The significance of Steven Bradbury’s winter triumph, 11 years on

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By Mark Gojszyk, 19 May 2013 The Crowd is a Roar Guru

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    Australian speed skater Steven Bradbury AAP

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    Steven Bradbury’s gold medal winning performance at the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics was an iconic example of an underdog’s triumph.

    It dispelled the popular theory that nice guys with bleached blonde hair and inferior skating abilities finish last. They don’t. They win.

    After initially missing out on a semi final spot in the 1000m short track event, Bradbury fortuitously qualified due to a post-race disqualification to a faster opponent.

    Realising his limitations (an inability to consistently skate very fast), a masterstroke suggestion from his coach saw Bradbury approach his semi final race with a tortoise mentality, hoping the hares ahead of him would crash and (freeze) burn.

    They did. He advanced to the final with the same mindset and the rest is history…

    But to recap, the same phenomenon occurred with all those before him crashing out. It produced the unlikeliest of victories and a first ever gold medal to a outhern hemispherian in the Winter Olympics.

    The culturally significant impact of the event was a newfound hope to all underdogs, undercats and underhumans to achieve their dreams with the right combination of homemade skates and a lucky break.

    Bradbury acknowledged his limitations, played his cards right and achieved the ultimate glory. In return, fate engrained him in Australian sporting folklore.

    He achieved more than he, or anyone else, could ever have imagined. It is now Australia’s most famous Winter Olympics achievement to date (sorry, Alisa Camplin, you also did well).

    Before the race Bradbury was given little chance of winning. Yet his race was so effective that ‘doing a Bradbury’ is now Australian colloquialism for being successful albeit very lucky.

    He even received an Order of Australia Medal (OAM) for being a lucky bastard. Or a brilliant tactician. Though one would not automatically think for being a devoted sportsman.

    In a sporting context, what is lost when defining a Bradbury is the perseverance and a never die attitude required to make your own luck. Urban Dictionary defines a ‘Bradbury’ as a miraculous victory arising from the ineptitude of the favourites.

    While people tend to focus solely on the result, often disregarded are the preceding years of hard work and commitment Bradbury dedicated to speed skating.

    Recognition for the sport is low (heck, who would have known he won a relay bronze at the ’94 Olympics) and funding is minimal.

    While Bradbury got lucky on the day, he credited his success to years of tireless training, self-funding and even $1000 from his parents to fix his car.

    However, sport is a business and business is mostly results oriented. After all, as Ralph Waldo Emerson once almost said, “life is a destination, not a journey”.

    What is eventually true about doing a Bradbury is that it is still inherently lucky.

    In any other circumstances, Bradbury would have finished last as expected and returned home a broke, obscure sportsman.

    Many other athletes can testify that if one does not achieve the top ranks in their chosen sport, especially one not considered mainstream, despite their love for the game the end result can be years of unrecognised and unrewarded experiences in middle tier competitions.

    Even just getting to the Olympics can be a lifetime achievement.

    Sometimes these feats can win the hearts of the public, like the case of ‘Eric the Eel’, or they can provide an unlucky, heartbreaking antithesis to doing a Bradbury, ‘doing a really good walking race and being in the lead until you are disqualified near the final stretch’ (what was her name again?).

    Otherwise, it is just back to the training ground and 5am starts during freezing Russian winters for the rest of them.

    It is common practice to attribute an athlete to one defining moment in their career (or in the case of Roger Federer, all 17).

    Some athletes, unfortunately, make a name for themselves by exploiting good fortune and sporting privileges to echo firmly in the bad books of sporting history.

    Two famous offenders include Sally ‘doing a huge disservice to your crew by resigning mid race’ Robbins, and Lance ‘stripped of seven Tour de France titles after years of systematic doping’ Armstrong.

    Where Sally Robbins gave up and forced her team-mates to carry her over the line in last place (we will never know what she was truly thinking), Armstrong was part of an intricate doping ring that intimidated potential whistle blowers into submission (only Oprah will know what he was truly thinking).

    These disgraceful situations are to be avoided at all costs by athletes.

    The preceding examples highlight the constant scrutiny athletes are under to uphold their honour or risk being perpetually despised by the sporting public. It is why Steven Bradbury’s gold medal winning performance at the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics is one of the most endearing sporting moments in modern history.

    There seems to be nothing more that the Australian public love than an underdog beating the odds and achieving an improbable victory.

    A rags to riches story. It helped that Bradbury was also a loveable character, a goofy looking larrikin but also incredibly humble.

    Because everybody knows arrogance undermines any winning performance.

    While you can’t specifically train to do a Bradbury, you can keep your desire to work hard and face anything that comes your way.

    Steven Bradbury proved that you don’t have to be an unbackable favourite to win, just an honest hard worker.

    Importantly, you can apply this attitude to any task you face in life. However, if you make it, don’t expect anyone to care about your arduous journey to the top.

    All people see is the lucky result on the day. Doing a Bradbury exposes a cultural lack of recognition for hard work in favour of glitz and glamour.

    But overall, it is a charming concept that pays tribute to the lucky moments in life that break the monotony of predictable outcomes.

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