Keith D. Parry
Department in Sport and Event Management, Bournemouth University
Heroic tales have existed for centuries and modern sport is one of the primary domains for the (re)creation of heroes. Ask most sports fans who their sporting hero is and it is likely that a name would be quickly offered. For fans, no explanation is needed for what a sports hero is, as the concept is a key element of sport consumption and sport fandom. Heroes are so ingrained in sporting narratives that it has been claimed that heroes are the very essence of sport and that “sport without a hero is like Hamlet without a prince”.
The feats of top athletes are reproduced by the mass media, building the sense of spectacle and making these performances seem increasingly miraculous and the work of some sporting genius – not of a mere mortal. As a result of the increasing media coverage, these figures become well known and recognised as much for their off-field exploits as their sporting achievements – they can become celebrity figures. Celebrities, of both a sporting and wider context, have been studied more extensively but sports heroes have been somewhat overlooked. There has been a small number of studies focussed on analyses of established sporting heroes, examining the historical and cultural contexts for their heroization, or that utilised a social psychological approach to discover which athletes are identified as heroes. Social psychological approaches claim that individuals are free to make their own choices of heroes, based on the personal characteristics of particular athletes. However, it is naïve to consider the exaltation of heroes to be solely an individual’s decision. While fans may believe that they are ‘free’ to choose their hero, they may not have the ‘power’ to create one. A complex, interrelated network of social, cultural, historical, and political factors, and the media will influence hero choices.
As noted above, there have been studies of existing sports heroes, that is to say athletes that have already been elevated above their peers, but how these heroes are formed has not been adequately addressed. The formation of a new Australian rules football (often referred to as Aussie rules) team to play in the elite Australian Football League (AFL) provided a unique opportunity to understand the process of heroization. The AFL is the best supported Australian sports league in terms of average match and weekly attendance figures and the Greater Western Sydney Giants were planted in a region that has not, traditionally, been associated with Aussie rules.
In the first instance, it was assumed that a participant observation at games would be a suitable method for revealing observable acts of devotion but this was not the case. In the club’s early years, there were few performative expressions of fandom and negligible large-scale obvious adoration of players by the fans. The team struggled in their initial seasons, winning very few matches and often losing heavily. In addition, the Giants’ players were homogeneous in appearance and profile, with little playing experience. Small crowds at games and club events also resulted in a lack of interaction between fans and players and very little observable heroization. Therefore, to gain an understanding of how narratives surrounding the Giants’ players and staff were created, and how heroization was formed, a netnographic approach across a number of virtual spaces and methods of analyses was utilised.
From this analysis, three key figures – Israel Folau, Jeremy Cameron, and Kevin Sheedy – emerged as prominent individuals and potential heroes. Folau, a former rugby league player of Tongan heritage, was converted to Australian football to be a hero and the face of the club’s marketing and promotional material – although he left the club at the end of their first season in the AFL. Cameron, a young, relatively unknown player, emerged as the club’s leading performer and was featured frequently in the media. His on-field performances were recognised as significant by his peers, the media, and the wider AFL community. Sheedy was the club’s first coach and had a long history in Aussie rules, and he is one of the sport’s best-known figures. During his time at the club, he was divisive and, at times, controversial.
Specific details of contemporary heroes are frequently altered with factual elements blended with fictional ones.
Although a suitable level of athletic ability or sporting success (such as in the case of Sheedy as coach) is required to support heroization, in each case it was apparent that it was the narratives constructed around each figure that were more important in heroization than their sporting performances. These narratives were influenced and shaped by the collective beliefs and the familiar patterns that are present in each society, sedimented in the unconscious of that culture. Indeed, it is possible to connect the three case studies with existing traditional or mythical heroic types. Heroes, therefore, reinforce traditional values and norms of the dominant social classes that facilitate cultural identification for large numbers of the population. They reinforce national identity by highlighting the documented myths of the culture.
Mythology and national identity
It has previously been claimed that hero types differ between cultures with the concept of heroism also varying between time periods. However, this study supports the notion that hero myths are universal, even if heroization is sport-specific and deeply influenced by the socio-cultural context. Scholars have traced these myths across different cultures and times and finding similarities in the patterns that were present in their narratives. As such a series of archetypes have been presented previously, which offer useful patterns for the analysis of modern athletes and potential heroes. There is an identifiable hero ‘script’ that can be transferred and adapted to different societies. At national levels, these universal narratives are selectively incorporated into myths surrounding national identity. The (largely) twentieth century constructions of national identity have drawn on older, wider myths, which have included selected, earlier heroic narratives. This means that there are a limited number of typologies for heroes to follow and for fans to be most drawn to a hero when the narratives surrounding them are familiar and most typically associated with traditional constructions of national identity.
It is likely that some earlier heroes may be mythical characters, but the stories built up around factual individuals can be altered to fit existing mythological narratives of heroes. Specific details of contemporary heroes are frequently altered with factual elements blended with fictional ones. Cultural areas, such as sport, can frequently shape or manipulate myths of national identity and so the process of heroization can be manipulated and constructed by sports clubs and the media. However, if an imposed ‘hero’ does not have the requisite ability or does not conform to the ‘dominant culture’ of the team or sport, then the imposition will not be successful.
Copyright © Keith D. Parry 2021
 see European Heroes: Myth, Identity, Sport, edited by Pierre Lanfranchi, Richard Holt, J A Mangan, Routledge 1996