Timing is everything. On Monday, mine was lousy when Cadel Evans won the Tour de France and I unwittingly became the public enemy of anyone who’d ever ridden a bike.
I didn’t wake up with the intention of offending half of Australia. But by 8am, that’s what I’d done after appearing on The Today Show in my regular What’s Making News segment where Karl Stefanovic asked me to share his intense jubilation over Cadel’s victory.
I replied I was happy for Cadel but ambivalent about the over-the top adulation we lavish on sports stars and the way we’re so quick to laud them as heroes.
Have I mentioned bad timing? Bad. Timing. My first inkling that I was swimming against an almighty tide of patriotic sentiment was when the floor crew – many of whom I’ve known for years – jeered me loudly.
Gamely and somewhat clumsily, I persevered, trying to explain how I wished we afforded the same praise and glory to those doing amazing things in other, non-sporting fields. Karl got huffy at this point, calling me ignorant, demanding I read Cadel’s biography and pretty much accusing me of blowing my nose into the Australian flag.
I huffed back, insisting there were hundreds of unsung Australian ‘heroes’ whose names we’d never know because sport sucked up so much media oxygen. Names like those two female surgeons who successfully separated Siamese twins Trishna and Krishna in Melbourne.
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Unfortunately, my exasperated eye-rolling and recalcitrant body language was misinterpreted by many as being disrespectful to Cadel and his stunning win. It wasn’t. I was simply exasperated with Karl. Business as usual.
The backlash was immediate. As the waves of online abuse turned into a tsunami, I was in tears before breakfast. By lunchtime, I was physically afraid to go outside. Cyber-bullying is like that. The anonymity makes you paranoid and fearful because you don’t know who your abusers are.
Seeing how shaken I was, some suggested I turn off my computer for a few days and wait for it all to die down. As a website publisher however, the online world is my workplace so I don’t have the luxury of walking away.
The responses fell into a few categories including many who agreed with me and many who politely didn’t. But the overwhelming majority hurled outright abuse. I was called every name you can think of – bitch, dog, skank, mole, idiot, loser, cow, slut – and many you can’t. Hundreds and hundreds of times. They denigrated my parents, my children, my appearance, my voice, my weight, my religion…. it was endless and still hasn’t stopped.
My point was simply this: why do we place such a disproportionate emphasis on sporting achievement in Australia? Why doesn’t success in other fields receive similar attention?
And what about the kids who don’t like playing sport or even watching it? The ones whose dreams, ambitions and interests lie in other areas? Where are their national heroes?
Sport has never been a big part of my life. My family love it but I watch a bit of the Olympics and that’s about it. I don’t barrack for a team. I don’t follow a code. The sporting victory of an individual or group, even on a world stage, has no particular impact on my life. Apparently though, this makes me unAustralian, an insult hurled at me endlessly this week on Twitter, Facebook and talkback radio.
The direct correlation between sport and national identity was highlighted to me this week. Loudly. But are you intrinsically more Australian because you love cricket or cycling or swimming? Nobody told me it was a prerequisite of citizenship (and yes, I was one of those people who thought it preposterous to have questions about Don Bradman as part of the test for new migrants).
Nor did I realise it was a competition – who can be the most Aussie. I didn’t even realise it was something you could measure. I thought you just were Australian. The end.
I’ve spent a lot of time this week trying to understand what it is with Australians and sport, why the connection for many is so deep, almost primal.
Maybe it’s because in a country that prides itself on being egalitarian, sport is intellectually and socio-economically an equal playing field. It’s classless. In fact, the more humble your background, the better; the underdog-turned-champion is a narrative that resonates powerfully in our culture. It’s what our sporting legends are made of.
We’re far less interested in the stories of our best doctors, writers, lawyers, engineers, teachers or social workers. Their triumphs do not capture our collective imaginations. Their names remain mostly unknown.
As for the word hero, it baffles me a little bit. We use it liberally to describe sports stars but few others.
When Margaret Olley died this week, she was not called a painting hero. When Emile Sherman won an Oscar for Best Picture a few months ago, he was not called a filmmaking hero. Cate Blanchett is not called an acting hero.
Professor Ian Frazer, who discovered a vaccine for cervical cancer is not called a medical hero. Nobody suggested having a ticker tape parade for any of them.
I’ve learned a lot this week. I’ve learned that Cadel Evans is an impressive guy, worthy of respect and admiration for his work on and off his bike. I’ve learned that many Australians turn vicious if you question the role of sport in our culture. I’ve learned that there are still many reasonable people who can disagree without resorting to abuse. I’ve learned that the cycling community are a tightknit group who are intensely passionate about defending their sport. I’ve learned that the Amy Gillet foundation works tirelessly to keep cyclists safe on roads that are often hostile. I’ve learned that many riders feel persecuted for simply doing what they love. I’ve learned that hero is a subjective and often personal word.
More than anything, I’ve been reminded that we need good news, especially in the form of a sporting victory that can be easily understood and widely celebrated. I now see that Cadel’s win was a welcome bright note after a weekend of depressing world events. If I was a killjoy for detracting from that, I’m sorry, because it was never meant to be about Cadel or cycling.My timing clearly sucked.
The dedication, determination and sheer physical prowess of sports stars cannot be understated and may well be admired.
I just wanted to make a plea for other stories to be told, other achievements to be valued and other kinds of triumphs to be celebrated with the same fervour.
And from everything I now know about Cadel Evans, he’s the kind of humble person who’d be the first to agree.