On sporting heroes


As football’s men’s World Cup gets underway, as media networks and blogipeligo becomes over-run by forms of nationalist fervour, as populist politicians set out to curry favour by showing their knowledge of ordinary people’s interests, as events on the pitch, expected and unexpected, result in demonstrations of confusion over what happened (think, Spain) or disputes of good faith in play (think, Australia’s Socceroos) we are destined for several weeks of hyperbolic claims of athletes as heroes. At these times, it seems to me that we could really do with is a good dose of iconoclasm. It may be that I am letting flow some residual and vaguely Calvinist upbringing while, in contrast, my not-so-inner aesthete shudders at the thought of undoing so much of the beauty that icons bring us – but it is not icons of the church that bug me: it is that I get really annoyed when people talk of athletes as heroes……… (and I know it is an easy shot). I have been mulling over this problem of the athlete hero since a little before Easter, appropriately, after a couple of weeks in the Czech Republic.

In central Prague, not far from Karlovy Náměsti (Charles Square) there is a small Orthodox church, from the outside not much to look at especially when compared to the marvels that are Týnský Chrám (in Staroměstké Náměsti), Sv Vít in the castle, Sv Mikuláš in Malá Strana or even the modern Kostel Nejsvětějšího srdce Páně in Vinohrady, yet there is a steady stream of visitors to Sv Cyril and Metoděj (St Cyril & St Methodius). For an historian, it would be nice to think that all these visitors, be they walk-ins, tour parties or purposeful, were there because Cyril and Methodius were the first Christian missionaries to the Slavs, devised the now defunct Galgolithic script and the widely used Cyrillic and are largely responsible for many of the forms of Christianity in the Slav lands (you don’t need to be a believer to recognise the historical importance of these Greek brothers, as in siblings). We who visit are there for a much more recent and secular reason: the crypt was the site of a shootout in June 1942 that brought an end to one of the most significant events of the bleak times that were the Nazi occupation.

On the morning of 27 May 1942 two British trained Czech paratroopers stood, waiting, for two hours on a street corner – a sharp bend – in Libeň, northwest of central Prague. One, Jozef Gabčík, had a Sten gun under his overcoat; the other, Jan Kubiš, two converted anti-tank mines in his briefcase: their bicycles were leaning against a nearby fence. Gabčík and Kubiš had spent months training in England and Scotland for this mission, they had parachuted into Czechoslovakia on 28 December 1941 with instructions to carry out an action that would have effects within the country (at the time known as the Reichsprotectorate of Bohemia and Moravia) and beyond. An assassination was one option, but they had equipment for other actions including widespread sabotage. They opted to assassinate Reihard Heydrich, the ‘Stellvertretender Reichsprotector’ (Deputy Reich-Protector) and architect of The Final Solution. They did not expect to survive, and very many of the people who helped them in the five months they were in hiding and planning also almost certainly knew that if they were caught they were dead.

The attack did not go as planned. Gabčík’s Sten gun jammed and Kubiš’s bomb landed on the running board of Heydrich’s car; had it landed inside the car he would have been killed instantly, as it was he was badly wounded and died of septicaemia on 4 June. The bomb explosion also wounded Kubiš. Both headed for safe houses and went into hiding, as did three other pairs of commandoes on related missions – several together and one, Karel Čurda, went into hiding in his home village. How it was that Čurda fell into Gestapo custody is contested – some suggest he was arrested, others that he turned himself in under pressure from his family and the village as reprisals grew and civilian deaths increased. Either way, he turned informant and gave up not only the hiding place of the other seven, Sv Cyril and Metoděj, but also the names of those who had helped them. The result of Čurda’s betrayal of his comrades was the shootout in the church, the arrest of several hundred Czech resistance members and supporters and their families as well as the Orthodox Bishop of Prague, the vicar and deacon of Sv Cyril and Metoděj as well as other members of the congregation. As reprisals continued, all the men in the towns of Lidice and Ležáky as well as all women from Ležáky were killed, while the women from Lidice we transported to concentration camps: total deaths by reprisal were in the thousands.

One of those arrested and deported was 14-year-old Jindřiška Nováková; her ‘crime’ was that she had moved Kubiš’s bicycle after the assassination – in the context, a small and possibly unnecessary act of support. She was detained in the Small Fortress of Theresianstadt (now Terežin) and then deported to KL Mauthausen were she was killed on October 23, 1942, along with over 250 other by a single shot to the back of the head. It is hard to believe, given the brutality of the occupation, that (even at 14) Jindřiška and everyone else involved in support for the commandos kept in hiding for 5 months were unaware of the risks they took, and there is some evidence that the church leaders explicitly discussed those risks and still went on to take them. These were ordinary people living ordinary lives doing extraordinary things in extraordinary times.

So, I have a problem when we talk about ‘heroes’ and include in that group professional athletes paid more in a week than most people are paid in a year and some people are paid in their lifetimes. I have a problem when ‘hero’ is used as a synonym for ‘celebrity with a good marketing and branding image’. It is not only this weakening of heroism that annoys me. Many of our ‘sporting heroes’ are, frankly, freaks – they exhibit physical and technical skills beyond the basic physiological capability of almost all the rest of us to emulate; think Usain Bolt’s speed or Diego Maradona’s skill with the football (even without the assistance of God’s hand).

I admit, at this point, to be channelling Mike Marqusse’s discussion of Muhammad Ali as an icon of the 1960s, where he makes the case that only a tiny proportion of us can ever hope to emulate those abilities of élite athletes. In doing so he makes a distinction between Ali in the ring (a superlative boxer) and Ali outside the ring. This is not the current Ali-of-the-broken-body that makes safe a political radical of the 1960s and 1970s, but that activist whose “adherence to conscience in defiance of social pressure, the expression of the self through a commitment to a higher cause and a wider community. It was the willingness of the Greatest to link his destiny with the least and littlest that won him the devotion of so many”. (Mike Marqusee Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties London, Verso, 1999, p 297)

This adherence to conscience and commitment to the least and the littlest are things we can all emulate; it is the costs they impose that makes someone heroic. So, if we want to talk about heroes, make sure we’re considering those whose selflessness and sacrifice makes a meaningful contribution to making the world a better place; just doing your job, I’m afraid, doesn’t count. We will continue to debase the word otherwise.

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Malcolm MacLean is an historian by training with a first degree in anthropology and has worked in the public service and universities in the UK, New Zealand and Australia. Malcolm has research and teaching interests in popular culture, popular movements and colonial and imperial history. He is a former Chair of the British Society of Sports History and is currently Vice President of the International Society for the History of Physical Education and Sport and Special Issue Editor of the International Journal of the History of Sport.


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