Since the day the then 16-year-old Queensland schoolgirl Jessica Watson set off to sail single-handedly around the world, it seemed inevitable that there was going to be some sort of public backlash against her if she succeeded – such precocious feats seldom fail to draw at least some sort of criticism. 

While she may draw some public sympathy over the issue of whether she officially broke the record of being the youngest person to sail solo non-stop around the world (despite the ham-fisted attempts of her management team to quell the controversy), you get the feeling that long after people have forgotten how far north of the equator she actually sailed, the Australian public still might not warm to Jessica Watson and her story. But why?

One theory is that the commercialisation of her voyage appears to fly in the face of the ‘true’ spirit of adventurism. Of course, yachting and lucrative sponsorship deals are not strange bed fellows, but typically this association has been strongest in prestigious yacht races fought out by million dollar syndicates; not individual efforts to prove the fortitude of the human mind.

This theory holds some water but it fails one important test. That being, when it came to sailing around the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn and down into the treacherous Southern Ocean, it didnt really matter if Watson had two dozen sponsors on the side of her boat or none. It was still just her onboard sailing the thing. 

No, the major obstacle that Watson and her team will now have to overcome has nothing to do with sailing per se, but lies in another treacherous and fickle environment: the court of public opinion. 

Sheila Nguyen, a sports marketing lecturer at Deakin University states that when it comes to predicting a sports stars’ potential to gain ‘Sport Hero’ status, sporting prowess is not always the best thing to look at.

“Fortunate or unfortunate, the public and the media are the judges of who will rise and fall. As echoed on the stage of the Australian Idol, the outcome is not always predicated on a person’s level of skill or ability. Research has noted that heroes are chosen mostly on the nature of their traits.”

Watson and her PR team from 5 Oceans Media are well aware of this fact and have been quick to dismiss suggestions that she is anything but a normal teenage girl; most notably on her homecoming when in front of a large reception at the Opera House forecourt she rejected the PM’s claims that she was a hero, insisting instead that she was just an ‘ordinary’ person.

Not only is this marketing strategy intended to make the Australian public warm to Watson, perhaps more importantly, it is designed to marginalise any claim that she is a precocious achiever. There would be little commercial gain in being categorised alongside 10-year-old maestros and 15-year-old mathematical geniuses.

Public opinion can cool very quickly on young high achievers, not only because they show-up those older than them, but they also cast the achievements of those before them in a new light – no more so than when it comes to adventurous feats.

A solo circumnavigation was long thought to be only achievable by the utmost mentally fit; those who could feel themselves tumbling into abyss but still find the strength to haul themselves back from the edge. In short, only a mature adult with immense experience was thought to have any hope of triumphing in this gruelling challenge of physical endurance and mental capacity. 

Interestingly, before the first single-handed non-stop circumnavigation was completed by Robin Knox-Johnston as part of the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race in 1969, it was the widely-held belief of those in the mental health sciences that such a feat was not possible. Spending so much time alone, thought psychologists, would inevitably send a person mad.

Nowadays due to digital technologies solo sailors don’t experience such isolation. While this certainly helps with the maintaining of a sane mind, these and other technological advances pose the question of whether the task of sailing solo around the world is the challenge it once was. 

No new technology will ever reduce the immense risks inherent in long distance sailing or other adventurous feats, but what they do is challenge the concept that such great deeds can only be achieved by the most mentally equipped of people. 

The news that a 13-year-old boy, Jordan Romero, climbed Mount Everest in May this year further strengthens this proposition. Once again a challenge that has conquered the physical and mental endurance of so many previously, seemingly reduced to child’s play.

Not only do the achievements of Watson and Romero change the landscape of how hard a certain achievement is perceived to be, they also remind us that you dont have to be super human – or to have even finished puberty – to achieve them.

Jessica Watson told the world upon her return that she is just an ‘ordinary’ person. This might be the angle her and her management team are most keen to push, but it is yet to be seen whether the public will accept this. It might just be that the PR trickery surrounding her voyage – not typically the domain of ‘ordinary’ people – might cost her the liberty to keep pronouncing herself such. 

Sheila Nguyen says that it is this dynamic nature of the relationship between public and media that make it increasingly difficult to predict just what factors combine to constitute the modern day sporting hero. “But at the very least we know who the judges are,” says Nguyen.