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I have often wondered what makes sports personalities heroes. I have always thought of hero referring to someone who risks their life to save others. For example soldiers and to a lesser extent emergency services.

Is it accurate to describe athletes as heroes?

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I have occasionally wondered why children who fall down wells are heroes... – Matt E. Эллен Jun 1 '11 at 16:17
Is this a question or a complaint? – Andrew Grimm Jun 1 '11 at 23:13
@AndrewGrimm Is it accurate to describe athletes as heroes? - looks like a direct question to me. – Treffynnon Jun 2 '11 at 8:33
up vote 5 down vote accepted

The dictionary.com definition of hero:

  1. a man of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities.
  2. a person who, in the opinion of others, has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal: He was a local hero when he saved the drowning child.
  3. the principal male character in a story, play, film, etc.

The dictionary definition is not as narrow as your own definition. So, if an athlete has distinguished/admirable abilities, they can be considered a hero, particularly if the athlete "saves the day" by making the game-winning play.

(Whether or not you think hero should have this more general meaning is not something we can answer here!)

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"(Whether or not you think hero should have this more general meaning is not something we can answer here!)" - agreed. I was looking for an answer that detailed whether it was considered technically accurate, like your dictionary reference. – Treffynnon Jun 1 '11 at 16:03
Thanks for re-opening the question BTW. I realise that I have have phrased it in a slightly edgy or subjective way. – Treffynnon Jun 1 '11 at 16:32
@Treffynnon: Yes, I went through the same thought process and decided to reopen based on that. – Kosmonaut Jun 1 '11 at 16:48

The word "hero" has been so degraded that, yes, it includes sports heroes and, to be frank, just about anybody who does anything that anyone else deems exceptional. Or at least pretty good.

BTW, you are my hero for asking this question.

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I wanted to mark this the answer, I promise! I understand if I can no longer be your hero :-( – Treffynnon Jun 1 '11 at 16:34
Feet of clay, Treffynnon. Feet of clay. – Robusto Jun 1 '11 at 16:36

From a quick browse through the bio's of original 15 heroes - they are bunch of hard-drinking, fighting, womenising, murdering show-offs. So sports stars are probably a good fit.

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Hero is frequently used in two rather different ways.

One is to describe people who do things that are extraordinary to the point of being nearly superhuman.

The other is to describe people who somebody else considers extraordinary, whether that has any basis in reality or not. I am currently my youngest son's hero1. His being the only one who believes that doesn't change a thing (I certainly consider myself quite ordinary).

I'm not at all sure the former is the accurate definition and the latter a dilution or denigration. Rather the contrary, I'd say the second is probably more accurate and there happen to be times that we can point to objective facts or at least widely held opinions to support the accolade.

1Of course, by the time he's a teenager, he'll undoubtedly find me just as embarrassing as most of us found our parents when we were around that age.

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The OED lists three relevant meanings for "hero":

  1. Hist. A name given (as in Homer) to men of superhuman strength, courage, or ability, favoured by the gods; at a later time regarded as intermediate between gods and men, and immortal.

  2. A man distinguished by extraordinary valour and martial achievements; one who does brave or noble deeds; an illustrious warrior. (citations from 1586)

  3. A man who exhibits extraordinary bravery, firmness, fortitude, or greatness of soul, in any course of action, or in connection with any pursuit, work, or enterprise; a man admired and venerated for his achievements and noble qualities. (citations from 1661).

So the "dilution" or "degradation" (to use Treffynnon's and Robusto's judgmental terms) has been happening for hundreds of years, in an entirely usual way.

"Sports heroes" perhaps go a little further than even meaning 3, but not much further.

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I did not mean to be judgemental just descriptive of my perception. I can see from the answers here that my reverence for the word is not in line with its official definition. I shall have to concede the next water cooler argument! :) – Treffynnon Jun 1 '11 at 16:18
@Treffynnon, THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS AN OFFICIAL DEFINITION of a word in English. The dictionaries have recorded the observed fact that people have been using the word in various transferred senses for centuries. That is all that dictionaries do, or can do. If you choose to use the word in a more restricted sense, that's fine. If you choose to misunderstand the word when other people use it in a broaded sense, that would be more problematical, but that is your choice. If you choose not to like it when the word is used in a particular sense, that is entirely your business. – Colin Fine Jun 1 '11 at 16:27
Ah yes a novice slip there. I should have known better coming from a family of linguists. – Treffynnon Jun 1 '11 at 16:30

Q: "Is it accurate to describe athletes as heroes?"

A: It would actually hardly be a new phenomenon.

As you probably know, the English word hero comes (in direct line for once) from Ancient Greek ἥρως, "heros". Heroes were demi-gods, sired as the result of the weaknesses of male or female gods for mere mortals of the opposite gender.

To the Greek we also owe the Olympic Games as you well know. It is furthermore worth remembering that in these ancient times winning one or more competitions in the Olympic Games would be a guarantee of lifetime prestige.

The Wikipedia article about Ancient Olympic Games clearly states:

There is one major commonality between the ancient and modern Games, the victorious athletes are honored, feted, and praised. Their deeds were heralded and chronicled so that future generations could appreciate their accomplishments.

And it apparently worked so well that the names and feats of a number of them has come down to us more than two millennia after they actually took place. In light of which, equating athletes to heroes is probably a minute albeit forgivable exaggeration.

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I understand what people say that anyone can be considered a hero. But you have to think about it. There are so many people who are unseen hero's. People judge athletes for there ability to score a touchdown, but what about the unseen hero's who are actually saving lives and putting their lives in harm's way to protect other people. That is a true hero. Not a fake hero.

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I'm not sure how this answers the question. – user867 May 27 '13 at 4:56

I feel objected towards all the answers. I'm 15. I love sport. I want to become a professional netball player. My 'hero' is a pro netballer. She's not my hero because she's the best or the friendliest or any of those dumb aspects people base their role models on. She's passionate, hard working and does everything with great love.

Role models should not be seen as a group of certain people. It should be seen as a moral path to the follower. You can't expect a IT expert to have Andy Murray as his role model can you?

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That's the distinction though - a role model is not a hero and a hero is not necessarily a role model. As a programmer I don't have programming role models or aspire to be anyone else - I just have people I learn from. – Treffynnon Jul 3 '14 at 9:02

I think that a hero is a person who does something extraordinary risking his own life, not looking for gain or profit.

In other words, I don't consider a policeman who loses his life on the line of duty a hero. That's what he was trained for, to defend the people and stand between the good and the bad guy, and he gets a pay check for doing so. Why can we consider him a hero when he is doing his job?

Now, when a civilian takes the law in his hands trying to save someone and gets kill, in my book he is a hero, because he didn't have to do it and he didn't get pay for doing so.

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Some background or reference for answers is generally preferred to your own personal opinions / stance. – New Alexandria Oct 7 '12 at 7:50

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