MONTREAL — When former amateur boxer Nelson Mandela died in South Africa this month, the world mourned.
When protesters in Ukraine needed a leader with the courage to take to the streets to oppose a repressive, pro-Russian regime, they turned to the great heavyweight boxer Vitali Klitschko, whose towering presence on the front lines has both encouraged the demonstrators and helped to prevent violence.
Like most areas of human endeavour, the world of sports offers examples of great selflessness and sacrifice — juxtaposed against the behaviour of monsters of ego and entitlement, athletes who are everything a genuine hero shouldn’t be: cycling’s Lance Armstrong, golf’s Tiger Woods, baseball’s Alex Rodriguez.
From Wall Street to the Tour de France, we’re obsessed with bad-boy “winners” who grab all they can get and treat the rules as minor obstacles. Companies like Nike spend billions telling us who our “heroes” are and, like Pavlov’s dog, we slaver on cue.
Bad boys make good copy, but lousy heroes. Ultimately, we get the heroes we deserve. If we swallow the massive marketing campaigns that tell us to worship phony heroes, we will inevitably suffer the disillusionment when the façade cracks and the “hero” is revealed as a profoundly flawed, greedy caricature of a human being.
If we take the trouble to look deeper, however, we’ll find that genuine heroism involves far more than winning on the field of play. I’ve been fortunate enough to get to know several athletes who are, in my view, real heroes. I would single out three in particular.
Those Montrealers who follow sports at all are aware of the struggles former Canadiens captain Saku Koivu faced here with a gamut of injuries and a life-threatening battle with lymphoma. Some know of his role in creating the Saku Koivu Foundation to purchase a PET scan machine for the Montreal General Hospital. Very few, however, know how much Koivu did behind the scenes here, quietly and without fanfare. More than five years after he left for Anaheim, I am still hearing about things Koivu did: a phone call to a teenager stricken with cancer, a hospital visit to a dying athlete, a boy fighting leukemia invited with his parents to watch a game from Koivu’s private box at the Bell Centre.
No one has ever worked more tirelessly for more causes than Canada’s greatest Olympic athlete, Clara Hughes. Where some athletes would indulge in a long vacation in the Caribbean after winning an Olympic medal, Hughes would fly back to Canada and hurry up to northern Manitoba to work with aboriginal children.
Long after the greatest victory of her career, when she won a gold medal in speedskating in Torino in 2006, we learned that Hughes had also triumphed over crippling depression throughout her career. Typically, Hughes went public about her depression when she teamed with Bell Canada in a national effort to help others struggling with depression.
Montreal’s own Otis Grant, a former world-champion boxer, would be recognized as a hero simply for coming back from a car wreck that nearly killed him to fight at the highest levels of his sport. Grant, however, has worked tirelessly for causes ranging from food baskets to the poor to raising funds for the West Island Palliative Care Residence.
Grant never asks for praise for his efforts, never seeks publicity unless it will help raise money for an important cause. And yet he is there, winter and summer, doing what he can, wherever he can help.
This month, Grant was out schlepping boxes in the cold and snow, while Hughes was biking across Arizona to train for a cross-Canada cycling trip promoting mental-health awareness this spring.
Successful athletes in our culture are highly privileged. But with great privilege comes great responsibility. That goes beyond signing autographs and avoiding drunk-driving busts. Some athletes, like Hughes, Koivu and Grant, see it that way. Far too many others simply do not.
If we want real heroes, they’re out there. All it takes is the effort to look.
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