What does legendary mean? Is it local, sport wide or for all time?

Peter RCorrespondent ISeptember 26, 2008

What does it take to measure up?


When a person says to me there are two types of anything, I reflexively think, “the same two things can be sliced so many different ways”. After reading a Bleacher Report article on what it takes to be a football (soccer) legend I was left wanting more.


Steven Ho in his excellent article proposed a distinction for legend for Club / Country versus sport level legend. He proposes that a club / country legend as to do something unique for their club or country to be a local legend. Then he proposed standards for legend within a sport:  

They reached a technical level that would become the standard for future generations. They introduced new ideas and concepts never known before to the game. They became one of the greatest ever in their position; …. They epitomized a style of football or player. They achieved unmatchable things in football. Most of them were also great men, the pinnacle of a professional sportsman.

But, above all, they are the very few (and there should only be a very few) Legends who had the greatest of ability, changing the game simply through their brilliance



A legend for all time?

In an earlier time there were a few legends of baseball. Everyone who as ever followed the history of baseball knows that Babe Ruth was a great legend. Willy Mays has achieved the same kind of multi generational legend status. When I was younger Henry (Hank) Aaron had achieved a legend status that put him on par with the first two great ones. As time passes his legendary status has slipped and he appears to be a legend for is time, but not for all time.


People who achieve legend status earlier in the life of a sport or at least earlier in the broad media coverage of the sport are more likely to be elevated to the “legend for all time” pedestal. In the battle between Pele versus Maradona, Pele became a legend first and is more likely to be the “legend for all time”.


A legend beyond the sport?  

Consider some of those who are legends within a given sport:

Golf: Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson and now Tiger Woods.

Football: Joe Nameth, Vince Lombardi, Knute Rockne, and many more.

Basketball:  Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Irving, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Bill Russell and many more.

Hockey: Wayne Gretsky, Gordie Howe,

Soccer: Pele,  Johan Cruyff, Diego Maradona, Michel Platini, Zinedine Zidane and more.

Women’s Ice Skating: Sonja Henie, Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hammill, Michelle Kwan and more.

The picture is clear yet impossible to complete. There are more lists for many more sports from track and field to Equestrian and winter sports.

What does it take to be considered a legend beyond the sport in which a person competed?

Pele, Babe Ruth, Willy Mays, Roger Banister, Mario Andretti, Michael Jordon, Nadia Comaneci Bobby Jones, Peggy Fleming and a small group of other giants of sport pierced the veil of their own sport and became a legend beyond their sport.


For that it seems a person must dominate their sport for a relatively long time. It also helps to have benefited from a large media following. Was Peggy Fleming so famous because she carried the UNICEF banner for so long after retiring from skating? Was Babe Ruth more famous for being such a caring ambassador for the sport? Nadia was 14 when she scored a seven perfect 10s in the 1976 Montreal Olympics, she returned in 1980 and won two more Olympic Golds. Was it Nadia’s five gold medals or the first to receive a perfect score?


Is it longevity, being attractive, doing something stunningly better than anyone before, having a good media following, being first, or doing good works? Is it some of these things, any of these things or something that I have missed?


Does character count?

In baseball there was a legend that seemed bound for eternal status until he was caught heavily involved in gambling within the sport he played. Would Peter Rose’s bloom have faded anyway? In football there was a legend that parlayed his gridiron success into a lucrative ongoing advertising personality long after is on field success should have been forgotten. Would the juice have rotted without the alleged murder of his ex-wife and her then current boyfriend?