Scientists make better role models than sportsmen
What makes a person a role model? Generally – and unfortunately – in this country it’s nothing more than the widely-held belief that they are one.
It’s got nothing to do with their tangible contribution to society and the greater good, rather the emergence of an unusual consensus that they hold a position of leadership purely because they’re in the public eye.
In the past 36 hours Australia has seen the departure of two public figures – one of whom destroyed his career through his own farcical irresponsibility, the other of whom lost his life to tragic illness.
Serial boozer Andrew Symonds, sacked by the Australian cricket team after his umpteenth alcohol-related misdemeanour.
And pioneering cancer surgeon Professor Chris O’Brien, claimed by cancer at the cruelly young age of 57.
There were a few issues at play with Symonds, such as his unwillingness to be part of the team, his obvious disdain for the cricket authorities, but one of the biggest driving forces behind his departure is the screwy presumption that he was failing to serve as a good role model to younger Australians, a position he apparently holds by dint of his ability to swing the willow while donning the green and gold.
On talkback radio and websites throughout the land yesterday, people were queuing up to say it’s about time Symonds was drummed out of the game because he has set such a consistently bad example to the kiddies who dream of playing the game on the national stage.
What a pile of tosh. Any parent who would point their kids in the direction of a televised one-day match to give moral guidance to their little ones should probably be taken aside for a quiet chat by DOCS.
And that’s not some elitist putdown of sportsmen, who are generally no smarter or stupider than any other sample of humanity, rather a frustrated question arising from the tenuous link between moral leadership and the nature of their dayjobs.
If Australia can resolve to change one thing about itself, it should be that we end this mindless obsession with sportsmen as moral leaders, and recognise that their principal role in life is to enjoy and entertain.
Then, we should resolve to do a much better job of cherishing, celebrating and learning from the true role models in our society, of which a man such as Chris O’Brien could be no better example.
O’Brien’s death has had a discernible emotional toll on so many average people because he was in that rarest category of scientists. He was a household name, someone whom ordinary punters had come to know and love.
Aside from burns specialist Fiona Wood – and at a pinch, immunologist Ian Frazer, and maybe also the guy who invented the cochlear implant, what’s his name – most Australians would be flat out naming two famous medical professionals.
In fact there’s a greater likelihood that they’d come back with Jayant Patel and The Butcher of Bega.
It’s to our shame that, as a nation which has punched above its weight in terms of scientific innovation, which supports amazing communities of research and inquiry, and has pulled off more world firsts than would normally be expected for a country of its size, our scientific achievements are still a mystery to most of our countryfolk.
O’Brien’s life showed the role which the mainstream media can play in reversing that fact. It also showed other scientists who are also doing amazing things that it’s possible to push their own message.
The community is fascinated by their work and would like to learn more about it.
Every year though, with a few exceptions (such as Frazer) we endure the sport-versus-science, sport-versus-community-work debate as the result of events such as Australian of the Year where frequently an Ian Thorpe or a Steve Waugh will end up scooping the pool, leaving medicos standing on the sidelines politely clapping them on.
I’d even doubt whether the sports stars enjoy these accolades.
Some of them probably just find them a drag – as Young Australian of the Year, Lleyton Hewitt famously cracked about his workload at one of the handicapped groups he was expected to represent.
Equally there are other blokes such as Steve Waugh, who’s a terrifically smart guy who has done genuinely innovative charity work through his foundation to bring children with very rare conditions and no support groups behind them into urgent and specialised medical care.
I’d question whether Waugh, a dry sort of a bloke, would have enjoyed receiving broad-based accolades for his national leadership on the sporting field, “pipping” the type of medicos he now liaises with through his charity work.
People such as Waugh are probably happier for their sporting achievements to speak for themselves, and for the accolades they receive to be largely confined to the sporting arena.
It would be better if the national recognition was kept sacrosanct for those who have made a material contribution to the well-being of others, rather than giving us the odd feeling of exuberance or joy while we sit in front of the plasma with a tinnie in our hand.
I cannot recall a posthumous Australian of the Year award but if ever there were an argument for one Professor Chris O’Brien is it.
The toughest metaphysical question of all – why do good people get taken so early – can hopefully be answered in part by O’Brien’s death, as the Lifehouse centre for cancer treatment which he pioneered was informed and guided in large part by his own fight with the disease.
It stands now as a testament to his goodness as a human and his diligence and innovation in his work, which alone should be the qualities by which our nation selects its role models.
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