The Breakdown: America, sports and underdogs |

The Breakdown: America, sports and underdogs

summit daily news
Summit County, Colorado
Sports editor Bryce Evans

Sports are about as American as apple pie – with or without the cheese. This country was founded on the principle of the little guy doing big things, the underdog reaching the top, and there’s no better everyday example of that than sports.

Think of some of the most remarkable moments in American sports history: the 1980 Miracle on Ice game, Jesse Owens winning four gold medals in Hitler’s Germany in 1936, Jackie Robinson’s first Major League game in 1945, Joe Namath’s guarantee (and win) in the 1969 Super Bowl and Rocky Balboa whipping Ivan Drago in his native Russia.

OK, that last one didn’t actually happen, but you can get the connection between all those events, right?

That’s the reason sports, at least from a spectators point of view, are so popular in this country. It’s also why we cling to athletes so much.

More often than not, the most popular athletes in America are those who have overcome some great obstacle to be who they are today. And even if they didn’t have that many perils in their early life, we tend to exaggerate the things closest to it.

Example? Michael Jordan. Not many people mention that he was a high school all-American and the top recruit in the country as an 18-year-old. No, we always here the story of how Air Jordan couldn’t get off the ground to “make his high school team,” when he just had to play JV as a freshman.

But that’s the part we relate to. Not many people know how it feels to be an all-American or to play for the Tar Heels, but nearly everyone who has ever played a sport knows the feeling of doubt in yourself when things don’t go your way – like, say, not making a varsity basketball team.

We don’t like to focus on how athletes are different from us, but rather how we’re similar. Athletes can show us that true American story of rags to riches, they can show us that it’s possible to dream of big things and go out there and get them.

For instance, how many people would look at a small kid with interracial parents, let’s say of African-American and Thai descent, and imagine that scrawny dweeb with glasses to become the greatest golfer to ever live. Throw in that neither parent played golf until they were middle-aged and they came from a middle to lower class background, would you guess that kid would end up being the most-recognizable athlete on the planet?

No, and that’s why so many people are infatuated with Tiger Woods. Possibly more than any other sports figure of our time, Woods is the quintessential American athlete. He came from basically nowhere to dominate a sport that before him had so few African Americans that CBS could have interviewed all three of them at once when he won his first Masters in 1997.

Athletes like Woods are what make sports compelling, they’re what make watching a game or a tournament a life-altering experience.

No one wants to celebrate the person who had everything handed to them, and no one wants to celebrate the times in our lives when things came easily. It’s overcoming the adversity that’s remembered, and it’s when the underdog wins that the most people cheer.

That’s what makes sports great, and what makes today worth celebrating.

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