With his second-placing in the Tour de France – which ended this morning on the Champs Elysees (with the Arc de Triomphe as a fitting backdrop) – Cadel Evans became the first Australian to earn himself a podium finish in cycling’s greatest race. In coming so close to clinching the Tour, a race that is beamed into loungerooms all around the world, there is strong evidence to suggest Evans – along with MotoGP leader Casey Stoner – is now, from a global perspective, Australia’s best-known sportsman.
Evans can still walk unmolested around the streets of Australia, where cycling has yet attain the status of a religion, but the man from the Predictor Lotto team, whose pink and black lycra outfit filled television screens for much of the past week, is now one of the hottest properties in a truly international sport.
So, who’d have thought – from a nation that once churned out tennis players, golfers and Olympic swimmers, as if from a production line – that Australia’s premier performers on the world sporting stage would now be a cyclist and a motorcyclist, the two-wheel wonders?
Yes, Shane Warne and Ricky Ponting might have a 90% recognition rating in the sub-continent, where cricket rather than professional cycling, rules. But in the United States, Russia and continental Europe, their star appeal would be closer to zero. Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka have made their mark in the world game without ever being considered Galactico material. Lleyton Hewitt has a strong profile in parts of Europe and the United States but his stocks have dwindled in the past two years. Mark Webber has attracted a profile in the glamour world of Formula One, but his podium finish a fortnight ago in Germany was only his second ever.
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Until his recent retirement, Ian Thorpe would have had undeniable claims to the title. Ditto Greg Norman, several years before that. But they came at the tail end of an era when Australian sport was identified by its stars in the traditional pursuits of tennis, golf, swimming, cricket and billiards.
How the world has changed. Stoner, the 21-year-old phenomenon who hails from the Gold Coast, has continued Australia’s remarkable recent performances in motorcycle racing – notably those by Wayne Gardner and Mick Doohan – by taking a strong lead midway through the current MotoGP season.
A week ago, in the US Grand Prix, aboard his Ducati Desmosedici GP7, Stoner led every timed session, qualifying and the fastest race lap on his way to winning the Grand Prix by almost 10 seconds. With his main threat, Italy’s Valentino Rossi, finishing in fourth place, Stoner further extended his title lead to 44 points over Rossi.
And, remember, this is a series of races held in Qatar, Turkey, China, Britain, the US, Japan, and many of Europe’s biggest cities, so its claims to being a genuinely global sport cannot be questioned.
It will be little consolation to Evans, who yesterday fell just 23 seconds short of entering the Australian pantheon of sporting greats, but his name and face – or his ‘brand’, as modern marketers would have it – are today among the most recognizable in sport.