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What Makes a Champion? 2000 Speeches


Professor Allan Snyder

We are here today to address one of the alluring mysteries of the mind. We are here today to discover the elements in common with all great achievers.

We are here today to make history!

Ladies and gentlemen, I ask you - what makes a champion? And I mean a champion in the broadest sense of the word.

Answer this question and we will have made a profound contribution to understanding the human mind.

Answer this question and we will have captured the crucial ingredient that lets the human spirit soar.

Today, this great hall at the University of Sydney reverberates with the minds of champions, champions from every persuasion, champions from the arts, from politics, from science, from business, from the military and from sports.

We must seize this golden opportunity to synergise, synergise in the common goal of unraveling the universals of success.

And we must do so with courage, the courage required to extract deep truths, the courage to put aside superficial pretty pictures.

The Centre for the Mind is passionate about what it means to be uniquely human. We believe that everyone is a potential champion. Everyone is a potential champion.

It is our dream that this What Makes a Champion? event will be enshrined as a permanent intellectual component to the Olympic movement.

It is our dream to use the Olympics as the quintessential platform for the exploration of human achievement - human achievement across the spectrum.

It is our dream for the Olympic movement to embrace this bolder vision for itself - a vision more passionate about performance in the broadest sense.

Ladies and gentlemen, now is the time to catapult this dream into a vibrant reality!

Thank you.


Allan Snyder
Introduction of the Prime Minister

It now gives me great pleasure to introduce a political champion.

A man who has overcome adversity to emerge triumphant in the long haul.

And a man who embraces the Centre for the Mind's dream that Australia should innovate an intellectual component to the Olympic Games.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am proud to introduce the Patron of What Makes a Champion?, the Prime Minister of Australia, Mr John Howard.


Prime Minister The Hon John Howard, MP
Opening Address

Thank you very much Professor Snyder, to the Chancellor and Vice Chancellor of the Sydney University, Mr Nelson Mandela, our honoured guests, ladies and gentlemen.

I didn't know Allan Snyder until I awarded him the Australia Prize in 1997. And I realised having spent a bit of time with him that that had been one of those gaps in my human experience that with foresight I might have attended to earlier.

He raised with me very early in our acquaintance this proposal of his to have this very special gathering. And on the eve of the Olympics how appropriately to ask and inquire on the subject of what made a champion.

There are many things that make up a champion and tonight and tomorrow this special, unique gathering of Australians and visitors, welcome visitors to our country from overseas, will examine the ingredients of championship.
And having dealt with Allan I think one of the ingredients of a champion is the capacity to ask somebody to do something and for that person to really feel that they had no alternative but to do it. And that is certainly a quality Professor Snyder has in abundance. I really felt, when he said I want you to be the sponsor and I'd like you to invite and make sure Nelson Mandela comes, I really felt I had no alternative, such is his infectious personality and his absolutely unbounded enthusiasm.

To have gathered together such a cross section of the inquiring minds of thrusting, pugnacious intellects from academia, the world of the arts, the world of business, the world of politics and the world of the media and there's always an interplay between the media and politics. As I look around this room I can see many a person with whom I've had the odd parry and thrust in a political and media environment over the years, and will no doubt do so in the years ahead.

But the idea, the concept of conducting an inquiry into what makes a champion on the eve of the Olympics, I think is so beautifully Australian because we are so often accused of elevating sporting excellence beyond excellence in any other field. I think it is appropriate and so very Australian that we should choose on the eve of the greatest sporting event the world celebrates (and only the second time that it's been in Australia) and here in the City of Sydney where the Olympic Games are to be celebrated, to establish an inquiry into what makes a champion in other fields. On the eve of those Olympics it both celebrates the importance of sport in the lives of Australians, but also celebrates the importance of excellence of achievement in all other areas of human endeavor.

And I do want to say to you Allan and to those who've organised this marvellous project that you do the intellectual life of Australia a great service. And I know that out of tonight and tomorrow's gatherings will come a great deal of reflection and a great deal of helpful analysis, as to what does mark people out in their chosen fields - the balance of environment, the relative importance of determination, the answering of the age old question as to whether a man or a woman make his or her times or the extent to which the times make the man or the woman.

They've been part of the restless inquiry of mankind for centuries and I dare say they won't be resolved tonight or tomorrow. But there will be out of this conference, by the calibre of the people present and those contributing they will make a very special contribution.

It is appropriate that the keynote speaker, and our very honoured guest should be Nelson Mandela. It would be fair to say that no person has quite touched his times in the way that he has. He has made an impact of a scale that is unmatched in his generation, and in the eyes of many, in any generation. He's displayed many qualities and they are well known through the world and they have been rightly honoured and they will go on being honoured. The contribution that he has made to his own country, the example of commitment to an open, tolerant multi-racial world as well as an open, tolerant, multi-racial South Africa. Those deeds are so well known and so properly honoured not only in his own country but internationally.

I think, of his so many qualities, the one that stamps itself above all is his intense generosity of spirit. For a person to have endured what he endured and to find it within himself to extend the gift of forgiveness and understanding to those who forced him to endure what he had to go through is, I think, amongst his finest if not his finest quality. But perhaps one of the examinations, which is one of the issues that might be examined tonight or tomorrow, is the contribution that the generosity of spirit makes to the building of a champion.

We are very honoured indeed to have Nelson Mandela with us. He is one of the honoured and revered citizens of the world. He has made an immense contribution to mankind, he's set a wonderful example. And he's done both this conference and he's done Australia a very great honour in coming to participate, to deliver the keynote address.

We are very happy indeed, Mr Mandela, to have you amongst us. We honour you, we respect you. And I think not only Australia but the world is in awe of the moral contribution that you have made to the human condition and we very, very much welcome you amongst us.

Thank you.

Address by former President Nelson Mandela at the opening of the What Makes a Champion? forum of the Centre for the Mind, University of Sydney, Australia.

Mr. N.R Mandela

Honorable Prime Minister, distinguished guests,

The respect that people pay to old age has benefited me greatly here in the latter part of my life. I had pretensions to being a boxer at one time in my life and nothing could have brought greater pride to an aspiring sportsperson than being a champion at the Olympic Games. Both because of limited abilities and a variety of other factors I never came close to such achievement.

Now my old age has inspired the organisers of this conference to honour me by the invitation to participate in this event about champions on the eve of the millennial Olympics.

I thank you sincerely for the opportunity to be part of this most prestigious event.

The twentieth century was in human history the era of the most outstanding and astounding achievements. Advances in science and technologies outstripped the cumulative achievements of all previous centuries.

The limits of human possibility were radically redefined as we made the far reaches of outer space accessible and penetrated the smallest units of matter. Communications and information technology shrunk the planet to a veritable village where the limitations of geographic separation became increasingly irrelevant for the exchange of knowledge and information.

In that situation of unprecedented progress and with the ability to transmit and share information across barriers and boundaries, one could reasonably have expected that human beings all over the world would have been living in conditions conducive to the fullest development of their potential. The contrary is, however, true; rather than humanity of the twentieth century being a species of universal champions, the divide between those with privilege and those living in penury, has increased.

The great arsenal of knowledge and capacity generated by the advances of the century was not effectively used to combat inequity.

We closed the century with an even more marked distinction between the powerful rich nations on the one hand and the poor and marginalised on the other. The majority of people on the planet continue to languish in poverty, subject to the social and physical degradation attendant upon poverty.

That the century closed in that manner is the more disappointing considering that it was also an era marked by the presence on the world stage of so many champions of freedom and equality.

The process of decolonisation, led by great fighters for freedom and dignity, was a major step towards global equality; the international community, once more under the leadership of some inspired statesmen, created bodies and agencies to guard over peace and freedom and protect the rights of all nations and people. As democracy spread to all parts of the world, the hope increased that the rule of the people would lead to greater prosperity and better living conditions for all.

How did we as a collective fail those champions of freedom, dignity and equality? Why did we fail to create the conditions for great achievement to be the domain of the many rather than a select few? The brave dream with which humanity entered the last century, imbued with the ideal of progress, was of a world of champions, one in which we all would have optimal opportunities to develop our potential to the fullest.

It is that relationship of the champion to the team, the leader to the collective, the achieving individual to the group and community that has occupied our attention throughout our life. A recognition that no individual achieves and performs in isolation must stand at the heart of our reflections on what makes a champion. Those astounding achievements of the previous century we referred to are the products of the collective labours of human beings, at one particular point in time and as the cumulative effect of those of preceding generations.

I was singularly privileged by history and circumstance to have been in a position to make a particular contribution to what has been described as one of the great moral struggles of the last century.

The fight to end apartheid and establish a non-racial democracy in South Africa captured the imagination and enjoyed the support of people from all walks of life in all parts of the world. That struggle on the part of the people of South Africa achieved championship status amongst the moral endeavours to make of the world a place of freedom, dignity and quality.

Those who were privileged to give leadership to that struggle and gain recognition in the wider world, could only do so by the consent of the collective and through a respect for and acknowledgment of the collective efforts.

No leader, no champion, who puts him or herself above the people and above the team deserves that title or status.

This recognition of and respect for the collective inspires one to keep the common good constantly in mind. To achieve those goals to which one is committed and chose to dedicate ones life, a belief in yourself is essential. That self-belief becomes vain and egotistical, and ultimately self-defeating, if it does not derive from a dedication to and faith in the common goal. The necessary self-belief of the true leader or champion is tempered by the respect for the broader concerns.

We have learnt through the experiences of our life that in all circumstances and in all communities there are to be found good men and women who are prepared to stand up for those common goals and to achieve for the common good. South Africa has provided an excellent example thereof.

When the rest of the world expected our country to go up in flames and in the greatest racial conflagration ever, the presence of such men and women in all our communities contributed to a peaceful solution that is today described as a miracle.

The struggle to change South Africa was in the first place led by the liberation movement, but without the participation and co-operation of all the major political parties and the people of the country, such a peaceful negotiated political settlement would not have been possible. If our country achieved in the eyes of the world the status of a 'miracle nation', a champion nation of reconciliation, it was once more through the collective efforts of her people. Leaders and leadership were required to Mobilise and direct those energies, but the energy came and derived from those good men and woment to be found in all communities and groups.

Twenty-first century advances in learning and science will certainly be even more breath taking in scope and impact on the human possibilities. Shall this century provide champions of human dignity and equality to match in their success that of the great innovators in the field of science and technology?

The commitment and dedication without which none can achieve and become a champion, need also in this century be directed towards the betterment of the life of all people all over the world. While so many still labour under conditions where with the best will in the world the greatness of achievement is out of their reach, those of us who do achieve find our rewards diminished.

As we prepare for the start of the millennial Olympics, it is in the fervent hope that the excellence of achievement and the dream of universal friendship will at last meet in this century. Let us be champions of the ideal of making of twenty-first century humanity that species of champions ; a brotherhood and sisterhood where all share in the fruits of our great advances and achievements.

I thank you once more for honouring me with this opportunity to share with you on this great occasion.

Sir Edmund Hillary
Plenary address

I've never regarded myself as much of a champion in the full sense of the term, be it in sports, the academic life or the business world. I've rarely competed with other people. My challenges have mostly been with the problems of nature which somehow I have to find the strength to overcome and where sheer survival is all important.

Of course, I've watched many of the champions in action and greatly admired their skills. It is clear that the great athletes have sharper abilities and quicker reactions than the ordinary person plus a tremendous desire to win. They frequently have great natural ability too that most of us will ever be able to emulate. I can only speak from my own experience.

But when you get down to it most of us are like me - you have to learn how to succeed. At high school I was tall and thin and reasonably strong but with little athletic interest and every day I walked miles and miles just dreaming about adventure and the exciting things I'd love to do, but not actually doing anything at all.

When I was sixteen years old I went with a school party to the mountains and for ten days I skied and clambered around in the snow and ice. It was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me and it introduced me to a new way of life. Every spare moment, for the next ten years or more, I spent in the hills and my skill and technique improved substantially. I revelled in new challenges - making first ascents of peaks and ridges as was still possible in those early days. But I didn't regard myself as a champion - there were many other climbers of similar standard to myself. I was frequently afraid in moments of danger, but I learned that fear could be a stimulating factor. It spurred me on to extend my abilities beyond what even I thought was possible. I learned much, too, from more experienced climbers and could swing my iceaxe with the smooth skill of the expert.

In 1951 four of us, all New Zealanders, organised an expedition to the Himalayas. Our skill with snow and ice proved invaluable and we made the first ascent of six summits over 7,000 metres in height. Then two of us were invited to join the British Everest Reconnaissance expedition to the South side of Everest led by the famous British climber Eric Shipton. I proved to be the fittest member of the party and Eric took me under his wing. Together we climbed high on Mt. Pumori to obtain the first ever view into the Western Cwm and realised there was a potential route to the summit of Everest from this side. We made the first ascent of the formidable and dangerous ice fall but were ill equipped to go any further so turned back.

1953 was a great year for us. We were back on Everest again with a strong and experienced team and slowly overcame the many technical problems on the mountain - problems involving crevasses, ice walls, avalanches and bad weather. But we never thought of giving up. We established camp after camp and stacked them with all necessary supplies. Then we were ready for the final assault. Decisions had to be made to choose team members for the many demanding tasks high on the mountain.

There was little doubt about the summit team - Sherpa Tenzing and I had proved to be the fittest couple. We were extremely well acclimatised and were strongly motivated too. With the support of our redoubtable companions we thrust upwards. I hacked a line of steps along the narrow summit ridge at 29,000 feet and at 11.30am on May 29, 1953 Tenzing and I stood on top of the world.

In a sense climbing Everest was a beginning rather than an end. I can clearly remember standing on top of the mountain with a warm glow of satisfaction and then looking across the Barun Valley to the great unclimbed summit of Mount Makalu. Even while on top of Everest I mentally picked out a possible route to the top of the formidable Makalu. I had no sense of Everest being the end of things - it was just a stage to be overcome and there was still plenty left to do. After Everest the media immediately made us into heroes but I never accepted this. I knew I was an enthusiastic climber with a considerable desire for achievement and I was prepared to take a few risks now and then too. But a hero? No! Fitness and motivation had got me through.

Not every hero is a champion and of course not every champion is a hero. It is often a decision made somewhat irrationally by members of the public or media who may well have their own prejudices about who constitutes a champion or hero. Many years ago I made one of my first visits to Melbourne to give a lecture about the climb of Mount Everest. In those days I was reasonably famous. Next morning they arranged a taxi to take me to the airport. The driver was a rather tough and grumpy character.

'Your name's Hillary, isn't it?' he said gruffly. I reluctantly agreed this was true. 'You climbed some sort of mountain didn't you?' he asked. I bashfully conceded that this was also true.

'I suppose it must have been tough going', he acknowledged, 'but have you ever watched Australian Rules football? That's a really tough game!'

'I haven't watched an Australian rules game yet', I told him, 'but I did have lunch yesterday with Ron Barassi.' The driver slammed on the brakes and turned around. 'With the Ron Barassi?' he exclaimed in distinct awe. I confirmed it was true. He gulped and fumbled for his small pad. 'Can I have your autograph?' he said, 'Geez, lunch with Ron Barassi!'

I started to follow a regular routine, a mixture of adventurous activities and aid programmes. I drove three farm tractors with a New Zealand team all the way from the ocean across the crevassed Polar Plateau to the South Pole; I led my 'Ocean to Sky' expedition, driving three jet boats for 1500 miles up the great Ganges river of India from the Bay of Bengal to its wild source in the Himalayas; I landed with the ski-equipped Twin Otter aircraft at the North Pole with the famous astronaut Neil Armstrong. But perhaps most important was the four and a half years I spent with my wife, June, as New Zealand High Commissioner to India. That was a remarkable experience. And nearly every year I was back in the Himalayas climbing and building schools.

I had turned into an expedition leader and I learned a great deal about how to handle people too. What do you do if several of your colleagues are brighter and more intelligent than you are? To overcome this problem, each night as I lay in bed I calmly ran through in my mind all the possibilities that might occur over the next few days and worked out how to deal with them. If they did occur I was ready with an immediate answer. When a bright expedition member put forward an excellent idea that I hadn't thought of before I wouldn't knock it back. I'd say 'great' and absorb it into my own plans and before long it would become my idea. So I learned to handle a vigorous and inventive team. I don't suppose we could be called champions but we carried out some mighty good projects in often dangerous conditions without any loss of life.

As I got older I became more involved in the welfare of the Himalayan people. My wife and I travelled around the world raising funds for projects for these worthy mountain folk. We helped them establish thirty schools, two hospitals and a dozen medical clinics. We constructed several airfields and at the request of our local friends we rebuilt Buddhist Monastries and cultural centres. I've been a reasonably successful adventurer and I've never lost a life, which I suppose is some recommendation. I've worked hard for the Sherpa people of the Himalayas and I've probably built more mountain schools than most people.If that makes me a champion then I'm happy to be called one.

So over the years I've done lots of expeditions and projects in remote areas of the globe - some big ones and lots of small ones - and most of the time I've managed to be successful. Perhaps that's what being a champion is all about - regularly achieving what you set out to do. That's the way I've always looked at it anyway!


Peter Doherty

What makes a champion? The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein taught us that language defines perception. Language is built from words, so we had better know what the words mean. Webster's dictionary gives 3 definitions for 'champion':1 ) The holder of first place or the winner of first prize in a contest, especially in sports, 2) A defender, advocate or supporter of a cause or another person, 3) One who fights. I expect that there are elements of all those in the lives of people here today: the winner, the advocate of the defenseless and the general good, and the warrior. Many of our sporting heroes are contemporary warriors. Words are built from letters. Scientists, like me are game players. Here is one version of a letter game for 'champion'. You can play your own game with this, but mine has to be for public consumption:

C is for courage: It takes guts to focus on the tough and difficult. If everyone can do it, there can be no champion. The idea of a 'champion tooth brush' user is absurd to anyone but an advertizing executive.

H: is for hutzpah: A variant of the yiddish 'chutzpah', meaning brazeness, or pushy in the Australian vernacular.The blushing violet may be beautiful, but the flamboyant rose is arguably the champion of all flowers.

A is for application: Anything that is worth doing demands concentration and diligence. Here we may distinguish the 'winner' from the 'champion'. The most indolent of us can win the lottery but would only achieve champion status if, for example, the wealth is used for some general good.

M is for madness: More than a little insanity is required to spend 5 hours a day in training, or 16 hours in the laboratory. We could call this the Van Gogh effect. Some of the most inspired people I know survive on the edge of dysfuntion and breakdown. The truly sane are content, live less intense lives and spend more time at the beach. Triathlon athletes also spend time at the beach, but they must be at least a little crazy.

P is for persistence: Quitters never win. The dilettante who hops from issue to issue can be an interesting companion, but will never be a champion.

I is for integrity: The champion who cheats, and is found out, is soon destroyed. Even genuine heroes have to be very careful, especially in Australia where the 'Tall Poppy' is always at risk of being lopped or flattened. We are not unique in this: Abe Lincoln, Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy were all shot.

O is for originality: Champions in the arts and sciences are celebrated for presenting something that is genuinely novel, or for illuminating the familiar in a way that is different and intriguing. The originality of the athlete may be in some physical achievement that looks so extraordinary that none would have thought it possible.

N is for nobility: Being a winner is great, but it takes generosity of spirit to be a true champion. Who has shown greater nobility than Nelson Mandela?

We could play the same game again with: creativity, humanity, altruism, magnificence, passion, insight, optimism and nonpareil. Nonpareil? For those who are not familiar with the word, alternative Webster definitions are 'without equal' or a small, 'flat chocolate drop covered with butter.' It seems to me that many of our champions are like that: extraordinary in one dimension but low key, familiar and even trivial in others. In short, real heroes are flawed and human. Could a being who is so superior that nothing seems to require pain or effort appeal to us as a champion? The champion has suffered, endured and overcome.

All of us can be champions within our own heads, which may be a good thing for our psychological well-being. However it is doing, not thinking or talking passionately with friends, that makes a champion. The champion has to be 'out there' and visible. The term 'compassionate conservative,' to borrow from the current election rhetoric in the USA, is just a cynical sham if the true meaning is that: 'I feel and understand your pain, but it's your problem.' Empathizing with the plight of the poor and the suffering is fine, but hollow in the absence of action.

We must collectively face the fact that at least 800 million people do not get enough to eat each day. The plant breeder, Norman Borlaug, won the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for triggering the green revolution. He is now 86, still works at the Institute in Mexico where he did his pioneering studies, and spends much of his time trying to convey the message that the application of conventional plant breeding techniques alone cannot possibly satisfy future global food requirements. Borlaug's active research career was funded by the Consultative Group for International Agriculture Research (CGIAR), an organization that was put together by an Australian champion, Sir John Crawford.

The International Rice Research Institute of the CGIAR achieved a major increase in rice production in India by distributing an improved, conventionally-bred variety. Do we, however, want to slow future progress by limiting access to the newer and more powerful technologies? Saffron rice has been engineered by a Swiss group to prevent vitamin A and iron deficiency, prominent causes of blindness (in children), anaemia (in women) and death in countries that rely on rice as a major staple. What if we can modify bananas to deliver an AIDS vaccine, or even an AIDS drug, to help combat the current catastrophe in Africa? The potential for human good is enormous, though the application of GM technology must be carefully monitored for both human and environmental safety. We need champions in the media who will continue to promote rational debate in this complex area. It is essential those in government keep the international AID dollars flowing for GM research by not-for-profit organizations like the CGIAR. The potential benefits must be freely available to all.

The recent peace-keeping initiative in East Timor showed that this country has the compassion and the maturity to champion the cause of the oppressed. We will see champions from all nations emerge, and be celebrated, in the forthcoming Olympic Games. This is a good time and place to focus on what it takes, in the broadest sense, to promote a culture of heroism and extraordinary achievement.

6 August, 2000



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