This time of year, those who have had loved ones die in wars often express their indignation and resentment at the use of the world ‘hero’ in relation to sportspeople. To them, the word only has a military application.
They overlook the importance of personal heroes and folk heroes: people who rise from the population to perform extraordinary deeds and are thus idolised by that population.
The great Aussie wicketkeeper Rod Marsh was my hero as a kid. While all my mates admired the breathtaking, world-beating batting of Doug Walters and bowling of Dennis Lillee, I just loved Marshy. I loved his acrobatic wicket keeping and his swashbuckling, devil-may-care batting. There was something about his demeanour, his personality, that drew me to him. My mates couldn’t understand what the fuss was about. Marshy was a personal hero. I derived inspiration from his deeds; satisfaction from his achievements.
We’ve seen sportspeople perform heroic deeds against all odds: Allan Border’s unbeaten ton on a juiced up Trinidad pitch against four monster West Indian fast bowlers; Jeff Harding coming from behind in the final round to win the world light-heavyweight title; Andrew Lloyd saying “stuff the silver, go for gold!” and taking off after the Kenyan 50 metres in front of him to mow him down on the line at the 1990 Commonwealth Games; Yvette Higgins throwing the goal that sank the Yanks in the Sydney 2000 water polo final.
As the traditional ANZAC Day “clash” between Essendon and Collingwood unfolded, fortunes see-sawed, desperate tackles and high-pressure goals mounted with each minute. Players took knocks that would make most people feel as though they were going to die, and they got up and kept playing. Eventually Zaharakis went “over the top” for his team and kicked a last-minute winning goal. He wasn’t the only one who went over the top. So did the press hyperbole. They ”sacrificed” themselves “for their mates”; displayed “valour” in the “heat of battle.”
There is absolutely no doubt that no-one should compare a sporting accomplishment with the achievements of those who go out into battle facing death, or extreme danger, in order to defend a patch of ground against a hostile enemy. Nobody should ever question the courage of a soldier or their intelligence because they choose to fight for their country. People take good examples where they can find them. But many might baulk at taking examples of military valour into their everyday lives, because to many, while the deeds of individuals are indeed heroic, war itself is an abhorrence.
For those of us who wax indignant about the equivalence of sport and war, we should remember that our armed forces are complicit in keeping the comparisons going. Their presence at the ANZAC day match is important to them. It has led to an increase in interest in the day itself and what it stands for. The defence forces are the ones who confer the ANZAC day medal.
In a world that seems stage-managed and sanitised, we need spontaneous examples of heroism, whether they come from sport, or disasters like the Black Saturday fires. In a world of bad news, we all need hope. The trouble with war is that it is part of that bad news, and sport is not. Comparisons are bogus.
Debate will continue to rage concerning the nature of heroism. But hero-worship won’t just go away. Our tendency to worship is God-given, because ultimately, he and the man many would consider history’s only real super-hero, Jesus Christ, are meant to be its object. Our craving for heroes helps us to fill the God-shaped hole in our souls. If we examine the life and deeds of Christ, we can do no better. Maybe the time has come to look in the right places for our heroes.