Knights in shining armor

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“I don’t know why people idolize athletes. I find it stupid for people to look up to them,” said a close friend once when we were having a casual debate on the toughest sports. I unsurprisingly was outraged at this comment. For a person who loves sports, that comment was blasphemy.

I think sport is the greatest story that one can witness, simply because it is unscripted. You never know what will happen or how it will happen, and that is the reason you can never get enough of it. Good books or films have remarkable characters in the same way the story of any sport is filled with remarkable athletes. People admire characters such as Atticus Finch or Harry Potter. I admire many sportspeople who have not only maintained the credibility of their sport but have also served as an inspiration to millions of people across the Earth.

One such sportsman is David Beckham. Along with Oasis and Robbie Williams, he was definitely the best thing to come out of England in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Watching him play prompted me to start watching soccer, which also led me to pursue the sport as a serious hobby. My dad is a lifelong Manchester United fan, and watching Beckham curl in those free kicks became a very integral part of growing up.

But it was not just Beckham’s marketability that made me idolize him. He had a drive in him — a drive to succeed that caught my fancy. On the pitch, Beckham always gave 110 percent. He was never one to shirk his responsibilities and played with an unrivalled intensity. I read his biography, which explains how hard he worked to achieve all the things he has, and it is an inspiring story of a boy from a working-class family who went on to become the most famous soccer player on the planet. Soccer has been tarnished with fallen heroes such as Paul Gascoigne and Diego Maradona, but Beckham served throughout his career as a role model both on and off the pitch.

When I think of some more athletes who have inspired me, Rafael Nadal would definitely be one of the people on top of my list. Nadal is, without a doubt, one of the greatest tennis players of all time, and I feel lucky to have watched him play in a time that can easily be termed as the golden age of men’s tennis. “Rafa,” as he is affectionately called, is a phenomenon. His playing style is considered revolutionary in tennis, as no one had ever seen a player who would be ready to give it his all for each and every point. I, for one, have learned a lot about perseverance and willpower from this man, who never seems to give up. Imperious in victory and gracious in defeat, Nadal represents what a consummate professional in sports should be.

Inspiration doesn’t necessarily come from people who’ve had perfect lives. James Hunt, 1976 Formula One champion, had a turbulent marriage to model Suzy Miller. He was a good-looking man — sort of like what Alfred, Lord Tennyson described Sir Lancelot as in his poem “The Lady of Shallot,” except with blond locks instead of coal black and more famous as a partygoer than as a racer. But he overcame all odds and longtime rival Niki Lauda to capture the World Championship. What made him great was his passion for the sport and the hunger to win. James Hunt was part reckless and part genius when it came to his racing, but he was also the bravest in a sport full of very brave people. That had to count for something. Hunt’s passion for his sport was and always will be exemplary — a man who was ready to die to gain victory. I feel there is some nobility in that.

I find my fondness for sports funny. I take out the time — and, many a time, the money — to witness teams or individuals do the same thing repeatedly until one of them wins. But I’ve always felt that sports bring out the characters of the competitors, and that is exactly what had an influence on me. Great athletes have time and again transcended expectations and truly helped make sports something to enjoy and cherish. These sports stars are like modern-day knights, always there to inspire a new generation to strive for greatness.

Devang Prasad covers women’s tennis. Contact him at [email protected].