Mia obviously doesn’t know that Cadel recognises the power of his success and leverages this to do many positive things for others. He goes about this quietly and asks for no recognition. He campaigns for a free Tibet, The Manasarovar Academy (schools for Tibeten children) Cerebral Palsy (his bike raffle has raised $50k already), The Amy Gillet Foundation, Ian Thorpe’s Fountain for Youth, and many other auctions for charity that go unnoticed. Mia, if you’re reading this, you might want to rethink your words on Cadel not being a hero.

Bridie O’Donnell is a professional athlete, doctor, and someone who I hold in high regard. Yesterday she posted an insightful open letter to Mia Freedman on her blog which I’ve asked permission to repost since her site is down. Here it is if you haven’t had a chance to read it:

An Open Letter to Mia Freedman

by Bridie O’Donnell

This morning, I woke up to see a stream of statements on social media networks about how you were an idiot.

As a reader of your column when I buy The Age in Melbourne, I was interested to see what was going on.

I went to your webpage, and proceeded to watch the footage of your morning chat with Karl on the Today Show about Cadel Evans’ historic victory in the Tour de France.

I was incredulous.

The fact that you didn’t know who Evans is, or had much information at all about his history in the sport, his numerous achievements and even greater tribulations, injuries, crashes & disappointments… that wasn’t a surprise to me.

My Mother had no idea who Mark Taylor was when he was named Australian of the Year in 1999, despite him being one of the most famous cricketers of the modern era.

She’d never heard of him, hated cricket & thought it was hogwash.

But where you lost me was that you felt compelled to come forth with an ill-informed diatribe about a recent event that has without doubt, amazed millions (the Tour de France has the world’s largest viewing figures for an annual sports event and the third highest figures for any sports event. The two top events are the Olympics the football World Cup, each held every four years).

Needless to say, I am not here to speak for Cadel Evans and rebut your dismissive lines about his 20y career in cycling as ‘getting paid a lot of money to ride a bike.’

He can speak for himself.

But as an elite road cyclist, I feel completely elated and inspired that a man I know and admire has reached the greatest pinnacle of this sport, after such a challenging road to get there.

You said you have ‘always had a problem with the way Australian sportspeople are revered as heroes and worshipped above every other profession.’

You listed a bevy of professions you deem to be heroic: ‘people who help other people or who somehow work selflessly to benefit others. Nurses, doctors, scientists working to cure diseases… fire fighters and those who risk their lives in wars or their daily jobs, those who volunteer.’

Well, the Macquarie Dictionary states that a hero is a “person of distinguished courage or performance, or someone invested with heroic qualities in the opinion of others.”

So, one man’s Fiona Wood, surgeon and inventor of methods to manage burns victims after the Bali Bombings, is another man’s Cathy Freeman, 2000 Sydney Olympic gold medalist and arguably a quiet promoter of improved reconciliation in this country.

Both are recipients of Australian of the Year awards.

Which brings me to the ludicrous point you seemed to be making: one I interpreted as a vehement dislike for sportspeople to be labeled as heroes/heroines in that you deem them not worthy enough.

Did you know that 49% of surveyed junior doctors stated that the primary reason they chose to study medicine was for the money? (And 71% of pre-law students, but is that a surprise? They’re hardly doing it to make friends).

Medical students were also looking for a vocational degree, to help people, to be a respected professional in society & have job security. Some said they got the marks to get in and didn’t want to disappoint their parents.

If you think a career in Medicine or Allied Health is all altruism, working ‘selflessly to benefit others’ to save lives all day, let me tell you it isn’t.

Sadly, most doctors are not Fiona Wood. Many gain pleasure solely from the status of the job; or they’re paying off their mortgages & school fees; they’re in a position that only a fool would abandon; or they just don’t remember why they started it in the first place.

I know this because I am a medical doctor. I have saved plenty of lives, but I’ve lost many more than that.

I worked with surgeons whose egos were barely contained in the confines of an operating theatre and others who seemed truly miserable.

Occasionally, I was in a situation where I did something truly remarkable: I delivered a baby in a taxi; saved a man’s arm from being amputated (while receiving instructions over the phone) and successfully convinced a violent psychiatric patient to surrender his weapon and avoid assaulting a nurse.

But I also spent years as a junior doctor filling out paperwork, working too much and feeling resentful about the tedious and unsupportive environment I often found myself in.

That didn’t make me a very selfless, altruistic human being, I’m ashamed to say.

Similarly, teachers, nurses, firefighters and speech pathologists are often overworked, underpaid, tired and unsupported. But they’re not always doing their jobs because they want to heal, teach or rescue.

Everyone has all sorts of motivations for the jobs they choose, or reasons they keep doing them. Even UN Aid workers might be craving excitement or escaping a former life, they’re not just there to manage African babies with HIV.

And sure, plenty of athletes are overpaid. Did Michael Jordan really need to earn the US$1M per week that was reported? Were his slam-dunks really worth that?

Possibly. I’d rather see that than the cast of Friends being paid the same amount per episode of mindless drivel. And I’m not even a basketball fan.

But for every time you can clamber onto a soapbox to protest the lucrative sponsorship dollars an athlete can reap, think about the other hundreds that do not, or cannot.

Ask yourself if NOT getting paid for the first 10y of your career then having no job stability after you retire works out even, then factor in the current climate of risk in sporting professions.

Remember that an athlete’s body is their mode of income and every single injury, illness, lack of form and mental fatigue costs them income. We make sacrifices, put other aspects of life on hold (like motherhood, owning a car, drinking alcohol on a Saturday night) and we have to constantly navigate uncertainty.

But this isn’t about money, or whose job is more important/relevant to the world at large.

It’s about this simple fact: Cadel doesn’t inspire you, nor do you think he is invested with heroic qualities.

I’m proud to say that I wholeheartedly disagree with you.

We find sports people heroic when they do things we fantasise about, that we could only dream of.

Athletes entertain us, thrill us, make us tense and exhilarated. And when we know them, are related to them or have followed their careers closely, the effect is amplified.

When you know an athlete has failed in his/her ambitions so many times, broken bones, over-trained, made mistakes that cost them a race or just fallen short, then a final victory over every competitor in the race is truly remarkable.

Mia, you should watch coverage of the final week of the Tour de France, see just what everyone is talking about.

Look at the battle weary bodies of these boys and what they push themselves to do. You will see that Cadel also had 8 selfless teammates, whose names most people don’t know, and they rode every single day to protect him.

They are heroes too.

I can only hope to one day achieve something that might inspire a nation to be active, courageous, ambitious and persistent like Cadel Evans has in his efforts over the decade.

Sincerely,

Dr Bridie O’Donnell MBBS

Silver medal, 1987 AUS Maths Olympics

(National Champion, 3 time Oceania Champion, 3-time World Championship team member)