Individuals often act as the face of their calling. For example, ‘scientist’ is usually represented by Albert Einstein, ‘artist’ by Picasso, ‘writer’ by Shakespeare. Who is the cliche for ‘sport’?
It will have to be someone known the world over, has been the best in his time if not all time, has had a long career and is instantly recognisable. This rules out a cricketer or a croquet player or even a badminton star. Perhaps a chess grandmaster too. Cricket, on many lists is the second most popular game in the world, but it exists only marginally in the U.S. and China and Africa.
What about a basketball star? Someone like Michael Jordan, for example? There are good arguments here. Jordan is a fine physical example of the kind that the average man aspires to. On the other hand the NBA is limited to the U.S. (despite the best playing in the Olympics), and I can think of large chunks of countries where the name ‘Michael Jordan’ would not be recognised at all.
The career of an athlete is too short for quick recall over generations. Usain Bolt is probably being replaced in the memory of many fans by more recent champions and races. He does have a following beyond sport though, and that is an important consideration.
Football is the most popular game in the world, and a great footballer is the likely candidate as the face of sport itself. That brings us to the most likely candidate: Pele, the greatest of them all, widely recognised and worshipped in many countries. Recency bias is natural, and there will be those who favour Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. But Pele has been in the public consciousness for over six decades, since 1958 when he played his first World Cup. He helped Brazil win three World Cups (’58, ’62, ’70).
A ceasefire was observed for 48 hours during a war in Nigeria so both sides could watch him play. In 1999 the International Olympic Committee elected him the Athlete of the Century. When post-retirement he played in New York to play professionally, he gave the sport in the U.S. a jump start. Now 80, he has lived in the public eye as an ambassador for his sport and his country.
Perhaps Pele’s only competition might come from Muhammad Ali. Boxing is what might be termed a natural sport just like running is. Ali was not just a boxer, at his peak he was boxing itself. He was a crusader and took a stand on the issues of the day.
Great sportsmen make us feel good about ourselves, showing us just how much can be accomplished with that combination of body and mind. Pele and Ali are probably the best-known sportsmen of the last one hundred years, perhaps ever.
The choice for the face of sport is not made by a selection committee nor are candidates interviewed. It grows organically through usage; and when the choice is made, there is a touch of inevitability about it.