Heroes and Idols

Monday, January 5, 2009

What makes an athlete a hero?

On January 1, 2009, sprinter and world-record holder Usain Bolt was named by the International Sports Press Association as 2008 Male Athlete of the Year, besting swimmer and record-holding Olympian Michael Phelps by a slim margin. To be honest, I was surprised by the declaration. How can the man touted to be the best Olympian ever, winning a historic eight-gold haul, lose to a celebrated runner with three golds? I thought Phelps' lofty place in sports history was assured, but what gave way? Yes I am a swimmer by heart and a runner second, but I remain bewildered about the decision.

I tried to replay in my mind the Olympic events. Early on, Phelps was piling gold medal after gold medal on the eight events he was in. He almost missed the chance to make Olympic history in the swim medley and at one time swam last 100meters of butterfly blinded with water in his goggles, but he and his team almost miraculously triumphed. Former Olympic swimmer Ian Thorpe, Phelps' idol, initially thought the younger swimmer would find it hard to win eight golds, but Phelps used Thorpe's words as motivation, even pinning the words on his locker. Thorpe had this to say after the historic win: "I'm really proud of him not just because he won eight golds. Rather, it's how much he has grown up matured into a great human being."

To his coach, Phelps was "unbelievably kind-hearted". To his teammates, he was Gomer, a good-natured, country boy in The Andy Griffith Show. Phelps battled Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder as a child. In the pool he found redemption, an outlet for that almost boundless energy. Speedo gave him a million dollars for his Olympic feat; Phelps used the money to start a foundation that helps children find the redemption he had through swimming. I suppose these make Phelps my hero. He made me believe I too can overcome my limitations. Outside of the pool he is just another Michael. Off-land he admits to being clumsy. But these just make the other Michaels and me believe that we too can be great.

I then replayed Usain Bolt's winning moments. Bolt's performance on the last days of the Olympic was electrifying to say the least. He is quite a persona, a media darling who is naturally charming and knows how to ham it up to the crowds and the cameras. His 100meter dash time of 9.69 is stupefying. Why, he even slowed a bit towards the end! Almost single-handedly, he brought back the glory days of track and field. The crowd and the press loved him. I suppose that's why he won the title Male Athlete of the Year from the international press.

There is just one fly in Bolt's ointment - a pebble you may say on his golden Puma shoes. While I admire his almost superhuman physical prowess, I am a little disturbed by his antics at the final stretch. Was it exuberance or arrogance? I don't know. I do not know him that well. I just know him by his public persona as reflected in videos and write-ups. Olympic medalist Kriss Akabussi construed Bolt's chest slapping before the finish line as showboating. International Olympic Committee President Jacque Rogge viewed the act as disrespectful. Bolt said he wasn't bragging, that he was just happy. A Jamaican government minister said, "We have to see it in the glory of their moment and give it to them. We have to allow the personality of youth to express itself."

Bolt has the gift, no doubt about it. Many times in his career, that gift was all he relied on. But we are blessed differently and not everyone will have Bolt's gift. As I stare in awe in the magnificence of his gift, I try hard to partake and take something with me from that gift.

This brings me back to my original query: What makes an athlete a hero? Clearly, Phelps and Bolts are stars basking in their athletic fame. With their legions of fans, they are certified sports idols. Are they heroes? Is display of almost unbelievable physical abilities enough, or do we expect more from athletes we choose to proclaim as heroes?

I am reminded of esteemed but lesser known sports idols - ultramarathoner and triathlete David Goggins and marathoner Haile Gebrselassie. Goggins says it simply: "I am nobody special. Let's be perfectly clear...I don't like to run. I don't like to swim. I don't like to bike. I do this to raise money for children of soldiers killed in combat..." RunnersWorld has this to say about one of its 2008 Heroes Haile, "Yet what makes Gebrselassie compelling is not simply his outlandish speed and endurance, but a personality infused with humility, self-assurance, an awareness of his place in the sport, and a sense of social responsibility." In his own words, Haile explains, "Ten or 15 years ago, I only thought of myself. Now I am thinking of my country. When you employ people, you have a responsibility. You are like a father of many kids. You have to do things properly."

Photos, quotes and facts were taken from Wikipedia and Runner's World online.


sfrunner January 6, 2009 at 11:11 AM  

Hi Rico. 2008 was a tough decision between three athletes in Bolt, Phelps and Gebreselassie. Believe me, all three were worthy of the award and they had tremenduous accomplishments.

What will 2009 provide for all of us? Happy New Year!

myironshoes January 9, 2009 at 4:24 PM  

on the subject of heroes and athletes.. you may find this link of interest:

courage, sacrifice and a willingness to serve...For me it's what all true heroes are made of.

Rico Villanueva January 10, 2009 at 1:57 AM  

Wayne, thanks for the wishes and the comments.

Mesh, that was an inspiring article.
A quote from the article: "Anne is helping people see the hero in themselves," says Solomon.

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