Could a horse be 2014's Sports Personality of the Year?
Dr Kate Dashper and Dr Thomas Fletcher, Senior Lecturers in the Carnegie Faculty at Leeds Met, questioned the very human idea of the sports icon in their latest research paper, published in the journal Sport In History, asking if an animal such as a race horse could also fulfil the role of icon, hero, celebrity and national luminary.
To gain a deeper understanding of the concept of what it means to be an icon and a hero, the academics examined the life of legendary race horse, Kauto Star, who achieved great success on the racetrack and gained a special place in the hearts of the British racing public. In the paper they argue that the two-times Cheltenham Gold Cup winner should be considered a sporting icon in the same way that human athletes are.
Dr Dashper explained: "Although icon status is a very human idea, it does fit very well with Kauto Star. In a way, it is inappropriate as he can't tell his own story and add any interpretation; but he also becomes untouchable as he can't do or say anything to cause a scandal and tarnish his reputation.
"Like any sporting hero, Kauto Star has an interesting story which compels supporters, fans and the general public, with ups and downs in his career. He has flaws, a rival and influential people in the racing world fighting his corner in the media. Unusually for a race horse, he has had two books written about him and the people surrounding him, his jockey, Ruby Walsh, his owner and his trainer, speak warmly about him as being special. He has had statues created in his honour and is still paraded around and talked about, with the racing public feeling like he is their horse and not just a distant winner.
"Kauto Star retired more than a year ago but his status is growing: all of these things point to him being an icon of the racing world. So much has been written about him that the public feel like they know him."
The researchers noted that there have been other race horses in the past who could also be said to have achieved sporting icon status - Red Rum, a studio guest at the 1977 BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards ceremony and the 1989 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Desert Orchid. "It's a very British thing to warm to an animal in this way," Kate added, "We are an animal-loving country and often warm more to an animal than we might to a person. The more that we read about him during our study, the more fond of him we became and the same also happened to the racing press throughout his career."