The Martin Pollins Blog

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Overcoming  Adversity in Sport


The American professional basketball player DeMarcus Amir Cousins[1] once said: “God gives his hardest battles to his strongest soldiers.” I take that to mean that adversity means nothing if the mind and spirit are willing and strong enough to overcome whatever may be put in the path of someone determined to succeed.

The short film “The Butterfly Circus”[2] is inspirational: a circus troupe brightens audiences’ spirits in Depression-era America and inspires hope in a limbless man from a sideshow. The film features Nick Vujicic, an Australian American Christian evangelist and motivational speaker born with tetra-amelia syndrome, a rare disorder characterised by having no arms and legs. There’s a quote from the film about dealing with obstacles thrown in the path of someone determined enough to succeed: “The greater the struggle, the more glorious the triumph.”

Meet the following athletes who overcame the obstacles that life dared to challenge their determination to win. Apologies if your favourite athlete is not included.

Emil Zátopek
Emil Zátopek broke all the rules when it came to distance running. He didn’t train in running shoes but wore heavy work boots because it prepared him better for his events.

Picture Credit: “File: Fotothek df roe-neg 0006305 003 Emil Zátopek-2.jpg” by Fotothek_df_roe-neg_0006305_003_Emil_Zátopek.jpg: Roger Rössing derivative work: MachoCarioca is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

His running career started at age 16. The sports coach at the factory where he worked, who was very strict, pointed at four boys, including Zátopek and ordered him to run in a race. Zátopek protested that he was weak and not fit to run, but the coach sent him for a physical examination, and the doctor said that he was perfectly well. So he had to run, and when he got started, he felt he wanted to win. But he came in second out of the field of 100. After that point, he began to take a serious interest in running. He joined the local athletic club, where he developed his own training programme, modelled or inspired by what he read about the great Finnish Olympian, Paavo Nurmi[3].

In 1954, Zátopek was the first runner to break the 29-minute barrier in the 10,000- metres. He had broken the hour barrier for running 20-kilometres three years earlier. He was considered one of the greatest runners of the 20th century and was also known for his brutally tough training methods – he was the originator of interval training and
hypoventilation training.[4] In the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, the Czech won the gold medal in the 5,000 and 10,000-metre races, even though he had an infected gland in his neck. Doctors had warned him not to compete, but he ignored their advice and won spectacularly. He also competed (at the last minute) in the marathon and won that event, too – even without training for it or having competed in a marathon before. He was nicknamed the “Undeposited Czech” and “The Human Locomotive”, Zátopek became the only competitor in history to win these medals in the same Olympics. In February 2013, the editors at Runner’s World Magazine selected him as the Greatest Runner of All Time.

Wilma Rudolph
The 20th of 22 children from her father Ed Rudolph’s two marriages, life started badly for Wilma Rudolph. She was born prematurely and weighed only 4.5 lbs. As a child, she suffered scarlet fever, whooping cough and measles, survived double pneumonia and required a leg brace until age nine – she struggled to walk, let alone run. As if that was not enough, at the age of four, she contracted infantile paralysis caused by the poliovirus and had to wear a brace on her left leg until she was nine. With the help of physical therapy and a huge determination, astonishingly, she overcame her disability.

At age seven, she began attending Cobb Elementary School in Clarksville and played basketball. It wasn’t long before she started gaining acclaim for her running abilities. Under the training of Tennessee State University track coach Ed Temple, she qualified for the 1956 Olympic Games and won a bronze medal in the 400-metre relay. At the 1960 Olympics, she won three golds in the 100-metre individual, 200-metre individual, and 4 x 100-metre relay, respectively and became the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field during a single Olympics. Due to the worldwide television coverage of the 1960 Summer Olympics, Rudolph became an international star along with another high-profile Olympic champion – Cassius Clay (later known as Muhammad Ali).

Wilma Rudolph convincingly wins the women’s 100-metres at the 1960 Rome Olympics
Picture Credit: “Black History Month” by US Department of State is licensed under CC.

Sydney Wooderson
Born in Camberwell, London, Sydney Charles Wooderson MBE (dubbed “The Mighty Atom[5]“) set the world mile record of 4:06.4 at London’s Motspur Park on 28th August 1937, a record that stood for nearly five years. Off the track, Wooderson was a City of London solicitor and missed the 1938 Empire Games in Sydney because he was taking his law finals.

Wooderson emerged as one of the world’s top middle-distance runners in the mid-1930s when he won Commonwealth silver in the mile race in 1934. An ankle injury prevented him from participating in the 1936 Olympic 1500-metres final. He rebounded from the disappointment and set a world mile record of 4:06.4 in 1937 and an 800-metres world record of 1:48.4 in 1938. Two weeks later, he won the European 1500-metres title in Paris. Wooderson was denied the chance of Olympic redemption in 1940 and 1944 as both Olympic games were cancelled because of the war. He worked as a firefighter during the Blitz.

His poor eyesight ruled him out of active service during World War II. He joined the Royal Pioneer Corps and was a firefighter during the Blitz and later as a radar operator in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. In 1944, he spent several months in hospital suffering from rheumatic fever, and doctors warned him that he might never run again. Despite these issues, he recovered in time for the 1946 European Championships and won the 5000-metres in a national and championship record of 14:08.6.

Picture Credit: WA. & AC Churchman cigarette card of Sydney Wooderson. Card no. 47 of a series of 50 cards titled “Kings of Speed” Unknown author –

Jesse Owens
James Cleveland Owens, better known as Jesse Owens, made headlines worldwide when he set multiple world records within one hour in Germany. His record-breaking feats at 100-metres, 200-metres, sprint hurdles and the long jump underlined his status as the star of the 1936 Olympic Games under the sneering nose of Fuhrer Adolf Hitler. In the months leading up to the Games, Owens was under pressure in the US to boycott the Olympics because, as an African-American, he should not compete at an event run under Hitler’s Nazi regime.

Hitler, meanwhile, had hoped that German athletes would dominate at the Games and show the world a resurgent Nazi Germany and demonstrate Aryan superiority – a hope that was shattered. When black African-American Jesse Owens ran in Berlin, he was intent on one goal – winning for his country and debunking Hitler’s master-race myth.

As a youth, Owens took different menial jobs in his spare time: he delivered groceries, loaded freight cars and worked in a shoe repair shop while his father and older brother worked at a steel mill. During this period, Owens realised that he had a passion for running. Throughout his life, Owens attributed the success of his athletic career to the encouragement of Charles Riley, his junior high school track coach at Fairmount Junior High School. Sadly, he died of cancer at age 66. Owens specialised in the sprints and the long jump and was recognised in his lifetime as “perhaps the greatest and most famous athlete in track and field history”.[6]

Picture Credit: “No Known Restrictions: Jesse Owens in the 1936 Berlin Olympics (LOC)” by is marked with CC PDM 1.0

Lopez Lomong[7]
Perhaps the crowning moment of Lopez Lomong’s athletic career was the honour of being flagbearer for the US team at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Born in South Sudan (as Lopepe Lomong), the middle-distance runner had come a long way to get to the Olympic games in China. He was abducted at age six while attending Catholic Mass in Sudan and was assumed dead by his family and buried in absentia. He almost died in captivity, but other people from his village helped him escape. He sought refuge in the US aged 16 in 2001 as one of the famous “Lost Boys” of Sudan and became a naturalised citizen in 2007.

He became a track star at high school and college level in the United States and qualified for the national team one year after gaining citizenship. Lomong’s autobiography, Running for My Life[8], was published in 2012, co-written with Mark Tabb. The book is not a story about Africa or track and field athletics. It is about outrunning the devil and achieving the impossible faith, diligence, and the desire to give back.

Picture Credit: “File: Lomong headshot.jpg” by Paulmerca is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Károly Takács[9]
The Hungarian shooter, Károly Takács, had ambitions to win gold at the Olympics long before he finally did so, but national bureaucracy, personal tragedy and a war kept him waiting. At the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, he was denied the opportunity to compete as only officers were allowed to compete – Takács having the rank of sergeant, wasn’t eligible for selection. Fate stepped in again when he lost the use of his right hand, his shooting hand when a faulty hand grenade exploded in a military exercise. After spending a month in the hospital, Takacs secretly taught himself to shoot with his left hand. After the accident, Takács continued to practice with his left hand for participation in the 1940 Games, but the Second World War caused the 1940 and 1944 Olympic Games to be cancelled.

By the time London hosted the Olympics in 1948[10], Takács, now aged 38, had been waiting well over a decade to compete on the biggest stage of them all. The Argentinian and reigning world champion, Carlos Enrique Díaz Sáenz Valiente of Argentina, was the clear favourite, but he came off second best to Takács, who won the gold medal with a world-record score of 580 points. In 1952, it was a similar story, when Takács picked up his second gold medal in Helsinki (but this time with 579 points[11]). He was the first shooter to win two Olympic gold medals in the 25-metre rapid fire pistol and was the third known physically disabled athlete to have competed in the Olympic Games. Takács, at age 46, also attended the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne but finished eighth and failed to win a third medal.

Károly Takács, Melbourne, 1956
Picture Credit:
Attribution – By unknown – Original publication: The Olympic Games, Melbourne 1956 Immediate source: scanned from book, Fair use,

Tony Grieg[12]
Anthony (Tony) William Greig was a South African-born[13] Test cricket captain turned commentator. He qualified to play for the England cricket team by virtue of his Scottish parentage. He was a tall (6ft 6inches batting all-rounder who bowled both medium pace and off-spin. Tony Greig played for England during 1972-77 (and was the captain from 1975 to 1977. But, throughout his career, he had to fight against epilepsy. At the age of 14, he had his first epileptic fit. He continued his fight against it and represented England in 58 Tests scoring 3599 runs and taking 141 wickets. Doing so while coping with his epileptic disorder makes his achievements much greater and more valuable. He revealed his medical condition only when he retired from the international stage and began his career as a commentator. Tony Greig was regarded as one of the best commentators in cricket history. He is thought by some former players and pundits to have been one of England’s leading international all-rounders. He helped Kerry Packer start World Series Cricket by signing up many of his England colleagues and West Indian and Pakistani cricketers, which cost him the England captaincy.

Greig was educated at Queen’s College, Queenstown, South Africa. Many former Sussex players had been recruited to coach the cricket team at Queen’s College: during Greig’s schooldays, Jack Oakes, Alan Oakman, Ian Thomson, Richard Langridge and others came from overseas for off-season work. They noticed Greig’s developing abilities, leading to a trial at Sussex CCC when Greig was 19. Greig’s father helped him decide between university study or pursuit of the Sussex offer, saying: ‘Go over to England for one year, one year mind, and see what you can do’.[14] Greig went to Sussex but never returned to Queen’s College. After Greig scored 156 in 230 minutes against a strong Lancashire attack in his first game for Sussex, his future direction changed irrevocably[15].

He was diagnosed with lung cancer in October 2012 and died in Sydney two months later from an apparent heart attack.

The former Brazilian footballer, Edson Arantes do Nascimento (known to all who love soccer as Pelé) was born on 23rd October 1940. Regarded as one of the greatest players of all time and labelled “the greatest” by FIFA[17], he is among the most successful and popular sports figures of the 20th century. In 1999, he was named Athlete of the Century by the International Olympic Committee and was included in the Time list of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century[18].

In 2000, Pelé was voted World Player of the Century by the International Federation of Football History & Statistics (IFFHS) and was one of the two joint winners of the FIFA Player of the Century. His 1,279 goals in 1,363 games, including friendlies, are recognised as a Guinness World Record[19]. Since his retirement in 1977, Pele has become an international ambassador for the sport, working to promote peace and understanding through friendly athletic competition. After he retired, Pele returned to active soccer for a short span of two years to promote the game in North America. He played in the North American Soccer League to attract the interest of millions of Americans to the “beautiful game” of soccer. Pelé has been actively involved in campaigns for leprosy elimination in Brazil and has done extensive work for children’s causes through UNICEF.

Pelé dribbling past a defender while playing for Brazil, May 1960
Attribution: AFP/SCANPIX, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons. File URL:

Pelé began playing for Santos at age 15 and the Brazil national team at 16. During his international career, he won three FIFA World Cups:
1958, 1962 and 1970, the only player to do so. Pelé is the all-time leading goal scorer for Brazil, with 77 goals in 92 games. Averaging almost a goal per game throughout his career, Pelé was adept at striking the ball with either foot.

In Brazil, he is hailed as a national hero for his accomplishments in football and for his outspoken support of policies that improve the social conditions of the poor. His emergence at the 1958 World Cup, where he became the first black global sporting star, was a source of inspiration. In 1967 he and his team travelled to Nigeria, where a 48-hour cease-fire in that nation’s civil war was called to allow everyone to watch the great player. Throughout his career and retirement, Pelé received several individual and team awards for his performance in the field, record-breaking achievements, and legacy in the sport.

Pelé’s journey had many obstacles – he worked his way upwards and onwards with sweat, blood, and commitment. Young Pele grew up in poverty and polished shoes to help contribute to the family income. The boy showed great interest in (and soccer talent) while playing for a local minor league club when he got his first break.

The world paid attention when the 17-year-old Pelé scored six goals during the 1958 World Cup, leading Brazil to victory. Brazil won its first World Cup that year. Brazil declared its star soccer player a national treasure, thereby barring Pelé from playing for any non-Brazilian club or corporation. Pelé was unable to play in the latter stages of the 1962 World Cup as he sustained severe injuries in the tournament’s opening match. However, in 1970, Pelé led his team to win the 3rd World Cup for his country.

Laura Trott[20]
Cyclist Laura Trott (full name, Dame Laura Rebecca Kenny, Lady Kenny DBE) was born four weeks prematurely with a collapsed lung and was transferred to an intensive baby-care unit. She had a tube inserted to inflate a lung, and her parents feared she wouldn’t make it. The first six weeks of her life were spent in hospital. Then, another serious problem emerged as a toddler: she was diagnosed with asthma. Medics suggested exercise would help with the inflammatory disease of her airways by regulating her breathing. She took up trampolining, which she loved, but fainted and gave it up. Having tried swimming, she then turned to cycling. She also suffers from a build-up of excess acid in her stomach.

Laura broke a shoulder and then an arm in Canada in 2020, just before the Tokyo Olympics were postponed. Those accidents were a blow to the seemingly impregnable cyclist, who confessed she considered quitting but then dismissed the idea. Laura is Britain’s most successful Olympic female competitor despite all these problems. With six Olympic medals, having won both the team pursuit and the omnium at both the 2012 and 2016 Olympics and madison at the 2020 Olympics, along with a silver medal from the team pursuit at the 2020 Olympics, she is both the most successful female cyclist and the most successful British female athlete, in Olympic history[21].

Picture Credit: “Laura Trott does a lap of honour” by garrellmillhouse is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Abebe Bikila[22]
The Ethiopian Abebe Bikila was born in August 1932. He moved to Addis Ababa around 1952 and joined the 5th Infantry Regiment of the Ethiopian Imperial Guard, an elite infantry division that safeguarded the Emperor of Ethiopia. Enlisting as a soldier before his athletic career, he rose to the rank of shambel (captain). Abebe took part in a total of sixteen marathons. In July 1967, he sustained the first of several sports-related leg injuries that prevented him from finishing his last two marathons. Abebe was a pioneer in long-distance running. He achieved back-to-back Olympic marathon gold medals. He is the first Ethiopian Olympic gold medalist, winning his first gold medal at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome while running barefoot[23].

At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, he won his second gold medal. In turn, he became the first athlete to successfully defend an Olympic marathon title. In both victories, he ran in world record time. He wasn’t supposed to take part in Rome as he was substituting a teammate who had fallen ill. He brought only one pair of running shoes to Italy, but he decided to run barefoot when race day arrived because his shoes were too worn out. He managed to win anyway and, in the process, set a new world record, completing the race in just over two hours and 15 minutes.

Picture Credit: Public Domain. Unknown Author.

His victory at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics was achieved despite having undergone surgery for appendicitis only six weeks before. He entered the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City but was forced to drop out of the marathon with a broken leg after 10 miles.

In March 1969, Abebe was paralysed due to a car accident. He regained some upper-body mobility, but he never walked again and was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his short life. He died in 1973.

Excerpted from these sources and suggested Further Reading
  1. DeMarcus Amir Cousins (born 13th August 1990) is an American professional basketball player for the Denver Nuggets of the National Basketball Association (NBA). Nicknamed “Boogie”, he played college basketball for the Kentucky Wildcats, where he was an All-American in 2010. He left Kentucky after one season, and was selected with the fifth overall pick in the 2010 NBA draft by the Sacramento Kings. In his first season with the Kings, Cousins was named to the NBA All-Rookie First Team, and from 2015 to 2018, he was named an NBA All-Star. He is also a two-time gold medal winner as a member of the US national team, winning his first in 2014 at the FIBA Basketball World Cup and his second in 2016 at the Rio Olympics.
  2. Watch the film at;
  3. Paavo Johannes Nurmi was a Finnish middle-distance and long-distance runner. He was called the “Flying Finn” or the “Phantom Finn”, as he dominated distance running in the early 20th century. 
  4. Emil Zatopek: The Greatest Champion? – General – Runner’s World”. Archived from the original on 13th December 2014.
  5. Wooderson was 5 ft 6 in tall and weighed less than 9 stone (126 lbs), hence the nickname The Mighty Atom.
  6.  Source: Litsky, Frank (1980), “Jesse Owens Dies Of Cancer at 66”, The New York Times, The New York Times.
  7. Source:
  8. Available at:
  9. Source: Mainly from Wikipedia at:
  10. The same year the Paralympic Movement was founded in Stoke Mandeville.
  11. Source:
  12. Sources: (1) (2) (3)
  13. Born 6th October 1946.
  14. Source: Wisden, 1975.
  15. Source: Bateman, Colin (1993). If The Cap Fits. Tony Williams Publications. pp. 82–83. ISBN 978-1-869833-21-3.
  16. Sources: (1) (2) and (3)
  17. Source: “FIFA: Pele, the greatest of them all”. FIFA. 28th June 2012.
  18. Source:
  19. Source:
  20. Sources: (1) (2)
  21. Source:
  22. Sources: (1) (2)
  23. Source: Remembering Bikila’s 1960 Olympic marathon victory on its 60th anniversary”, World Athletics

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