Mia: “What I’ve learned about why Australia needs sporting heroes.”

mia freedman on cadel evans
19-year-old Australian Nick Kyrgios.

I’ve learned a lot in the three years since I became a national object of hate for suggesting sports people aren’t heroes.

So yesterday, when I woke up to the news that Aussie tennis player Nick Kyrgios had beaten World Number 1 Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon and the entire country went nuts, I kept my big mouth shut. 

And not just because my Dad texted me first thing in the morning to say:

mia freedman on cadel evans

It was excellent advice and he knows me very well but I’d already come to the same conclusion.

Back in 2011, I made so many mistakes when, in my usual weekly appearance on Today to discuss the news of the day, I was asked to comment on the hero status of Australian cyclist Cadel Evans who had, just hours ago, won the Tour de France.

mia freedman on cadel evans
A front page newspaper report at the time of The Cadel Incident.

As someone who is deaf to sport – and the public mood surrounding it – I blindly launched into an ill-timed rant about how I thought sports people weren’t heroes at all. To me, I told co-host Karl Stefanovic, heroism implies self-sacrifice. Soldiers, volunteers, emergency services personnel, charity workers, scientists, social workers…. people who put the lives of others and the betterment of the world above their own personal goals or gratification. 

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Why do we place so much emphasis on people who are good at sport, Karl, why?

As the temperature in the studio plumetted and Karl spluttered in horror, I blustered on, complaining that our national obsession with sporting achievement stole all the media oxygen from coverage of other kinds of heroic achievement. A value system that prized physical skills over all others was one I strongly disagreed with, I ranted.

Of course I said none of it in a calm, rational or particularly well argued way. It was morning TV and I shot my mouth off without any idea of the tsunami of venemous public rage I was unleashing.

As that rage came hurtling towards me, knocking me to the ground non-stop for days and weeks afterwards, I realised – way too late – that I had misread the public mood.

If by misreading you mean ‘not expecting to get death threats’.  

And death threats I got along with all manner of abuse from cyclists, Cadel Evans fans and sports lovers who were all incensed by my comments.

Since The Cadel Incident, I’ve had a long time to think about sport and heroes and why my comments ignited the fires of hell. The abuse I will never forget nor forgive but these days I understand a little better where it sprang from. And I will always deeply regret pulling any focus from Cadel’s magical win – even if it was totally by accident.

mia freedman on cadel evans
Cadel Evans.

So when I woke up yesterday to wall to wall coverage of Nick Kyrgios’ Wimbledon win, I saw things a little differently to the way I viewed things after Cadel’s Tour De France victory.

I realised that in a news cycle so heavy on tragedy, a piece of good news is something to grasp onto with both hands. 

I realised the power of a sporting triumph to inspire and uplift ordinary people is not to be underestimated or undervalued.

I realised that ‘hero’ is a subjective term. So is ‘inspiration’. I have no right to tell you who your heroes should be and you have no right to tell me.

I realised that parents in particular are desperate for inspiring sports stories to hold up to their sport-mad kids among the morass of mouth-pissing and binge drinking sporting clowns who usually make the news. 

I realised that sporting values like hard work, sobriety, dedication, determination, focus, sacrifice, team work, motivation and commitment are absolutely worth admiring and celebrating.

I realised that just because sporting achievement comes with huge financial benefits and incentives, that doesn’t lessen its value.

I realised that the national pride we take in our underdog status when we’re competing against countries 10 times our size and with a hundred times our sporting budget AND WE WIN has the power to make people feel good and that’s important. And that even when a sports star eventually loses – like Krygios did this morning – some of that feel-good halo effect remains on everyone who was cheering him on.

Most importantly, I realised that there aren’t a finite number of heroes. There’s no cap on inspiration. There’s room to celebrate Cadel and Nick as well as the less high profile achievements of people whose names will never be in the news.

Because inspiration is contagious no matter where you find it.

So to Nick Kyrgios, I have this to say: go you good thing.

Were you cheering on Nick Kyrgios this week during his Wimbledon run? And how do you personally define “hero”?

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