John Stephen Akhwari – the greatest last place, raised so high, sport stars have a long way to fall
John Stephen Akhwari hobbled last into the arena at the Games in Mexico City in 1968, his leg bloodied and bandaged, to honour his native Tanzania, later declaring, “My country did not send me to Mexico City to start the race. They sent me to finish.”…” Nchi yangu ya Tanzania hikunituma hapa Mexico kuanza mbio..bali imenituma hapa kumaliza mbio..alisema John!!!”
Out of the cold darkness he came. John Stephen Akhwari of Tanzania entered at the far end of the stadium, pain hobbling his every step, his leg bloody and bandaged. The winner of the marathon had been declared over an hour earlier. Only a few spectators remained. But the lone runner pressed on.
As he crossed the finish line, the small crowd roared out its appreciation. Afterward, a reporter asked the runner why he had not retired from the race, since he had no chance of winning. He seemed confused by the question. Finally, he answered.
If it’s possible to be strongly pro-sport, while having absolutely no interest in it, I’m your man. My poor motor skills – I can barely catch a ball – have meant complete failure on the field, the court and in the pool. I have no interest in sport because I cannot play sport. But I value it for its health benefits and, at least in theory, its team-building spirit.
I am also sufficiently clear-eyed to see much of modern sport for what it is: a financial honey pot for athletes, their commercial sponsors and the electronic media that win the rights to cover events.
So it’s hard for me to summon outrage at potty-mouthed cricketers, bad-tempered tennis players, drug-taking baseballers or punch-throwing rugby players. While others gnash their teeth, pull out their hair and rend their garments at the poor example this sets for our children, I can only shrug and think, “Who cares?” It’s not like they’re heroes.
Never is the term “hero” so cheapened as when it is applied to people whose life’s work consists of swimming up and down a pool, running around an oval, chasing a football across a field or belting a ball over a net or down a pitch.
It is even more tempting for headline writers and tabloid TV producers to reach for the “hero” tag when describing someone who has sailed, flown, ballooned or rowed solo around the world. But that is also corrupted; far better to describe the people sent out to rescue them, amid thrashing seas and driving rain, as heroes.
There was a time – which ended about two centuries ago, when some seas and lands remained uncharted – that explorers were indeed heroic. They set out to map the world for a grander purpose.
But in an era when you can sit at your desk in Sydney and read, via Google Earth, the number on a letterbox in Copenhagen, it is hard to think that all of our contemporary adventurers are motivated only by altruism.
The sportsman/solo adventurer model especially devalues the term hero. If Ricky Ponting and Greg Norman are heroes, then what are Oguz (Alex) Taskun, who in 2004 confronted, disarmed and restrained a knife-wielding assailant in Auburn, and Jill Baguley, a Narrabri woman who rescued four people from a burning house in 1998? Taskun and Baguley risked their lives and are among hundreds of Australians recognised over the years by the Royal Humane Society for genuine heroism.
You can risk your neck racing a car or sprint through the pain barrier but unless it is for a purpose more noble than fortune, it’s not really brave.
The rot truly set in back in the 1980s when sportsmen and, even worse, white-shoe entrepreneurs became heroes in Bob Hawke’s Australia. Alan Bond, later jailed, was hailed because he bankrolled a boat that won a trophy. A beer commercial exhorted the nation to weep when Keith Williams’s Hamilton Island resort burned down then cheer when he rebuilt it using insurance money.
Along the way, we tapped the actor Paul Hogan, singer John Farnham, cricketer Allan Border, yachtswoman Kay Cottee and another cricketer (and John Howard confidant), Mark Taylor, as Australians of the Year.
But who can reflect on the 2004 Australian of the Year without regretting that Steve Waugh clinched the title over Bernadette McMenamin? Sure, Waugh is a decent man who has long supported a home in India for children with leprosy, but for most Australians it was his prowess on the pitch that mattered.
Meanwhile, we lost the chance to honour McMenamin’s work as the founder of Child Wise, an organisation that saves children throughout Asia from sexual predators.
A few athletes have truly invested their sporting moments with gravitas and meaning beyond the sport itself. Jesse Owens, the grandson of a slave, humiliated Hitler and exploded his theory of Aryan superiority by triumphing on the track at the Berlin Olympics in 1936.
Cathy Freeman collapsed in almost prayerful thanks after winning the 400 metres in Sydney in 2000, but her fellow Olympians Ian Thorpe and Michael Klim emerged victorious from the pool strumming – tauntingly – air guitars. (The Sydney Olympics were, incidentally, an orgy of overcooked headlines, such as “Heroes fire up heroes”.)
So when the commentators bay for Ponting’s blood, I can’t help but yawn. After all, it’s not like he’s a hero.