Q: "Is it accurate to describe athletes as heroes?"
A: It would actually hardly be a new phenomenon.
As you probably know, the English word hero comes (in direct line for once) from Ancient Greek ἥρως, "heros". Heroes were demi-gods, sired as the result of the weaknesses of male or female gods for mere mortals of the opposite gender.
To the Greek we also owe the Olympic Games as you well know. It is furthermore worth remembering that in these ancient times winning one or more competitions in the Olympic Games would be a guarantee of lifetime prestige.
The Wikipedia article about Ancient Olympic Games clearly states:
There is one major commonality between
the ancient and modern Games, the
victorious athletes are honored,
feted, and praised. Their deeds were
heralded and chronicled so that future
generations could appreciate their
And it apparently worked so well that the names and feats of a number of them has come down to us more than two millennia after they actually took place. In light of which, equating athletes to heroes is probably a minute albeit forgivable exaggeration.