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Sportsmen of the Year: Arthur Ashe

January 02, 2008
by findingDulcinea Staff
Arthur Ashe is today's Sportsman of the Year in our weeklong profile of Sports Illustrated award winners. Ashe was awarded this honor 1992 for a career echoed with the sound of barriers falling in the worlds of athletics, politics, and social advancement. Ashe created a legacy of excellence and public advocacy that continues today, almost 15 years after his death.

The Urge to Serve Others

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“True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.” —Arthur Ashe

The first test of Ashe's character came when he was a young boy, entering tournaments in the segregated South of the 1950s. A talented young player, it still required inner determination as well as prowess on the court to become the first black man to win the Wimbledon singles championship in 1975.

Breaking Barriers

Ashe eventually won three Grand Slam titles. His 1975 defeat of Jimmy Connors at Wimbledon was a monumental achievement for African Americans, opening the door for all races to a sport previously reserved for whites. The BBC Web site chronicles this historic win in their “On This Day” feature.
Ashe saw the social impact of apartheid firsthand during a visit to South Africa. His experiences are poignantly told in his autobiography, Days of Grace.While many athletes have followed his example in working for social change, few equal him in his achievements, according to this USA Today column.  

An Example to the World

In 1976, Ashe built a tennis center in Soweto for black South Africans.  Soon after, as the country headed into a long period of upheaval, the center became a victim of vandalism and neglect. Recently, through the efforts of two determined South Africans, the center has been restored and reopened.

Ashe suffered a heart attack, followed by quadruple-bypass surgery, in 1979, and retired from sports the following year. He continued to work as a sports commentator, writer, and activist, especially in the battle against apartheid. In 1992, Ashe made public the fact that he had contracted HIV from a blood transfusion during bypass surgery and was now diagnosed with AIDS.

Educating Others

Ashe dedicated what would be the last year of his life to educating the public about HIV. In his determination to leave the world a better place he created numerous foundations, including the Arthur Ashe Institute of Urban Health, the International Healthcare Worker Training Program, and the Endowment for the Defeat of AIDS. Links to all of his AIDS-related organizations, as well as videos of his thoughts on the illness, are available at his organization’s Web site.
Ashe died on February 6, 1993; he was 49 years old. As Time magazine’s eulogy of Ashe said, it was his grace throughout all his trials that set him apart from the rest: "The game, like life, of course had to be conducted with passion, but dignity had to be maintained."
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