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The black sporting heroes who changed our lives

Ian Wright, Simone Biles, Viv Richards, Kobe Bryant

Who is your black sporting hero? Who is the sportsperson who first meant everything to you, brought you boundless joy, conquered the world and changed your life in the process?

To kick off Black History Month, we asked BBC Sport staff who their personal hero is, who helped shape their identity, who made them fall in love with sport.

Ian Wright – by Nesta McGregor

Ian Wright celebrates scoring a goal for Arsenal
Wright scored 185 goals for Arsenal, nine for England, and enjoyed spells at six other clubs

As a child, Ian Wright had a profound impact on me. As an adult, nothing has changed.

Back then it was the gold tooth, the Bogle dance goal celebration and the cocksure way he strolled around a pitch. Today it’s the way he continues to use his voice to speak out against all forms of discrimination.

Arsenal legend. England international. Unashamedly black.

He looked, sounded and behaved like people I was surrounded by growing up in south-east London. If Ian could make it, so could any of us. Although my dreams of becoming a professional footballer didn’t pan out (Dulwich Hamlet’s reserve team is the closest I got), now being employed to report on the sport isn’t a bad back-up.

My life and Wrighty’s life have some uncanny parallels. I share the same name with his mother (yes, Nesta) and I played in the same youth team as his son Shaun Wright-Phillips. As a child I played for Ten Em Bee FC – the same team where Wrighty got his start.

My grandmother always used to say don’t place flowers on her grave, she wanted them while she was alive so she could smell them. So Wrighty – thank you – here’s a big bunch of whatever your favourite blossoms are – take a sniff!

Simone Biles – by Olivia Portas

Simone Biles competes at the gymnastics World Championships
Biles is a four-time Olympic gymnastics champion and 19-time world champion

This summer, Simone Biles reminded me, and many others like me, that it is OK to choose yourself.

Athletes today are not just athletes. They can be public speakers, political activists or role models and they use their platform to raise awareness, but on top of that they are humans.

Simone demonstrated that at the Tokyo Olympics, when she decided to pull out of the gymnastics team final and focus on her mental health.

“We have to protect our minds and our bodies and not just go out and do what the world wants us to do,” she said.

This reminded me that life is short and that every decision we make to do, or not do, something is precious. Do what makes you happy.

Myrtis Dightman – by Califia Davis

Black Lives Matter supporters protesting against the death of George Floyd in Houston, on 2 June
Dightman is part of a proud, but not always visible, history of black cowboys in the USA, which protestors drew attention to on a march in honour of George Floyd in Texas in 2020

As a former horse girl who spent some of my formative years barrel racing, I always felt shut out of rodeo. Myrtis Dightman showed me there is space in rodeo for me.

The first black cowboy to compete at the National Finals Rodeo in 1964, he qualified a further six times after initially being told the only way he could ever compete is if he were white. Bull riding is badass – I can’t think of any other event that crams so much drama in to eight seconds – but not as badass as breaking down barriers in a sport everyone associates with Good Ol’ Boys.

Dightman is a true legend, and even though my barrel racing days are behind me I’ll always know I belong in the saddle.

Sir Viv Richards – by Stephen Lyle

West Indies cricketer Viv Richards is greeted by fans after the first Test, West Indies tour of England at Trent Bridge, Nottingham, UK, 3rd June 1976
Richards struck 8,540 Test runs for the West Indies, plus 14,698 first-class and 7,349 one-day runs for Somerset

Growing up in the ’80s, black excellence was underexposed but there was no hiding the West Indies cricket team, or Viv Richards.

I’d watch him walk out to face the fastest bowlers with no helmet, chewing gum, ready to entertain. Then he would dominate, but in such a way that even his opponents would love him for it.

Viv showed us black kids that we too could be the best and do it our way. He was also fiercely proud of his black roots, sporting red, gold and green sweatbands on the pitch.

I had the honour of meeting Viv once and he told me that turning down a fortune to play cricket in apartheid South Africa was the greatest thing he did in his career. Hero, legend, GOAT.

John Barnes – by Nelson Kumah

John Barnes performs a Cruyff turn against Manchester United in 1990
Barnes won two league titles and two FA Cups at Liverpool, also winning 79 England caps

My life can probably be divided into two distinct parts – life before Barnes, and life after.

His ascendance to the top of English football with Liverpool in the late ’80s coincided perfectly with my own coming-of-age. My musical tastes upgraded to Public Enemy, and now was the time to dispense with my dad’s footballing heroes and claim one of my very own.

Liverpool’s title-winning team of 1988 will never be bettered in my eyes. And Barnes was the heartbeat of that side. He showed me that football could be an art, that black people could stand up to racism, but most of all he showed me that black people could be the absolute best.

More than 30 years later, I still feel the same about that man. He changed me. He changed everything.

Mark Lewis-Francis – by Tom Gayle

Britain's men's 4x100m team members Mark Lewis-Francis (C), Darren Campbell (L), and Marlon Devonish celebrate their gold in August 2004 at the Athens Olympics
Lewis-Francis (centre) won 4x100m Olympic gold at Athens 2004 alongside Darren Campbell (left), Marlon Devonish (right) and Jason Gardener

As a fellow, but drastically inferior youth athlete, I witnessed first hand at track meetings as Mark Lewis-Francis became the most talked-about sprinting talent in the country.

I also witnessed my dad pin a teenage Lewis-Francis up against a bus when breaking up a fight. Deeply embarrassed at the time, hindsight told me my father was merely protecting someone he believed was destined for greatness. Man was he right.

In Athens in 2004, my family and I screamed all the way down the home straight as Lewis-Francis held off the heavily favoured Americans for Team GB to win Olympic 4x100m relay gold by 0.01 seconds.

Shaun Wright-Phillips – by Liam Loftus

Shaun Wright-Phillips celebrates scoring for Manchester City
Shaun Wright-Phillips – footballer for England, Chelsea, Man City and QPR

Shaun Wright-Phillips – my sporting hero. Big-time player with even bigger shirts.

SWP29 had me feeling like the man when I stepped into the garden. Dribbling around the dog before blasting the ball past my uninterested brother, ‘Shauny Wright Wright Wright’ ringing in my head as I wheeled off in celebration.

I liked football before Shaun but after watching him play week in, week out, I LOVED it. You would have thought it was me that scored against Ukraine back in 2004 the way I bragged to my friends about it.

To this day I can’t put my finger on what one thing made him so special to me growing up, he just was. I guess that’s just football.

Venus & Serena Williams – by Nathanael Hutchinson

Richard Williams, centre, with his daughters Venus, left, and Serena in 1991
Venus (left) and Serena Williams (right) have won 30 Grand Slam singles titles between them

Growing up, my family and I weren’t huge tennis fans. Of course, Wimbledon was a staple summer event but ask me to name more than five players – male or female – and I would’ve struggled. However, there were two names that captivated my family and the sporting world – Venus and Serena Williams.

Under the tutelage of their demanding father, Richard Williams, the Williams sisters worked tirelessly to perfect their craft in a sport which was and, albeit to a somewhat lesser extent, still is, predominantly white. The colour of their skin brought them unfair challenges and obstacles throughout their careers, yet that did not stop them in their complete and utter domination in the early 2000s.

Anyone who was drawn against either sister was struck with fear. Their skill, desire, passion and talent was on another level. Come up against them in a final and you may as well accept being runner-up.

In recent years, age and injuries have taken their toll, yet Serena is just one Grand Slam singles title away from equalling Margaret Court’s all-time record.

Whether she achieves that or not, the Williams sisters’ celestial sporting status has already been cemented in the history books forever.

Serena Williams – by Karinah Turner

I grew up in north London a stone’s throw away from a tennis court. My mum played netball so that was my sport of choice growing up, but I remember one day watching Serena play against her sister at Wimbledon and this was a game-changer – to see two women of colour in a major tournament final playing a game I never knew much about.

I recall from this point forward, forever finding myself over at the courts with my brother and cousins playing tennis games what felt like every weekend. If you see it – you can be it, and that was what we were all thinking.

Serena’s determination in coming back year after year is what really inspires me. I love the fact I have been able to follow a sporting star all the way through her career.

Seeing her become a mother and still go back to playing was a deal-breaker – Serena Williams is the black sporting hero I want to shout about.

Kobe Bryant – by Sam Harris

Kobe Bryant scores for Los Angeles Lakers
Bryant won five NBA titles with the Los Angeles Lakers, is an 18-time All-Star and is considered to be one of the greatest basketball players of all time.

Kobe Bryant wasn’t just a basketball player, he was a superhero. The will to win, the desire to make real change, the ability to not feel pain – an icon the likes of my 10-year-old self could only dream of becoming.

Emulating his patented fadeaway with a screwed-up ball of paper tossed into a rubbish bin while exclaiming ‘Kobe!’ was the closest I ever got.

Kobe had the making-free-throws-on-a-ruptured-Achilles level of drive. He set the example of how hard you need to work to achieve, and get better every single day. A better person, ally and father.

For me it will always be Mamba forever.

Anthony Joshua – by Patsy Goodwin

Anthony Joshua punches Andy Ruiz Jr
Joshua is a two-time heavyweight world champion and won gold for Team GB at the London 2012 Olympics

The athlete who encouraged me most recently is Anthony Joshua. I respected his words after his heavyweight title loss to Oleksandr Usyk in September.

The world was watching, listening and commenting on AJ, and that alone can be a huge pressure to take, but he was able to keep his head held high and use his loss as a foundation to do better.

“I can’t go back and sulk – that’s wasting time,” he said. “It was a great lesson today. I know we can look at it from a negative point of view but I’ve got to take it as a great lesson and build on that situation.”

I appreciate his fighting stamina, to continue to grow, build and learn. As humans that’s all we can do and it’s a reminder that life isn’t always on the up, there’s swings and roundabouts.

Patrick Vieira – by Adam Samuel

Patrick Vieira scores for Arsenal against Tottenham in the Premier League in 2004
Vieira lifted four FA Cups and three league titles at Arsenal, also winning the 1998 World Cup and 2000 European Championship with France

The long striding gallop. The poise. The leadership. The ability to block out all the noise.

Growing up in east London as an Arsenal fan, there was only one man who stole my imagination. No, it’s not the Frenchman you’re thinking, it’s the other one – Patrick Vieira.

To see him effortlessly create, destroy, and all the things in between, all while being the beating heart and captain of the most dominant team of the era; it would be impossible to choose anyone else.

He taught a generation of black boys it was possible to lead from the front, to conduct yourself with poise and class, and to be unashamedly yourself. No ‘rar rar’ or bling, no headlines or declaring himself a king, just the coolest cat on the pitch, and purring in every way.

My generation was blessed to have witnessed Patty V in his prime, and I’ll always be thankful for that.

Check out some of BBC Sport’s Black History Month content from last year here.


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