As a (retired) teacher of English it is becoming a constant annoyance to me how the language is being mangled in the media and in general usage. Yes, I am aware that language is an organic thing and that it is constantly changing. And, yes, I am aware that new words are constantly being added, old words are falling into disuse and existing words are being used in a way that they were not being used a decade or even longer before.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the area of sports reporting where the reporters’ grasp of the basics of English is often as tenuous as the footballer’s grasp on the wet football.
This week I want to look at two words in the sport’s reporters vocabulary that are not only over-used but often misused altogether. They are both nouns and are regularly used in reference to participants in various sporting endeavours. I then want to see if they apply to our chosen passion, motorcycling.
The two words are “hero” and “legend” as in the title. I will deal with them, however in the reverse order to this for reasons that will soon become clear.
Here is the definition of the word “legend”
a non-historical or unverifiable story handed down by tradition from earlier times and popularly accepted as historical. A collection of stories about an admirable person. A person who is the center of such stories:
Now it is clear from the definition and from common usage that, to call a person living today a legend is incorrect. Davy Crockett was a legendary person but a modern-day footballer, regardless of his level of skill, his performance or his stellar career cannot be a legend. And, in motorcycling terms, as much as I admired and respected Allan Kempster, for example, he was plainly not a legend, though the term was often used in reference to him.
Here is the definition of a “hero”
a man (person) of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his/her brave deeds and noble qualities. A person who, in the opinion of others, has heroic qualities or has performed an heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal:
People who would qualify for this description could be a fireman who risks his life to enter a burning building and save a life, a nurse in a war zone who continues to tend her patients while under bombardment or, in a sporting sense, someone who does something incredibly brave or admirable, like Formula One driver, David Purley, who stopped his car near the scene of his friend, Roger Williamson’s burning wreck and tried to rescue him while not receiving any help from the marshals or other track officials. A truly heroic but, ultimately fruitless endeavour.
So, let’s look at motorcycling. Do we know any motorcyclists who could be legitimately called legends? No, we don’t because even though some (Marc Marquez?) appear to be endowed with supernatural powers, legends belong in the field of fiction only.
Do we know any who could legitimately be called heroes? In terms of performing an heroic act, probably not, although I seem to recall that the late Mike Hailwood risked his own life to save a fellow driver who was trapped in a burning car in a similar situation to the David Purley/Roger Williamson one.
Much has been made (and justly so) of Marc Marquez’s Usain Bolt effort during qualifying a few years ago at Austin. Running the length of the pit lane in full racing gear, climbing over the pit wall, getting out on the second bike in the shadow of the time-out for the period and still putting the thing on pole is as close to legendary as we are probably likely to see in our lifetime. But heroic? Not really. Nobody’s life was at risk and the only person to benefit materially from his effort was him.
So, if we can’t really apply either of those terms to motorcyclists in a strict sense, is this article going nowhere? No, it isn’t because, through usage, if not definition, motorcyclists, and especially motorcycle racers CAN be heroes. They can be OUR heroes, the people to whom we look up as being those who perform feats to which the rest of us can only aspire. And I’d like to move slightly to the left and give you the list of MY motorcycling heroes. The caveat here is that these are riders who I have actually SEEN performing these amazing feats. Everyone’s list will be different but this is mine. Also, please note that the list is not in any particular order.
1 Gregg Hansford. I count myself privileged to have seen Gregg at his very best, before the knee injury at Assen crippled and ultimately ended his motorcycle road racing career. Tall, amazingly handsome, genial and extraordinarily talented, Gregg was arguably the best motorcycle road racer I have ever met or seen. It is appropriate that he heads the list just on performance alone but also because this week has marked the 25th anniversary of Gregg’s death.
- Warren Willing. The ying to Hansford’s yang, Willing was handsome, talented and driven. As a racer he was Hansford’s equal but he never got the “works” ride that Gregg did and his shocking accident on a road circuit in Ireland not only nearly claimed his leg, it nearly claimed his life. Many years of recuperation followed but then Warren re-ignited his career, not as a rider, but as a race engineer and his CV in this role is even more impressive than his riding exploits were.
- John Woodley. The tall and genial New Zealander made Australia his home during the late 1970’s and his exploits, riding a “little” 500cc Suzuki against the “big” 750’s have gone down in our racing history. Woodley featured in 2 of my Top 5 Best Ever Races, the Rothmans Pro Series race at Oran Park in August 1976 and the Australian Unlimited Grand Prix at Bathurst in 1979. One of the most amazing things that I remember about John is that it didn’t matter how long it had been since he saw you last, he always remembered your name.
- Kenny Blake. The master of production racing in the 1970’s he owned Amaroo Park with a better record in the Six Hour than any other rider, including winning the 1973 race on a Kawasaki Z1, riding the whole six hours solo without a second rider. At home and competitive on anything from a TA125 Yamaha to a BMW superbike, Kenny was fast and predictable. Off the bike he was charming, quiet and everybody’s mate. His name is still revered today despite perishing at the Isle of Man in 1981.
- Bob Rosenthal. The quiet Victorian was a regular winner but cemented his heroic status with a win in the King of the Weir race at the Albury track in January 1978. The race was held in torrential rain and Rosie was on a TZ750, a notably ferocious bike. But, with the benefit of a set of year-old rain tyres and consummate skill, he spreadeagled the field, lapping up to 3rd place in the process. These days he downplays the achievement, but those of us who saw it know that it was monumental.
- Ray Quincey. Son of an equally famous father, Ray shot to fame in the mid 70’s winning three Australian titles in the one season in 1976. Quiet and somewhat shy, Ray let the bike do the talking and, with a smooth, no-fuss style, he looked like he was going slow when, in fact, he was going very quickly indeed. Ray was critically injured in a race accident in Belgium not long after and has been confined to a wheelchair since then. A “what might have been” story.
- Graeme Crosby. The Kiwi larrikin raised eyebrows from the moment he crossed the Tasman to race here. His famous, “Which way does the track go and what’s the lap record?” quote pretty much sums up his attitude and cemented the crowd’s adoration of him. Showing his skill on the world circuit only proved what we already knew, the man was a genius on a motorcycle. Blessed with charm to burn and a sense of humour that would be enough for three people, Croz truly epitomised the carefree era of racing that was the 70’s.
- Andrew Johnson. If ever there was a rider who exhibited prodigious courage it was AJ. An industrial accident has ruined his left hand but it didn’t stop him. Two stroke bike or four stroke bike, it didn’t make any difference. His exploits on the fearsome “Syndicate” Kawasaki have gone down in history as has his riding on the V3 Grand Prix Honda. AJ was “win it or bin it” personified but, sadly he did a little too much of the second one. Will there ever be another AJ? No, the memories will just have to do.
- Wayne Gardner. I first saw Wayne race at Oran Park in November 1976. It was a Wollongong Motorcycle Club club day, their last of the season. Wayne was just a kid and was riding his YZ125 motorcross bike fitted with a set of road tyres. From then he raced through the ranks showing obvious skill and determination. He attracted the attention of the right people and further enhanced his reputation with the first of his two Six Hour wins in the streaming rain at Amaroo, paired with Andrew Johnson. From then it was off to Europe where he ended up winning the 500cc world championship in 1987. A truly “rags to riches” story.
- Robbie Phillis. Australia’s version of Graeme Crosby. Garrulous, blessed with a wicked sense of humour and an uncanny ability to ride a bike quickly, Robbie has been on my list since 1976 when I saw him at a C Grade day at Hume Weir. He has won more titles than probably any current rider and is truly the man who has “been there – done that.” Competitive at the world level in WSBK but equally happy these days running around (!) in historic racing, I count it a privilege to call him my friend and am in awe of what he has achieved and his abiding sense of competitiveness and passion.
Of course there are others on my “heroes” list but I am limiting myself to those about whom I can comment directly. Having said that, my all-time hero is Freddie Spencer (pictured above with me and his bike at Eastern Creek in 2015) . How I would have loved to have seen him race.