Celebrating 100 years - Olympians who have influenced the nation
To celebrate the centenary of the Australian Olympic Committee, we share the stories of some of Australia's most influential Olympians.
Australia’s first Olympian and Olympic Champion,
In 1895, the then 22-year-old Australian mile champion old left Melbourne to study accountancy in London, but the following year would take leave from his job to compete at Athens 1896, the first Games of the modern Olympics.
As the only Australian participant, Flack travelled across Europe by boat and train.
He ran the 800m and 1500m and won gold in both. The day after his 800m final, Flack competed gallantly in the marathon, an event he had never participated in before. He led before collapsing at the 34 km mark.
True to his Aussie have-a-go spirit, Flack also contested the singles and doubles tennis competitions even though he was no more than a social tennis player.
He didn’t medal in the singles event, but Flack and his British partner, George Robertson combined in the doubles to win bronze, adding a third medal to the tally of Australia’s first Olympian.
Flack returned home a hero and was dubbed ‘The Lion of Athens’ by crowds who applauded him in the streets and was the beginning of Australia’s contention of every modern summer Olympic Games.
At Mexico 1968,
Most Australian sporting fans know well the iconic shot of Americans Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Norman. Smith and Carlos with their heads bowed and fists in the air in a black power salute, protesting against racism and supporting civil rights, while Norman stood alongside them in solidarity.
Norman wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge, with his silver medal hanging beside it.
While controversial at the time, with the American pair sent home for their stance, Norman’s courageous involvement perhaps overshadowed his athletic achievement but he remained proud of the stand throughout his life, telling reporters “I believe in human rights. Every man is born equal and should be treated that way.”
Norman passed away on October 9, 2006 with Smith and Carlos serving as pallbearers at his funeral. This day was later proclaimed as Peter Norman Day by USA Track and Field.
Long overdue, Norman’s family accepted his Olympic Order of Merit in 2018 and in 2019 his historic stance was immortalized in bronze with a statue to honour Norman’s athletic achievement, decency and courage, erected in Victoria.
Michael Ah Matt, Francis Roberts and Adrian Blair
Australia has been represented by 51 Indigenous athletes at the Summer Olympic Games and by one Indigenous athlete at the Winter Olympic Games.
Ah Matt was also part of the Australian Basketball team that participated in the pre-Olympic qualifying tournament for Mexico 1968, but unfortunately, they did not qualify for the Games.
Sadly, Ah Matt passed away of a heart attack at the young age of 40.
In 2010 he was posthumously inducted into the Australian Basketball Hall of Fame and is also a member of the Aboriginal and Islander Sports Hall of Fame.
Boxers Blair and Roberts competed in the light and welterweight divisions respectively, at Tokyo 1964.
Before his death in 2011, Roberts would give boxing lessons to local youths and participated in the Sydney 2000 Olympic Torch Relay in his hometown of Armidale.
For his service to his community, Roberts was awarded with the Armidale Mayor’s Special Contribution to the Community Award.
From Murgon in Queensland, Australian Champion Blair was considered Australia’s best lightweight boxer at the time.
He was the national featherweight champion in 1961 before he went on to become national lightweight champion in 1962 and 1964, ahead of Tokyo.
Although they were knocked out early in their competitions, their importance to Australia’s Olympic history is everlasting.
Shirley de la Hunty (Strickland)
Australia’s most successful Olympic athletics medallist,
She won three gold, one silver and three bronze medals throughout the Games of 1948, 1952 and 1956, but it was her final gold at Melbourne 1956 that was her most celebrated.
Many pressured the then 31-year old to step aside to make way for younger talent, but she persisted winning double gold in the 80m hurdles.
At London 1948 de la Hunty should’ve had one more medal, but was wrongly judged to have finished fourth in the 200m final. A photo finish of the race, not consulted at the time, but discovered in 1975, showed beyond doubt that she had actually finished third.
When she wasn’t creating history on the track, de la Hunty was a Nuclear Physicist and enlisted to help in the Cold War.
To this day, she remains the nation’s only track and field athlete to have won back-to-back gold medals and before she passed away in 2004, was appointed Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) for service to the community, particularly in the areas of conservation, the environment and local government, and to athletics as an athlete, coach and administrator.
In 2014, she was inducted into the International Association of Athletics Federations Hall of Fame.
Thorpe first grabbed world attention when he won the 1998 world 400m freestyle title in Perth, when at 15, he became the youngest world champion in history.
At the age of 12, he competed in 13 events at a state meet, and set under-age NSW records in all of them. Fully grown, he had a large frame, an arm span of 190cm and size 17 feet.
As his first Olympics approached, Sydney 2000, he had broken 10 world records - four of them in four days at the 1999 Pan Pacific titles.
On the first night of Olympic competition in Sydney he won the 400m freestyle, shaving his own world mark, then combined with Michael Klim, Chris Fydler and Ashley Callus to inflict the United States’ first defeat ever in the 4 x 100m freestyle relay, setting another world record.
In the individual 200m freestyle, the Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband beat him into second place. Later Thorpe featured with Klim, Todd Pearson and Bill Kirby in another world-record relay victory winning the 4 x 200m.
At Athens 2004, he almost lost the chance to defend his 400m title when he toppled from his starting block in the Olympic trials - but survived and went on to win the Olympic final.
He later won the 200m freestyle - billed as “the race of the century” - against Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband and American Michael Phelps.
At Beijing 2008, diver
He left the sport in 2006 disillusioned, burnt out and with no intention of returning, before becoming the Olympic Champion just two years later.
Mitcham was 30 points behind the Chinese favourite Zhou Luxin before his last dive. To win he chose a back two-and-a-half somersault with one-and-a-half twists and a 3.8 degree of difficulty, scoring a whopping 112 points.
He was the first Australian male to win an Olympic gold medal in diving since Dick Eve at Paris 1924 and although Mitcham is not Australia’s first gay Olympian, at the time, he was the first openly gay Olympic Champion.
Mitcham’s authenticity led to him receiving many letters from LGBTQI+ fans expressing how important it was to see someone like them represented on the Olympic stage.
Mitcham will be inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in late 2020.
You can’t go past
Bradbury, whose gold medal was the first-ever won by an Australian at the Winter Olympics, was dubbed “the Accidental Hero” after during the 1000m short-track speed skating final, his four rivals all collided, tumbled and sprawled around the ice, leaving him to skate alone past the finish line.
This sensational scene marked the end of a career which had embraced four Olympics, an earlier bronze medal, much sacrifice, and some horrific injuries.
At 17, Bradbury was a member of the squad that won the world short-track relay championship in 1991.
Subsequently selected for the Olympics in Albertville in 1992, they were eliminated in the semi-finals after two of them fell. Two years later, in Lillehammer, Bradbury, Richard Nizielski, Andrew Murtha and Kieran Hansen won Australia’s first winter medal ever: a bronze in the 5000m relay.
A year later, Bradbury was involved in the first of two career-threatening accidents.
In a crash in Montreal, a rival’s skates sliced through his right thigh, requiring 111 stitches and 18 months’ recovery time.
At Sydney 2000, he crashed into a barrier during training and broke his neck and he was told he would never skate again.
He defied all odds and in the Salt Lake City 1000m final, he adopted wait-and-see tactics, figuring that some kind of accident was likely and the plan paid off with Bradbury becoming Australia’s first Olympic Winter gold medallist.
Dual Olympic medallist and aerial skier
Lassila completed the impressive feat eight years after Australia's most successful World Cup skier,
Lassila is also Australia’s most-decorated female skier having won gold in 2010 and bronze four years later in Sochi – a title she shares with fellow aerial skier and dual medallist Alisa Camplin.
A former gymnast, she made her Games debut in 2002 at Salt Lake City having only been skiing for two years.
A water jump accident almost ruined her 2006 campaign but just eight months later she headed to her second Games. It was in Torino where, after landing awkwardly, she blew her knee out and would again be forced off the snow.
Back and more determined than ever, 2009 saw her take out the World Cup title, setting her up as one of the favourites at the Vancouver 2010 Games and Lassila didn’t disappoint.
She became Australia’s fifth Winter Olympic champion when her triple-twisting triple somersault in the final saw her claim the gold medal. Four years later she would return to the Olympic arena, following the birth of her first son Kai, and win bronze at the Sochi 2014 Games.
Having not competed since the Sochi Games and having welcomed her second son to the world, Alek.
Lassila made a remarkable return to the snow in 2017.
She took out two World Cup events, including her first event back and finished third overall in the World Cup standings before competing at the 2017 World Championships where windy conditions cruelled her chances of more success.
Following the World Championships Lassila waited until the first World Cup of 2018 to get back into elite competition where she finished 13th in Deer Valley.
The 36-year-old showed the world she was still at the top of her game by winning gold and silver at the back-to-back World Cup events at Lake Placid just three weeks out from the PyeongChang 2018 Games, where she finished 14th in her final Olympic appearance.
James (Bill) Roycroft
The deed for which
On the last day of the three-day equestrian event, Australia faced a grim predicament. Two riders, Laurie Morgan and Neale Lavis, were doing well; Brian Crago’s horse had broken down, and the fourth member of the team, Bill Roycroft, was in hospital - concussed, sedated, with extensive bruising and muscle damage.
Doctors refused to sanction his release from hospital. The problem was that, if Australia was to win the team event, it needed three finishers.
Roycroft had fallen during the steeplechase phase the previous day after his horse, Our Solo, somersaulted over pipes and landed on him. He had climbed groggily back, finished the course, then been given oxygen (and whisky) and flown by helicopter to a hospital outside Rome.
The following morning, Roycroft insisted on signing himself out of hospital. The doctors said no, and refused to give him his clothes; he then threatened to leave in his underpants.
Finally, he signed a document taking responsibility for his safety, and was allowed to go.
He was 45, laced heavily with pain-killers, unable to bend, and his comrades had to dress him for the last ride.
He was virtually folded onto Our Solo, and the reins were placed in his hands.
Stiffly, flawlessly, he completed the round of 12 jumps, ensuring team gold for Australia.
Roycroft, patriarch of a legendary riding family, competed in four more Olympics, winning team bronze in 1968 and 1976. He also carried the flag at the Mexico Opening Ceremony in 1968.
Earlier, she had either equalled or broken 11 world records, and in the months before those Olympics, she had simultaneous possession of every world freestyle record from 100 to 1500 metres.
Appropriately, it had been Gould, aged 15, who finally prised the world 100m freestyle record from the grasp of another wonder woman, Dawn Fraser. It was the most durable of all records and had been in the sole custody of Fraser, with occasional shavings, throughout Gould’s lifetime.
Gould’s love affair with the water began before she could walk - on beaches in Fiji. She joined Forbes Carlile’s swim school in 1970, at the age of 13.
In April 1971 she began breaking world records and when she arrived at the Munich Games there was a huge burden of anticipation - US swimmers took to wearing T-shirts proclaiming “All that glitters is not Gould.”
She won the Olympic 200m and 400m freestyle and the 200m medley but finished third in the race she really wanted to win, the 100m, and second in the 800m.
Within a year she decided to retire; Carlile argued that she would regret the decision forever, but she remained adamant. “Basically… it just wasn’t fun anymore,” she explained later.
In April 2018, Gould was awarded an Order of Merit by the Australian Olympic Committee. An Order of Merit is awarded to a person who in the opinion of the Executive has achieved remarkable merit in the sporting world, either through personal achievement or contribution to the development of sport.
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