Search

What Separates Heroes From Mere Champions It takes more than record-beating performances to be elevated to Australia's pantheon of sporting heroes. Who's got it--and who doesn't

June 01, 2000
June 01, 2000

Table of Contents
June 1, 2000

Cover Image
Departments

What Separates Heroes From Mere Champions It takes more than record-beating performances to be elevated to Australia's pantheon of sporting heroes. Who's got it--and who doesn't

Who could forget Jon Sieben's gold-medal-winning 200 metres
butterfly swim at the 1984 LA Games, the one when he slashed four
seconds from his personal best time? Or the many great squash
games played by world champion Heather McKay who was undefeated
in 18 years? Then there was Craig Johnston's scorching goal that
helped win the FA Cup Final for Liverpool in 1986. Remarkable
performances all. Whoever could forget them?

This is an article from the June 1, 2000 issue

Most of us, is who. Australia has never lacked sports stars
whose deeds have rewritten the record books. But it is the lot
of most to be feted for a short time, then forgotten as new
champions, new records, take centrefield. Only a few become true
sporting Heroes, lasting Australian icons who transcend sport
and become part of our culture. Think Bradman, Dawn Fraser,
Dennis Lillee. They, and a handful more, are venerated in this
country arguably more than than our most illustrious
politicians, scientists and creative people. Why them? The fact
is that any champion can win a gold medal, hit a Test hundred,
kick the goal or score the try that wins a grand final, but
becoming a Hero, not just a hero, takes more. To make the cut, a
sporting person must win not only our admiration, but also our
love and our empathy. He or she must beat the world's best
displaying supernatural skill, tenacity and courage (that's the
easy part)...yet at the same time be the girl next door, the
larrikin down the pub, flawed, modest or fair dinkum enough to
win our hearts as well as our minds. Those on Australia's
sporting Mount Olympus have touched the sun but kept both feet
on the ground. It's a big ask.

No-one would expect to bump into the fiercely private Sir Donald
Bradman at the TAB or chatting over a pie and schooner at the
rubbity, but we love him just the same. You don't expect
cricket's greatest player, a colossus of the game who averaged a
century every third time he batted, scored 309 in a single day
(in the Third Test against England in 1930) and in 12 years
(1936-48) as Australian skipper never lost a Test rubber, to be
so tiny (1.68m), so sweetly self-effacing, so publicity-shy.
Bradman seems unremarkable in every way, until you consult the
record books, and it is his very off-field ordinariness that
endears him to Australians. Though ruthless and at times selfish
on the pitch, Sir Donald Bradman has led a long and dignified
life. He has never bragged or big-noted (though if anyone ever
had a right to, it's him), never been in a bar-room brawl, bet
on a game nor demeaned himself by writing a sensational column
for the tabloids. Today, at 91, living alone in Adelaide since
the 1997 death of his beloved wife, Jessie, Bradman is not just
the most revered Australian sportsman, but the most revered
Australian, period.

Paradoxically, Dawn Fraser is a Hero because her life has been
filled with enough tragedy and farce to fuel a soap opera. It's
comforting to know that even our greatest swimmer can screw up at
times, and we love her as we love a wayward child. The rough and
ready swimmer won gold in the 100 metres at three successive
Olympic Games, 1956, '60 and '64, and with her haul of four
Olympic gold medals and four silver and 27 world records she was
named by her peers in 1983 as Australia's greatest Olympian. What
won our hearts, however, was the bravery with which she faced the
trouble and strife that has dogged her life. Although in later
life she became an MP, as a swimmer she relished defying
officialdom, refusing to wear Australia's regulation
green-and-gold tracksuit because she preferred white, and
insisting on wearing her 1960 costume in the '64 Olympics
regardless of outraged bleats from the team sponsor. Physical and
profane, she intimidated rivals and once even socked a teammate.
She took the rap for stealing an Olympic flag from Japanese
Emperor Hirohito's palace during the '64 Tokyo Games and was
banned from her sport, though another athlete 'fessed up years
later. She narrowly survived a car crash that killed her mother.
She ran a pub in her hometown of Balmain, Sydney. At times she
has done it tough financially and with illness, but whether
winning in sport or losing in life, Fraser has always been the
same down-to-earth, punting, beer-scoffing knockabout from
(Balmain) Tiger territory.

Lew Hoad, Dennis Lillee, Merv Hughes and Des Renford--commoner
kings of sport--were cut from the same cloth as Dawn Fraser, and
struck a similar chord with the public. Tennis player Hoad was
impossibly good-looking in a blond, beefy Australian way. Hoad
was a golden boy in a golden era of Australian sport, the 1950s.
He loved a beer and partied hard and we loved him for that. We
also loved the way he monstered the then all-powerful yanks as
well. Hoad, from Glebe in Sydney, was also blessed with the
strongest forearm in tennis and, fiercely competitive and
skilled, in his day was unbeatable. His doubles partnership with
a man unlike him in every way, the parsimonious, rarely-smiling
straight arrow Ken Rosewall, was the best of the day and one of
the finest ever. Many say Hoad's greatest match was his '57
Wimbledon final thrashing of Ashley Cooper (6-2, 6-1, 6-0 in just
53 minutes--and, as Hoad divulged later, he was hungover at the
time). But the man himself opted for his 1953 marathon (13-11,
6-3, 2-6, 3,6, 7-5) win over American Tony Trabert at Melbourne's
Kooyong that set up an Australian Davis Cup victory. Not long
before he died, too young, aged 59 in 1994, Hoad told a writer,
"I have no regrets at all. Every dog has its day and I had mine.
I had a good life playing the sport I loved. I'm a happy man."

Nor is it hard to imagine the mighty Dennis Lillee having too
many regrets either. If he had his time again he may not have
kicked Javed Miandad on the pitch, maybe not taken strike with
an aluminium bat he was trying to market, perhaps not bet
against Australia in a Test in which he was playing. Then again,
maybe he would have. But far outweighing Lillee's peccadilloes
(which, after all, were minor crimes) was his superlative fast
bowling. That smooth glide to the bowling crease, pendant
swinging, hair afly, the roaring delivery and then the furious
advance down the wicket to scowl at the batsman if he'd scored
against him or to wheel on his heels and raucously appeal to the
umpire for his opponent's scalp. He was a consummate appealer,
and had lots of practice, snaring 355 victims in 70 Tests. Last
year, Lillee at 50 came out of retirement to play a friendly
game against the touring Pakistani team. His flowing black mane
was long gone, replaced by grey stubble and a broadening bald
patch, and his waistline was perhaps a little thicker, but the
old talent was still there. When he took three wickets for eight
runs, the chant went up around the tiny suburban Creswell Park
in Perth, the same chant that had once resounded in cricket
arenas from the MCG to Lord's: "Lill-ee! Lill-ee!"

Merv Hughes was not in Lillee's league as a fast bowler, though
he was a sterling battler, taking 212 wickets in 53 Tests. But
what makes the Victorian Hughes a Hero is that he seemed to
embody you and me, he was a living realisation of our armchair
dreams that one day we'll be plucked from obscurity to bowl for
Australia and not only will we not make a monkey of ourselves,
but we'll be the star of the game. If Merv, big-bellied, unfit,
injury-racked and at times coming across as a prize galoot could
play for Australia, then you or I could too. What he had, that
most of us don't, however, was topline bowling skill backed by
the courage of a lion and an innate ability to unsettle, even
terrify, opponents. With his trademark glower, bristling Mexican
bandit's mo that made him look he'd just wandered off the set of
The Treasure of Sierra Madre, his huge frame and wharfie
vocab, he cut an unforgettable figure. In the crucible of Test
cricket, there was no more vicious--or humorous--sledger of
rival batsmen, but he was always first into the opposition
dressing-room after a day's play to share a drink with a man
brave enough to stand up to his tirades. Witness his affection
for doughty England batsman Michael Atherton who withstood
Hughes's rants with a smile and a straight bat. Honour amongst
men. Now 39 and retired, he is remembered fondly as a character,
larger than life in every way.

Des Renford was another beloved larrikin. A former bookie, surfer
and lad-about-town, he only turned to distance swimming at age
23. Realising his life's calling, he swiftly became the greatest
marathon swimmer the world has seen. Skinny-legged and
barrel-chested ("I was born with a chest that can take 6.8 litres
of air into my thoracic cavity"), he defied the freezing water,
powerful tides, debris and passing tankers to swim the English
Channel 19 times. Renford was loved for his humility, his ability
to defy pain and crippling fatigue, and his many good deeds for
the community. When Renford died aged 72 at the end of
1999--struck down by a heart attack while swimming in his beloved
Heffron Pool at Sydney's Maroubra--the whole nation mourned and it
is the measure of the man that premiers, business leaders, sports
folk, crooks and everyday people whom he inspired to embrace life
were in the throng that overflowed from Sydney's St Mary's
Cathedral.

Betty Cuthbert had many fierce contests on the running track, but
her biggest battle, the one that won our hearts, has been against
multiple sclerosis. The Sydneysider was just 18 when she won
three gold medals at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, in the 100
metres (which she won by nearly 2 metres), the 200 metres and the
4x100 metres relay. Then, after a disappointing Rome Games in
1960, she wound back the clock to win 400 metres gold at the '64
Tokyo Games in a thrilling run against the odds. Today the great
runner is racked by MS and confined to a wheelchair, but has
endured her illness stoically, all the while trying to help other
sufferers. So high is her standing in the sporting community that
recently, after she lost money to a con man in her adopted city,
Perth, a lineup of Australian sporting greats travelled to
Melbourne at their own expense to pose for a photograph that they
signed and auctioned to raise money for Cuthbert. When she is
honoured at Stadium Australia in September, there won't be a dry
eye in the arena.

Many of our finest champions, for all their feats, are fated to
remain outside the pantheon. Sir Jack Brabham, Jon Sieben, Bill
Roycroft, Evonne Goolagong-Cawley, Margaret Court, Shane Gould,
Herb Elliott, Rod Laver, John Bertrand and Murray Rose failed to
engage the public's emotions to the requisite degree or chose to
be so private that they seemed not to exist off the field. David
Campese and Ron Barassi, opinionated commentators, celebrity
speakers, often embroiled in controversies, were a little too
public. Allan Border, Ian Healy, Pat Cash, Tony Lockett and Wally
Lewis always seemed grumpy off the paddock, pitch or court. LA
Olympic star Jon Sieben threw it all away when he pulled out of
the '88 Seoul Games only to attempt an ill-fated comeback in the
early '90s, but by then who cared? Heather McKay was a victim of
her own enormous success; so relentlessly did she rack up victory
after victory that she presented as an automaton who rarely broke
a sweat. Dean Jones and Jeff Fenech were too flash for comfort.
Bob Fulton had it all as a rugby league player but his abrasive,
win-at-all-costs image ensured that he remained unpopular with
all but Manly-Warringah fans. John Raper flaunted that bowler hat
too many times. Ian Chappell is a man for the trenches but maybe
not one you'd care to yarn with. His brother Greg was a classic
batting stylist, but somehow appeared too wired for comfort. Gary
Ablett's fall from grace was too sad and defied empathy; no-one
wanted to follow him down. Jeff Thomson, what a bowler, but
somehow harder to like than his great partner Lillee; there was
something discomforting about his oft-spoken desire to maim a
batsman. The once-much-loved smoking, drinking, betting Doug
Walters seemed certain to be a Hero, but without a media gig,
he's faded from view. Rod Laver was an undeniable superstar of
tennis, but where was the emotion?

And which of today's stars will be venerated as Heroes in 25
years' time? At this stage, Mark Taylor, just retired but an ace
commentator and Olympic spruiker, Ian Thorpe, Michael Klim,
Gorden Tallis, Keiren Perkins, Cathy Freeman, Susie O'Neill,
Patrick Rafter, Steve Waugh, Glenn McGrath, Wayne Carey, Nathan
Buckley, Tim Horan, John Eales and Greg Norman (if he drops his
American accent and returns to Australia) are good chances to
join the Heroes on Mount Olympus. Shane Warne probably will too,
because he is the greatest spin bowler in history, though,
lacking his soul mate Merv Hughes's comic flair, his sledging can
be ugly, and his perceived flashness (the earring and
bizarrely-styled bleached hair) sits badly with many. Nor did the
accusations of Warne's involvement with betting syndicates and
his well-publicised recent browbeating of two New Zealand boys
who had the temerity to photograph him do his public image any
favours. The impossibly athletic Ricky Ponting could still make
it, especially if he becomes Australian skipper, but he'll have
to turn over a new leaf and avoid nasty incidents such as the one
in which he was knocked unconscious in a brawl at Sydney's
Bourbon and Beefsteak bar. Mark Phillippousis and Leyton Hewitt
could hit the heights of Herodom if they unload the oversized
chips they carry on their shoulders. Members of our netball and
women's hockey teams may well deserve to be Heroes, but the media
has to play its part in creating icons, and, perhaps reflecting
public apathy, seems to be comparatively uninterested in these
sports.

And, sport being sport, who'd bet against someone emerging from
this year's Olympics, someone now unknown, perhaps pounding up
and down a pool or sweating it out in a training facility,
bursting from obscurity to take their place among the greats.
There's still room at the peak of Mount Olympus.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY MARK SOFILAS HERODOM Lew Hoad, Dennis Lillee, Betty Cuthbert, Dawn Fraser and Don Bradman are among Australia's lineup of undisputed heroes; Shane Warne, Gary Ablett, Evonne Goolagong-Cawley, Shane Gould, Wally Lewis and Pat Cash are champs who do not seem to have made the glory cut.B/W PHOTO: ALLSPORT Heroes v. Champs Betty CuthbertB/W PHOTO: HULTON GETTY/ALLSPORT [See caption above] Heather McKayCOLOR PHOTO: BRETT COSTELLO/NEWS LTD [See caption above] Susie O'NeillCOLOR PHOTO: TONY DUFFY/ALLSPORT [See caption above] Shane GouldCOLOR PHOTO: BEN RADFORD/ALLSPORT [See caption above] Merv HughesCOLOR PHOTO: SHAUN BOTTERILL/ALLSPORT [See caption above] Shane WarneCOLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN/ALLSPORT Gonnabes v. Mightabeens Keiren PerkinsCOLOR PHOTO: MARK DADSWELL/ALLSPORT [See caption above] Tony LockettCOLOR PHOTO: JOE MANN/ALLSPORT [See caption above] Cathy FreemanCOLOR PHOTO: TONY DUFFY/ALLSPORT [See caption above] Evonne Goolagong-CawleyCOLOR PHOTO: CLIVE BRUNSKILL/ALLSPORT [See caption above] Patrick RafterCOLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN/ALLSPORT [See caption above] Pat Cash