Wednesday, August 27, 2008


London Free Press, August 12, 2008

Shortly before the opening of the Beijing Olympics, the headline “Our Olympic heroes” appeared in an Ontario newspaper over a story that profiled some local athletes who were preparing to compete in the Olympics.
No-one can argue that the athletes who compete in the Olympic Games don’t put forth enormous effort in order to reach the goal of competing in the Games. Many of the athletes make great personal investments in their goal in terms of physical training, finances, delayed educational opportunities and relationships that are put on hold. But are they really heroes?
Since the 9/11attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, it seems that North American society has taken to calling people working in all sorts of professions “heroes.” From firefighters who respond to emergency calls every day, and police officers who patrol Canada’s cities and highways, to Canadian soldiers serving in Afghanistan and now to Olympic athletes, people in any number of professions are being called heroes. The term “heroes” is being used so often to describe people who are doing what some might consider little more than their jobs, that it’s becoming easy to forget what the word “hero” really means, and how a person might earn that title.
The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that a hero is “A man, now also a woman, distinguished by the performance of extraordinarily brave or noble deeds…” also “[Someone] admired or venerated for his or her achievements and noble qualities in any field.”
It’s perhaps the phrase “distinguished by the performance of extraordinarily brave or noble deeds…” that make it a little difficult to think of people who go about the day-to-day performance of their duties as “heroes.” There is unquestionably a very large element of courage involved in serving as a police officer, soldier or firefighter, or indeed even in nursing or farming or construction work, and many other fields of endeavour. But surely being courageous is not the same as being heroic.
When Canadian climber Andrew Brash, for instance, tossed aside his dream of summiting Mount Everest in 2006, just some 200 metres from his goal, in order to rescue climber Lincoln Hall who was discovered half-clothed, sitting on the edge of a cliff in the Death Zone of the mountain, and just days after climber David Sharp was left to die by others, Brash surely performed “an extraordinarily brave and noble deed” - a heroic deed - and earned the right to be called a hero and to receive the medals and commendations given to heroes. Being a mountain climber made him courageous, but it was sacrificing his dream and risking his life to save another climber that made him a hero.
If we’re going to refer to athletes getting ready to compete at the Olympic Games as heroes, then what are we going to call people like Andrew Brash?
The indiscriminate use of the term “hero” to describe someone whose job entails some degree of risk or exceptional dedication – a coal miner, for instance, or an athlete – diminishes the ability of the word to honour those who go far beyond the call of duty to perform an extraordinary feat of self-sacrifice in the service on humankind, and indeed diminishes the acts of those who performed heroic deeds before the word entered into such common currency.
Take, for example the story of Sergeant Thomas (Tommy) Ricketts. Born in Newfoundland, Ricketts was only seventeen, and a private soldier in the Royal Newfoundland Regiment in the First World War when, On October 14, 1918, he and the rest of his machine gun crew were pinned down and out of ammunition in a battle near Ledgehem, Belgium. Ricketts volunteered to run across 100 yards of open field to gather more ammunition for his crew’s Lewis gun. Returning over the same dangerous ground, Ricketts and a fellow soldier captured a number of German weapons and prisoners. For his uncommon valour, Ricketts was promoted to sergeant, and awarded the Victoria Cross, the youngest soldier ever to receive this important military honour.
Sergeant Ricketts, like Andrew Brash, performed “an extraordinarily brave and noble deed,” and was a hero.
It may be true that we live in a time that needs new heroes, but misusing the word is not going to meet that need.

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