Top 10 iconic sports trophies

Ultimately, everyone plays sports for the same reason: the trophy.

From the days of Little League, when everyone including the benchwarmers received a miniature statue for their efforts, to the Olympics and the gold medal, the ultimate reward for years of hard work and sacrifice, the trophy has always been the prize at the top of the mountain.

But, as exemplified by the miles between a youth league award and a gold medal, not all trophies are created equal. Over time, certain awards – be it a yellow jersey, a 13-pound hunk of gold, or a Stanley Cup – have come to represent more than just winning an event, and now symbolize their entire sport as one of the top 10 iconic trophies.

While there is an actual trophy awarded to the winner of the Tour de France, the real prize is made of cloth, not metal. Worn by the race leader, the “maillot jaune” (a term we Americans routinely butcher as “mellow johnny”) made its debut in the early 1900s and got its rather unusual color most likely due to the yellow color of the race’s sponsor newspaper, L’Auto. Since then, the honor of wearing this famed shirt has been the reason cyclists punish themselves for three weeks through the plains and mountains of France, gaining even more popularity with Lance Armstrong’s seven consecutive victories. How iconic did he make the golden garb? His yellow jersey from the 2002 Tour was donated to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

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In Pictures: The greatest trophies

But despite its global prestige, from a literal standpoint the maillot jaune is hardly the world’s most golden award.

The World Cup is a grueling, month-long test to determine soccer’s best, and it’s all played out on the world’s biggest stage – the 2006 edition averaged 95 million viewers per match, and the final between France and Italy drew an estimated 715 million. So naturally, the trophy awarded to the team that prevails over the rest of the world is made of none other than solid gold.

Yes, the FIFA World Cup Trophy (the current version replaced the Jules Rimet Trophy in 1974, when that was given to Brazil permanently after it won its third title) consists of an 18-carat gold body with a malachite base and depicts two people holding up the Earth. We imagine it’s the only sports trophy that has earned comparisons to the likes of the Mona Lisa.

Canadians, however, known for their fanatical hockey fandom, may argue that Lord Stanley’s Cup is the finest piece of art ever created. The Cup has more history than any other trophy in sports. In fact, it is older than the NHL itself.

The same cup has been passed on from champion to champion in some form for a staggering 107 years, and unlike its NBA, MLB, and NFL counterparts, there are no replicas sitting on former winners’ mantles. When a new champion is crowned each year, the Cup moves to its new home.

The Cup was first awarded in 1892 to the amateur hockey champion of Canada. In 1947, control of the heirloom was moved officially to the NHL, and in all that time, it has amassed enough history and stories to fill a book. Unlike its other North American counterparts, in the NHL, the players don’t covet the championship ring – all they want is a chance to hold Lord Stanley’s Cup. And possibly urinate in it (which the Rangers’ Lynn Patrick allegedly did in 1940).

In the world of professional sports, winning may not be everything, but these examples prove that it’s definitely not the only thing either. From a yellow shirt to an old cup, sometimes it’s the trophies that really have iconic value in the eyes of fans and athletes alike.

The top five:

1. Olympic gold medal : Slideshow
2. Stanley Cup: Slideshow
3. FIFA World Cup trophy: Slideshow
4. Heisman Trophy: Slideshow
5. Green Jacket: Slideshow
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In Pictures: The most iconic trophies

Updated Thursday, May 28, 2009