Sport

Seven Sporting Icons Who Have Served In The Military

List includes a Formula One champ, a two-time gold medalist and a boxer who took on Mohamed Ali, twice

Tottenham striker Son Heung-Min has completed a mandatory period of National Service in his native country of birth, South Korea.

He is, however, not the only sports star to have a connection to the Armed Forces and here, we take a look at his service and others who have also served in the military.

Son Heung-Min, 27, completed his military service during the Premier League’s coronavirus close-down, after being released by his North London club, Tottenham Hotspur, to do so.

His military service lasted three weeks and he has since returned.

It is not unusual for someone of his international status to serve in South Korea as the country requires, by law, all men to carry out National Service before turning 28 years of age.

South Korea lies on the southern portion of the Korean Peninsula, and has officially been at war with its neighbour, North Korea, since 1950.

The Korean War was the deadliest conflict of the Cold War era, resulting in the deaths of 3 million people.

Some 1,078 British servicemen were killed during the Korean War, and more than 2,600 were wounded.

So what other high-profile sports stars other than Son Heung-Min have served in the military?

The list of Armed Forces veterans-turned-international athletes is vast and includes one or two surprises.

The following seven former military men and women who have gone on to sporting greatness in the years following their forces careers.

Kimi Räikkönen

Kimi Raikkonen in F1 race suit.

Kimi Räikkönen juggled his military service with the early stages of his motor sport career. Credit: 2020 Alfa Romeo Racing ORLEN.

The ‘Ice Man’ of Formula One is currently the oldest driver on the grid at 40 years old, driving for Alfa Romeo in what is his 18th season at the top level of world motor sport.

Kimi was the 2007 Formula One Word Champion, narrowly beating Brit Lewis Hamilton and Spaniard Fernando Alonso to take the title at the last race of the season. He remains the last Ferrari driver to win the F1 world title.

But in the early stages of his career, Kimi juggled a stint in the Finnish Army while competing in the lower formulas of motor sport.

Kimi held the rank of Corporal.

In Formula One, Kimi is known for speaking his mind, and in his younger years on the F1 grid he was renowned for partying between races, often at his Monaco penthouse.

Things were no different in his army days.

Kimi holds the unofficial record for the longest period of time a soldier has been placed under restriction of privileges in Finnish Army history.

According to Kari Hotakainen's 2018 biography on the F1 star, The Unknown Kimi Räikkönen, he was handed the punishment after staying out after curfew and returning to base drunk. Instead of showing his face at the Guardroom, Kimi hopped over a barbed-wire fence and even managed to by-pass a patrolling guard and his dog. However, he would later be found in his bed covered in grass and disciplined.

Kimi said:

"The Sergeant Major shouted red-faced, and asked how the hell I had managed to escape the dogs. I replied that it's exactly what you teach us here. We're Scouts after all."

Kimi, who is out of contract with Alfa Romeo at the end of the current season says he has no intentions of retiring from Formula One any time soon.

Bruce Grobbelaar

The South African-born goalkeeper was known for his flamboyant style of play and for holding a confidence that frequently pushed the boundaries of sportsmanship during the 14 years he played for Liverpool as their first-choice keeper.

The early part of his Merseyside career was dogged by a lack of consistency, but when he did settle into his game, he pulled off some of the greatest saves seen in the modern game. 

The end of his professional career was clouded with controversy, yet he is still considered a legend to many.

Grobbelaar is famous for the spaghetti-legged dance he performed ahead of making the winning save in the 1984 European Cup Final between Liverpool and Roma.

Prior to making it big time, Grobbelaar served in the Rhodesian Army, and even fought in the Zimbabwe War of Liberation.

In a 2018 interview, the retired Liverpool keeper described how it felt killing an enemy soldier in combat, and how, amid the fighting, colleagues of his were hit by gunfire. 

The Rhodesian Bush War, as it was also known, lasted from 1964 until 1979 and resulted in the deaths of more than 20,000 people.

Grobbelaar’s career ran into controversy in the 1990s when he was accused of match fixing alongside Wimbledon keeper Hans Segers and Aston Villa striker, John Fashanu. All three were acquitted following a retrial.

Dame Kelly Holmes

Dame Kelly Holmes

Dame Kelly Holmes was a Sergeant in the Army Physical Training Corps ahead of becoming an Olympic athlete. Credit: Shutterstock. 

Dame Kelly is one of Britain’s most successful and widely admired athletes.

Her significant medal tally includes gongs from the Commonwealth Games, the European Championships, the World Indoor Championships, the World Championships and Olympics.

In 2004, Dame Kelly won two Gold medals at the Athens Olympic Games in the 800m and 1500m competitions. This was in addition to the Bronze medal she secured four years earlier at the Sydney games.

Although Dame Kelly began her training as an athlete at the age of 12, it did not stop her from pursuing a career in the British Army.

At the age of 18, she joined the Women’s Royal Army Corps originally serving as an HGV driver. However, in 1990 Dame Kelly turned her attention to becoming a Physical Training Instructor and passed out as a Class 2 PTI on the first course ran under the Army’s new Physical Training syllabus.

And Athletics hasn’t been her only sporting forte.

While serving in the British Army, Dame Kelly competed at Judo, becoming the Army Champion.

Dame Kelly left the Army as a sergeant in 1997 to focus fully on her Athletics career.

Dame Kelly Holmes in military uniform.

Dame Kelly reached the rank of Sergeant while serving in the British Army. Credit: Dame Kelly Holmes. 

Semesa Rokoduguni

LCpl Rokoduguni has enjoyed a Rugby Union club and international career, all while serving in the British Army.

The Lance Corporal is a member of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and deployed on operations to Afghanistan in 2011 as part of the 4SCOTS Battlegroup.

As a player, LCpl Rokoduguni has scored international tries against Fiji, Argentina and Samoa.

He is one of a long-line of military men to serve in the army from his family, who originate from Fiji. Before him, his father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all soldiers.

Sir Henry Cooper

Sir Henry Cooper. Credit: Shutterstock.

Sir Henry Cooper carried out National Service before becoming one of Boxing's all time greats. Credit: Shutterstock.

In terms of Boxing legends, they don’t come much bigger than Sir Henry Cooper.

Sir Henry was the first man to be twice awarded BBC Sports Personality of the Year. He also held, on more than one occasion, the UK, Commonwealth and European Heavyweight titles.

He famously fought Mohamed Ali twice, knocking the man many consider to be the greatest boxer of all time to floor during their first bought.

However, on both occasions Sir Henry failed to get the better of Ali.

At their second bout, Sit Henry challenged Ali for the Heavyweight title of the world, but was beaten after the referee stopped the fight following a bad cut opening up on Cooper’s brow.

In the 1950s, Sir Henry completed his National Service in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. It was during this time that he was first noticed as a promising Boxer.  

After both men retired from professional Boxing, Sir Henry and Mohamed Ali became lifelong friends.

Sir Henry Cooper died on May 1, 2011, two days before his 77th birthday.

Jon-Allen Butterworth

Gold medal winning Paralympian Jon-Allen Butterworth is one of the most respected athletes in the UK today.

His incredible achievements in Cycling, which have also seen him win three silver medals, began after Jon-Allen was seriously wounded in a rocket attack while serving in Basra in 2007.

Jon-Allen had joined the Royal Air Force in in 2002, and also served in Afghanistan in his role as a Weapons Technician.

While recovering at Headley Court from the injuries he sustained in the Basra attack, Jon-Allen was asked if he’d like to join in on a charity bike ride to raise funds for the building of a new pool. He said yes, and so began his career on the bike.

In addition to his illustrious cycling career, Jon-Allen has appeared on the Channel 4 series The Jump, becoming the first above-elbow amputee to do a Skeleton Run.

Sir Bobby Charlton

Sir Booby Charlton.

Sir Bobby Charton is considered one of the greatest footballers of all time. Credit: Shutterstock.

Regarded as one of the greatest players of all time, Sir Bobby Charlton won the World Cup with England in 1966, the same year in which he won the coveted Ballon d’Or.

The Midfielder spent almost his entire career at Manchester United where he won three First Division titles, the FA Cup and a European Cup.

In 2016, Manchester United announced that the South Stand of Old Trafford would be renamed in honour of Sir Bobby Charlton.

Prior to becoming one of England’s greatest ever footballers, Sir Bobby reached the rank of Lance Corporal while serving his National Service in the 1950s.

On February 6, 1958, Sir Bobby survived the Munich Air Disaster. Seven of his Manchester United teammates died in the tragedy, as did a number of sports journalists.

Sir Bobby scored an impressive 260 goals as a professional player and in 2008 was handed a lifetime award by the BBC at their annual Sports Personality of the Year Awards.

He also played a pivotal role in the securing of both the 2002 Manchester Commonwealth Games, and the 2012 London Olympics. 

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