Are sportspeople heroes?

There's been a bit of talk about this since Cadel Evans won the Tour de France last weekend.

A bit of a brouhaha involving a social/media commentator on a national breakfast TV show. It doesn't seem to be dying away just yet, and I don't want to breathe new life into the issue as it starts to flail, so I won't "name and shame". I've been stewing over it a bit though, and as a result this blog post has been writing itself all week. I've finally had the time to tap this out, belated and blown over as the issue might be.

The TV segment created such a flurry that the commentator has felt compelled to defend themselves on their blog not once, not twice, but three times since then. Here, they continue to emphasise their point that heroes are people who save lives, and that sports people, like others who achieve note in their individual fields, are not.

For anyone who missed this media circus, the commentator was asked on national breakfast TV to comment on Cadel's achievement the morning after he was pronounced the winner of the Tour de France. The first Australian ever to do so.

She was completely underwhelmed. Her inability to appreciate the achievement was based on her assessment that sportspeople aren't heroes. They aren't heroes because they don't save lives like actual heroes (doctors and firemen). Sportspeople are also apparently unable to wear the hero tag because they get paid a lot of money to do what they love. Apparently, being a hero is also dependent on your geographical location, because apparently Cadel Evans can't be a hero because he doesn't live in Australia.

All this aside, I think the basic problem with this commentator's opinion is a gross generalisation of sportspeople (and of those who pursue "heroic" employment choices).

I agree that not all sportspeople are heroes. Cricketers have made headlines for turning up to work drunk and setting a long-standing record for the consumption of alcohol on a long haul flight. A greater number of rugby league stars beat up their girlfriends and sexually abuse women. The world's greatest golfer spectacularly fell from grace last year for having a string of mistresses all over the globe, and Olympic hopeful swimmers get caught up in pub brawls.

For every Shane Warne, Nick Darcy and Glen Inglis, though, there's also a Hazim El Mazri, Glenn McGrath, and - dare I say it - a Cadel Evans. Sportspeople who are renowned for being standup people; who try to use their fame and position in the hearts and minds of the general public for good, not evil.

It is clear that this commentator knows nothing of Cadel's life or outlook. I don't know Cadel personally. I met him once and even got the chance to ask him a question at the launch of his biography Close to Flying, which I've since purchased and read.

Cadel grew up in a single parent family in rural Australia. His experience growing up in an indigenous community has inspired his advocacy for the Tibetan people. He worries that the Tibetans' culture is being taken away from them, in a way that he perceives has happened to Australia's indigenous peoples.

I had the honour of sitting on the slopes of Alpe d'Huez during the 2008 Tour de France as Cadel led a group of some of the best cyclists in the world past FREE TIBET emblazoned on the slope beside the road. Not long after this, there was a bit of publicity around whether Cadel would engage in some kind of protest about Tibet at the upcoming Beijing Olympic games. Cadel being the good guy that he is did no such thing. But he was satisfied that he could use his position as a cyclist of some renown to draw attention to this international issue.

Maybe, just maybe, Cadel is a hero to the Tibetan people.

So the next point about money. OK, so Cadel earns a lot of money. By many people's standards, doctors earn a lot of money. I'm sure there are many doctors were initially drawn to their profession to save lives. But I suspect there's a whole lot more who were drawn to it because of the paycheck that goes with it. Even worse, there are, I'm sure, plenty of medical practitioners may well be pushed into it by overzealous parents who see the same future paychecks. (I work at a university. It happens. A lot.)

And what of these other heroic jobs, like firemen, teachers and policemen and women. I'm sorry, but there are news stories every other week about people in these professions being arrested for child pornography and drug trafficking.

Maybe, just maybe, not all policemen, doctors and firemen are heroes. Even if they do save lives.

So let's talk about saving lives. Last Sunday, the day after Cadel earned the Tour de France title by dominating the time trial stage of the race, Brisbane's roads were packed with cyclists. Who knows how many middle aged men (and women for that matter) dusted off their treadley for the first time in months, reinvigorated to get out for a spin. Who knows how many will be inspired enough to keep it up, even for a little while. Who knows how many will keep it up long enough to lose a couple of kilos; get their heart pumping more healthily; and maybe even remain motivated enough to exercise regularly.

Maybe, just maybe, Cadel Evans has helped save a life or two.

I think though, the thing that stood out most for me in this commentator's apathy for Cadel's achievement - the thing that kept ticking away in my mind - is the blatant disregard of his hard work.

It's really easy to write off the work of a professional sportsperson by saying they get paid to do what they love. I'm sure there's some truth to it, somewhere along the line. But it just isn't that simple. By and large, the sportspeople that rise to the top are the ones that do more than cruise along earning an easy buck. The ones that achieve the most work hard physically, apply themselves mentally and devote everything they have and are to their ultimate goal.

The moments in sport we remember are those moments that are the culmination of all of this. Cathy Freeman's gold medal run in the 400m at the Sydney Olympics. Steve Waugh's perfect day at the Sydney Cricket Ground in January 2003. For many - me included - Cadel Evans' Tour de France win will also become one of those moments.

We admire these achievements not only for what they are in that moment, but for the sum total of what they have been - weeks, months, and years of hard work. We believe that if sportspeople can achieve their impossible dream, maybe we can too - even if our impossible dream isn't quite as grand as a cycling grand tour.

And that, friends, is what has got my knickers in a knot about this whole thing. I just can't fathom that this so called commentator can't see the value in this. They are obviously a successful person. Did they not have to work hard to achieve their success? If they did, why can't they admire that in another, regardless of their occupation?

Maybe, just maybe, it's OK to celebrate these individuals who inspire us, motivate us, and allow us to believe in ourselves. Maybe, it's even OK for those sportspeople to be our heroes. Especially when they show us that we can be heroes too.

1 comment:

  1. You have written a beautiful piece, AP. I'm glad to not be in the country to know of this story because it's one that would get me on my high horse (although I'm tempted to search the web).

    Fortunately, you have so eloquently outlined key aspects to the concept of heroism and what role sports people can play in 'saving lives' or simply inspiring people to be the best that they can be.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.