrawny teenager is a hair away from the world record time, and with each dash he only gets closer!

Keeping a potential future champion twiddling his thumbs in obscurity wouldn’t do, so young Percy was shipped off to Ontario to participate in national trials and take a hopeful step towards international stardom. As he boarded the train for the week-long journey, he enquired about the oversized car attached at the back. It seemed Williams had plans for what turned out to be the 80-yrd-long postal carriage.

Possibly out of patriotic spirit, possibly out of complete shock at the request, the powers-that-were allowed Percy unlimited use of the tailing car. Taking time to clear as much of a path as possible through the unwieldy postbags, he proceeded to spend his first cross-country ride running up and down his homemade ’track’.

Although thoroughly focused on his routine runs, Williams earned the privilege of his private gym by helping out in situ. As the train slowed at each and every miniscule whistlestop along the way, bulky postal bags were heaved out onto the platform and hefty new bundles hurried on board. Percy added the workload seamlessly to his schedule, and only seemed to grow stronger with each passing mile.

When the engine and it’s caravan finally reached Percy Williams’ final destination, he had been bouncing off baggage and working every possible muscle for days on end. The teenager had crossed the second-largest landmass on Earth, running all the way.

No one at the event had any idea who he was, and he seemed to pose no real threat. Only 125lbs and saddled with a bad ticker, the youth looked like he should collapse at the slightest jolt.

In spite of appearances, Percy Williams was only made the stronger for everything he had gone through, on the rails and in life. Not only did he blaze ahead of the competition at the meet to win his events, but he broke the world’s record before taking his talent to the Olympic gold-medal podium!

The story as I was heard it may or may not entirely accurate. In fact, knowing his history I can see a few things which could have easily been plundered from the impressive career he eventually had. The story may even be a complete fabrication, perhaps based on some other impressive fact or simply woven with care and imagination to honour a local hero.

Whatever the reality, the fact that the tale is still known and broadcast today is not only impressive, but inspiring.  Percy Williams would indeed set records despite his heart condition, hit international fame, and win Olympic gold medals (1928), the only non-American to take a double 100m and 200m gold in the 20thCentury. It took 90 years to repeat that feat, when Jamaica’s Usain Bolt won the double events at Beijing in 2008.

Short though his career was, Williams certainly had an inspirational athletic life despite the many obstacles he encountered, and his aptitude was ultimately recognised the world over.

Eddie the Eagle is another nearly-unknown who made an unlikely athletic impact, but his was an entirely different brand of sporting legacy. An overweight, short-sighted plasterer from Cheltenham, Michael Edwards was Britain’s first Olympic ski-jumper. Indeed, he zipped down the slopes wearing coke-bottle goggles and posing one of the goofiest sporting figures ever seen. Purists and novices alike found the awkward image of Eddie in tights failing—often miserably—at his chosen sport difficult to watch. Regardless, it seemed the worse he performed the more people loved him, and the more famous he became.

He earned marks for simply competing as a complete amateur amongst the world’s best at the 1988 Winter Olympics—though many people weren't at all happy about it. In fact, it was thanks to his hapless efforts that strict entry rules were established immediately for future Olympic Games.

Despite all this, the character known as Mr Magoo earned the first individual athlete mention at any Olympic ceremony while at Calgary '88, and is still in the limelight to this day, twenty years on. Eddie attracts local media attention everywhere he travels, has written books and made recordings, and will even be the subject of a feature-film.

The movie based on Michael Edwards' life is now in pre-production, and features Steve Coogan (best known to US audiences from Tropical Thunder, Night at the Museum, and Curb Your Enthusiasm) in the title role, Eddie the Eagle.

Moving up to the present day, the most obvious modern US Olympic star is American hero Michael Phelps. His unbelievable eight gold medal/world record swimming performances at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics eclipsed virtually everything else at the Games. He now owns a record number of gold-medal victories (14), has sixteen Olympic medals in total, and holds a fleet of records in various aquatic events.

To add to his lengthy list of achievements, Phelps has a body that just won’t quit… almost literally. As I’ve mentioned in other articles, adapting in or to one’s chosen sport can be crucial; in Michael’s case, his physique was already ahead of the game.

Possessed of five key physical attributes which allow him to move more efficiently through water than most other swimmers, Phelps looks like he was born to the sport. The unique dimensions of his extremities and propensity to hyperextension make his movements in the pool extremely fluid. This coupled with his unprecedented accomplishments make his career inspiring, yet unattainable for the average athlete. Love him or loathe him, Michael Phelps could easily become a mythic personality.

The Baltimore native was already in the public eye after securing eight medals in Athens 2004, as well participating successfully in countless other events. This year, at one of the most scrutinised Olympiad in recent memory, Phelps effectively and positively spot-lit the entire US sporting establishment on the world’s grandest stage. Everyone is talking about him right now, and will surely continue for years to come. How elaborate and embellished will the tales be? There is so much extraordinary material, people won’t need to stretch the truth too much… but human nature begets exaggeration.

Will there be stories of some science-fiction body, or a part man, part dolphin scenario? There are those who will tweak the reality of his impaired driving debacle or ADHD and make it something other than it was, regardless of how this reflects on the individual in question—Phelps. Perhaps a stream of hardships or personal glories will surface; on the flip side, there are those who relay any scandalous image, good or bad and whether it‘s real or not.

And of course, Usain Bolt and others will be immortalised in their own circles as well.  I may have heard about Williams before Bolt lit a fire under the world-wide Jamaican community, but the accomplishments of each of these determined men will help the other live on in memory.  Through 'sportlore', a certain legacy will always be remembered.

What is it we focus on when accepting/creating an enduring sports myth? Some legends seem to elevate a player or team to some omnipotent status, some to make a name ‘mud’, some simply to bestow a taste of celebrity on a worthy athletic competitor. Whether the rumours and fables that surround sports are technically true or not, they emerge from somewhere we all help create and maintain.

From the interaction of the fans with the athletes, with the coaches, with the media, emotion and spirit are entangled with victory, defeat, character, and competition.  It may be a misquote in a newspaper or a casual conversation between friends, but the most amazing info becomes immortalised. The moment finds a way to live on well past the events themselves and affects our sports lives from worlds away.

Next time you are telling or hearing a sports scoop, game report or general gossip, take note of the new threads being contributed and the evolution of the pattern. With the best stories, it doesn’t matter if you can see the seams, as long as it looks flashy and stays together.  In fact, forget 'truth'; legend usually outlives reality's events anyway. 

Besides, if a fictional cherry tree can invoke honesty in generations of children, the use is apparent to me.

What do you think? What's your favourite sports-based legend?  How have YOU as a Bleacher Report writer/commentator contributed to the ever growing world of "Sportslore"?

Dedicated to and inspired by DLH, with heartfelt thanks for the intelligent suggestions and endless support.



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