Australia's newest sporting icon, Cadel Evans, is tramping a new footprint into the Australian sports landscape for others to follow.
Australians love a good sports story. The drama, the heroism, the triumph; all the elements of a modern day war story for the younger generation. With sports stars consistently stealing the news headlines, there sometimes leaves little room for much else. Public attention and praise push the hero's myth far and the pedestal high, and here in Australia as in Britain, falls from grace can be often and hard when reality proves far from myth. However, its newest addition to the book of sporting icons, Cadel Evans, winner of the 2011 Tour de France, is confirming himself different where others have succumbed to the lures of the limelight. He has proved himself the modest, likeable and enduring figure, rendering the need for pedestals and tall tales unnecessary. He is being recognised inside and outside the Australian sporting realm not as a sporting hero, but as an achiever of one of the biggest feats of human ability known to man.
Last Friday the Government here in Melbourne staged a congratulatory parade for Evans. I thought I'd get involved and go along for a bit of fun, not expecting much beyond the usual punditry and faceless folklore, but what ensued was not just a Festival de Cadel, but a celebration of the sport of cycling and a contemplative recognition that, cycling fan or not, the achievement of any man who wins a Tour de France is undeniably spectacular. Evans had made a whirlwind 3 day stopover in Melbourne and an estimated 25,000 people turned up to be part of it, including the odd penny farthing and circus contraption. It was bigger than Oprah, who had in fact whipped up her own brand of frenzy at the very same spot not six months prior. Evans regaled the crowd with tales of boy hood and cycling mishaps. People laughed and smiled. Many were indeed cycling enthusiasts, but the mix included elderly people, children and families who came down, perhaps to show their children what can be humanly possible when you really put your mind to something. He proved the humble and deserving type - no flash, but all smiles and genuine delight as he rolled across the hundred or so metres of the Princes Bridge in his yellow jersey. It was infectious. He stopped to chat to well-wishers, shake hands and draw in breath. And, interestingly enough, people just wanted to talk to him, not to brashly glorify, but to look him in the eye and quietly say "well done."
Despite having a seasonal interest in the Tour de France myself, I would never have thought support for cycling in Australia would be anything more than meagre and sporadic. Especially given that its premier global event is broadcast here in the wee small hours of the night. I was wrong. According to government figures, cycling is well placed within the top five most popular recreational sports. This is no mean feat, given how wide the pool of sporting choice is here. I have since discovered that Melbourne's bayside suburbs are strewn with cycling clubs, completing dedicated weekend pilgrimages around Port Phillip Bay.
I spent many summers watching a lot of the Tour from London, but missed seeing it in France in all its chaotic, dog-strewn, rider-mangling glory. This year I was instead awarded the privilege unique to Antipodeans; the reward of sleepless nights in the wintry chill of the wee small hours just to see the Tour drama unfold. It seems most of Australia did the same. I never realised what a hardy bunch they are. Or a sleep deprived bunch. World Cups, Olympics, Wimbledon, the Tour de France, you name it. Most events, with a few notable exceptions, prefer the more lucratively sponsored American and European time zones. However, if it's a half decent sporting event and an Aussie in sight with a sniff of a chance, then have no doubt there will be several million up watching. Except the Tour. Australian frontrunner or not, there seems to be an overwhelming abundance of people down under who just love the spectacle, helped along the way by the dedication and outstanding coverage of the television channel SBS.
Debate continues to rage in this country as to whether or not sporting champions should be lauded into such heroic realms as they so often are, or whether this just sets them up for great falls and the terminology be best reserved instead for another time and place. This celebration felt far away from that. Next stop for Australian sport is of course the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand. The Wallabies might just have very big and humble shoes to fill. They should thank their lucky stars that this time their fans won't have to stay up until the wee hours.
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