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Sports legends to read about this summer

Language: English
Genre: Sports
Age group: 6-8, 9-11, 12-14

Last updated: 01 July 2021

numbers on starting line of red rubber running track

Books about sports (and other hobbies!) can be a great motivation to encourage reluctant readers. As the Olympics approach, journalist Rick Broadbent shares an extraordinary story from his debut children's book, Sports Legends: 50 Inspiring People to Help You Reach the Top of Your Game. For more reading inspiration this summer, check out our sports book lists.

I fell into writing about sport for a living and got lucky. I got to see fantastic drama and feel the rawest emotion. I gasped as Usain Bolt smashed world records, cringed as the All Blacks literally ran over rugby teams and was humbled when Olympic gold-medal rower Pete Reed cheerfully told me he was ‘making a new normal’ just weeks after suffering a spinal stroke.

I decided to write some of these stories down in a book that has become Sports Legends: 50 Inspiring People to Help You Reach the Top of Your Game. The aim was threefold: tell ripping yarns; get more children reading using the carrot of sport; and learn some lessons from how sports stars dealt with their own adversity. The common theme is these are ordinary people with extraordinary abilities.

Part of the joy of being a sportswriter is you get to see the story beneath the glory and witness how stars have dealt with disappointment. Some were written off and felt they were failures. Others were bullied and thought about giving up. All learnt to be resilient.

I restricted the people in the book to those I had seen live. I had interviewed many and seen others up close and personal in press conferences. The exception was Jesse Owens, the great American athlete who had exposed the vacuity of Hitler’s Aryan beliefs by winning four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Jesse had died in 1980 but I had interviewed some of his daughters and granddaughters.

In front of Adolf Hitler, sitting up in the VIP box in the Olympic Stadium, Jesse bonded with a blond, blue-eyed German long jumper called Luz Long. Jesse’s daughter, Marlene, told me that her father and Luz remained in touch after the Olympics. Then, in 1939, Luz had no choice and had to join the German Army heading into a war where America would be the enemy. The final words he sent to Jesse were:

‘My heart tells me this will be the last letter I write. If it is so I ask you to do something. It is for you to go to Germany when this war is done, some day find my son and tell him about his father. Tell him Jesse – how things can be between men on this earth.

Soon after Luz was killed, but Jesse did go to Germany and did find Luz’s son, Kai, and tell him how brave his father had been. In 2009 I went to the World Athletics Championships which were held in the same Berlin stadium where Jesse and Luz had defied Hitler some 73 years earlier. One of Jesse’s granddaughters was there. So was Kai. Together they presented the medals for the long jump.

The stories in the book are aimed at showing how others faced fears, developed confidence, built a growth mindset and refused to be bullied. Some subjects are very famous, such as Lionel Messi, Serena Williams and Anthony Joshua, but I wanted to show how strength and resilience are not restricted to superstars and so I included the remarkable tales of some lesser-known sportspeople – ­the teenage racing driver who had crashed her car going backwards at 171mph, the African refugee who had stowed away on a ship and become a professional footballer in Argentina.

I hope the book's readers glean some tips from the top about how to face their own challenges – and realise that you don’t need to stand on an Olympic podium or play in a World Cup final to be a legend.