Where Are All The Heroes?

Sometimes it's all too easy to despair of people in public life, particularly of the sporting kind, at least as far as setting a good example for the next generation. Footballers, in particular, have earned a reputation for not always behaving terribly well whilst earning vast amounts of money, and so it's often difficult for the rest of us to either identify with, or even respect them. Of course most footballers don't attract the headlines. Most simply go about their work, keeping their heads down. Most don't have multi-million pound advertising contracts or even outside interests. Most have stable and happy lives with their families. And most behave well and work as hard as they are required. And, after all, it's not the fault of footballers that their workload isn't utterly exhausting or that their employers are prepared to pay them large wages. They are just fortunate. And it's certainly not their fault that the media, and the public at large, tend to label them 'heroes'.

There are, of course, two types of 'heroes'. Those that receive hero-worship and those that are heroic. I'm sure that not many footballers, or indeed athletes of any kind, would claim to be one of the latter. Although the two types can often be confused, particularly when it comes to the popular media, compared with the soldier who threw him body on to a landmine to save the lives of his comrades, the bloke who scored the Wembley hat-trick is hardly heroic.

But there do remain plenty of examples of hard-working sporting individuals who willingly devote much of their time and energy to excelling at their sports. Often this is without receiving even the slightest recognition from those outside their own sport. And yet these remarkable people are every bit as deserving, often much more so, than the sports stars we all recognise as household names. And last week, I had to admit to my shame, that I was in the presence of several British world champions about whom I knew very little.

I was fortunate enough to be a guest at the glittering Sports Journalists' Association Sports Awards at the opulent Grand Connaught Rooms in Covent Garden. And I was privileged to sit amongst many athletes who do come as near as sports people ever can to being heroic. Because many of those present were the unsung heroes of sport. The men and women who get up at five in the morning every day of the year to train whatever the weather, often before putting in a day's work at the job that is their only source of income. Many get little or no funding to  train and compete and usually they participate in minority sports that rarely appear on mainstream television. And yet their dedication and their talent is no less than those who earn the megabucks.

Among those who received awards (which, to its credit, is a much more all-inclusive selection than the much-discussed and now controversial BBC's Sports Personality of the Year Awards) were road racing cyclist Mark Cavendish (winner of the 2011 green jersey at the Tour de France), and world Tae Kwon Do champion Sarah Stevenson as well as the remarkable Chrissy Wellington who is the current World Ironman Triathlon Champion. She won this by swimming 2.4 miles, cycling 112 miles and then running a full marathon. Each part straight after the last. Unlike the others she won't be competing at the London Olympics because the course is 'too short' for her. Since the SJA also awards the world's longest-running award for an athlete with a disability, there were several of our paralympians  there too and, by chance, I found myself seated at the same table as World Champion discuss thrower Dan Greaves and men's wheelchair tennis number one Peter Norfolk, both of whom are planning to add to their already impressive haul of medals at next year's games. 

For the rest of us present, for those who merely write about sport or, in my case, who were just the guests of those who do, the whole experience was an eye-opener, not just for the many world-beaters Britain can boast, and about who we hear little, but also of the hard work, the dedication and the effort those individuals put in with little hope of significant financial reward.

It was a lovely way to spend a day and I have to admit I got a real thrill at rubbing shoulders with the likes of former swimmer Mark Foster and current 400-metre hurdles world champion Dai Greene. But I'm also glad to say that I now know a good deal more about some of the minority sports, and about the people that compete in them. And come next summer and the much awaited London 2012 I'll get a lot more out of it for leaning about them.

And let me reassure you – the heroes are out there. But sometimes we just have to look a little bit harder for them.