The UA Sports Festival has finally come to a close with a disappointing result for Deku. His defeat may come as a shock, but the circumstances surrounding Deku's climactic battle with Todoroki serve to reinforce My Hero Academia's definition of heroism and the unique qualities that make Deku so special. The framework of their battle teases this out, occurring as part of a competition among aspiring heroes attempting to prove themselves. MHA's heroism is something that cannot be measured in any sort of structured challenge, however--it's a purely opportunistic quality. Heroism is the ability to recognize when someone is in need, the courage to meddle unasked to provide aid, and the selflessness to make personal sacrifices for the good of another.
As the protagonist of MHA, Deku naturally embodies these ideals. Although typically one to overthink things, Deku’s response to seeing others in need is instinctual. He’s already moving before he’s even considered how, or if, he might be able to help and heedless of the danger it may pose to him. Most importantly, he possessed all these characteristics when he was utterly powerless. His personality is perfectly suited to the harsh demands of One For All, a power that demands sacrifice until it's mastered. It provides Deku with the means to make his altruistic intentions reality in exchange for pain and personal injury, a cost which he can accept without hesitation.
Although the UA Sports Festival acts as an audition for heroes-in-training, heroism itself plays no part in the competition. Each of the events challenges the students' speed, power, strategic thinking, and teamwork, but none of those things necessarily test their spirit. The objective of the festival itself is essentially self-serving, allowing students the opportunity to put their powers on display and attract the attention of professional heroes and potential mentors to earn valuable opportunities as sidekicks and kickstart their careers. The reasons they have for wanting to be a hero and their willingness to endanger themselves for the sake of others are immaterial. Fundamentally, the festival is a measure of what they can do, not who they are.
The stakes on the festival's outcome are higher for Deku than anyone else. Many of the UA students have compelling reasons for wanting to emerge first, but Deku’s explicit ambition is to become the greatest hero, the Symbol of Peace. In Deku’s case, it is also a responsibility that he has been shouldered with as the inheritor of One For All and the chosen successor to All Might’s legacy. He’s not only trying to attract the eye of a promising mentor, but making his public debut as the first step in building a legacy that will inspire an entire generation. Stumbling at this integral moment wouldn't just mean slowing down his career, but potentially wounding his reputation before he's even had a chance to build it.
Heading into Deku’s match with Todoroki, we discover that they share a common childhood inspiration in All Might and the goal of becoming the number one hero, but Todoroki’s passion has been poisoned by Endeavor. Since his own wish and his father’s designs for him so closely align, its impossible for Todoroki to feel he is accomplishing his goal without also validating his father’s abuse. The only compromise he has been able to find is to reach the top while rejecting his father’s quirk but, in doing so, his goal is suborned by that of his father. All Might has become an object to surpass rather than a symbol to approach. His goal isn't to help others, but spite his father.
Deku could intellectually grasp that Todoroki’s handicap is integral to his own success, but he knew that the reasons for the self-imposed limitation arose from tremendous grief. So, with the whole world as their audience, Deku did what came most naturally to him. Seeing someone in need of help, he moved before he could think. As easily as he broke his bones to save Ochako, Deku sabotaged his chances of victory to help Todoroki remember why he wanted to be a hero. He pleaded, taunted, and yelled at Todoroki until he finally reached him. Not with One For All, but with persistence and compassion, Deku dragged Todoroki away from his trouble past to exist only within the moment. Todoroki was able to forget his father, smile, and reach for his dream.
After the festival, Todoroki, for the first time, went to visit his mother after the incident that scarred him. He renews his resolution, not to spite his father, but to save his mother from the same pain that he's been suffering. Although Todoroki isn’t out of the woods, his new starting line is based in altruism and love rather than resentment.
The result for Deku is defeat, but losing is what makes his willingness to reach out meaningful. There were real consequences for saving Todoroki, both to his legacy and the scars that will mark his hand for the rest of his life. In that moment Deku truly was a hero, risking his dream of becoming like All Might to remind Todoroki of his same desire. Although a personal disappointment and a hard reminder that Deku would have to improve his mastery over One For All if he hopes to be a hero for any significant amount of time, the outcome reaffirms the very thing about Deku that made All Might choose him.
Becoming the Symbol of Peace doesn't mean being invincible--All Might's failing health is proof of that. Its true value is in allowing others to believe in an intrinsic good, live with a sense of security, and inspiring the capable to take up the mantle to defend that same peace and prosperity. Just as growing up witnessing All Might's heroics drove Deku to become a hero, a quirkless Deku was able to remind All Might of his own responsibilities as the Symbol of Peace. Now Deku may have provided Todoroki with the means to match his tremendous prowess with the same sense of heroism. Inspiration is more important than strength. That very distinction is why Endeavor was never able to surpass All Might, because being first was never the point.