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Boffins or athletes: who'll be honoured By DOUG CONWAY

From The Daily Telegraph, Thursday, January 18, 2007

SPORT versus science - it's the annual Australia Day battle and it looks like science is catching up.

The two favourites for 2007 Australian of the Year typify half a century of emphasis in recognising national achievement - one is a sportsman, the other a scientist. The bookies' favourite is explorer, palaeontologist and climate expert Dr Tim Flannery, closely followed by Paralympic skiing great Michael Milton.

Flannery, 50, is such a fine example of multi-skilling that he makes over-achievers appear slothful. He has written best-selling books on climate change, been an environmental adviser to the South Australian and Federal Governments, catalogued mammals of Melanesia, discovered dinosaur fossils and kangaroo species in his own country and taught at Harvard. He has even found time to appear in ABC TV's Two Men in a Tinnie with his mate John Doyle.

British naturalist Sir David Attenborough puts him "in the league of the all-time great explorers, like Dr David Livingstone."

Michael Milton, 33, stretches credulity, too, but finds other ways to be a Superman. Losing a leg to bone cancer at the age of nine did nothing to blunt his appetite for skiing or life. He has won six Paralympic gold medals and clocked 213km/h, a world record for a disabled skier and an Australian record for any skier.

"Your acceleration rate is similar to that of a Formula One car," he has said. "You're doing zero to 100km/hr in just over three seconds. An hour after I'm finished, I'm trying to text people on my phone and my hands are still shaking from the adrenaline rush."

Milton has climbed Africa's highest peak Mt Kilimanjaro and completed the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea. As the Australian Alpine News once asked: "Is there anything this man can't do?"

If science prevails again this year, however, and Dr Flannery wins, it will bring the boffins to within touching distance of the sporting elite, who currently hold a 14-10 advantage.

It's possible, of course, to be the clever country as well as the champion country. But while the installation of the Australian of the Year is merely a symbolic gesture, it nevertheless reflects a nation's view of itself. The person so honoured is seen to embody the nation's values and aspirations. Science has prevailed over sport six-four in the past 11 years.

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