AOC: Australian Olympic Committee President John Coates AC along with His Excellency General The Honourable David Hurley AC DSC hosted the launch of Olympic gold medallist John Devitt OAM and Larry Writer’s: ‘Cecil Healy – A Biography’ on Friday.
Never in history has an Olympic champion written a biography of a fellow Olympic Champion, but Devitt was passionate about sharing the incredible acts of sportsmanship and selflessness displayed by Healy, from giving up a potential gold medal, to giving up his life for his country.
Healy was a freestyle swimmer who competed at the Stockholm 1912 Olympic Games. Healy and his team took out gold in the relay, but it was his individual event where Australia first saw a glimpse of the young Olympian’s humble and gracious nature.
Due to swim against gold medal favourite Duke Kahanamoku of USA, Healy had resigned himself to the fact that he would come second to the Hawaiian surfer in the finals. However, due to logistical issues, the US team were disqualified from the race, therefore offering Healy the gold on a platter.
Healy believed a victory without Kahanamoku involved would be empty, so the Australian team lodged a successful protest and the race went ahead with Kahanamoku winning gold and Healy taking the silver.
After the race, Kahanamoku raised Cecil’s arm, praising him as ‘a true Olympic champion.’
AOC President John Coates AC said, “In terms of sportsmanship, we’ve always looked at John Landy. In 1956 he was competing in the mile, running behind Ron Clarke.
“Clarke tripped and Landy came over the top and spiked him. He turned back to check on Clarke, losing about seven seconds in the process. Ron urged him to keep going, so he did, but if he didn’t give up those seven seconds, he would’ve broken the world record.
“In Australia, that’s acknowledged as great sportsmanship, but in terms of great sportsmanship at an Olympic Games, Healy’s is certainly the most outstanding.”
In 2017 Devitt was approached by Manly Aquatic Centre, who wanted to name their new eight-lane indoor lap pool after him, but he insisted it be named after Healy too.
Devitt described Healy as someone who was “always concerned for his fellow man. He was such a great person and that is what grabbed me.”
The retired Governor of NSW echoed Devitt’s thoughts.
“There was only one standard for Cecil and that was his best effort possible on the day,” His Excellency said.
“Similarly, in his military service, he recognised that being a Quartermaster and sitting behind the front line was not where his best efforts would be, so he volunteered to go to the front line as Platoon Commander, knowing the risk he was taking.”
Ultimately, it was a risk that ended his life. On 29 August 1918 just 74 days before the war ended, Healy was shot and killed while leading his troops in France. He was 36 years old.
Healy’s Commander Major Syd Middleton wrote of his death;
“By Healy’s death, the world loses one of its greatest champions, one of its best men.
“Today in the four years I have been at the front, I wept for the first time.”
Writer hopes that the biography will help tell Healy’s story and cement him as a true Aussie immortal.
“When Cecil was killed, the memorial service was full, spilling out the doors. People both prominent and ordinary who had delighted in seeing him swim came to pay their respects, but then he just disappeared into the mist of time,” Writer said.
“It was due to John’s [Devitt] knowledge of him and desire to tell his story and resurrect his achievements that we now hope to put him in the uppermost pantheon of our greatest sporting heroes and champions.”
Devitt’s respect for Healy runs deep, even visiting his grave in France with a special gift from Manly beach.
“Being able to stand in front of Cecil’s grave and sprinkle sand from Manly beach, had been 50 years in the making,” he said.
“Just to stand there and look down, knowing I had the opportunity to be there, was just a magic moment.”
His Excellency thanked Devitt on behalf of the people of NSW for bringing Healy’s story to life and taking Manly beach back to its hero.
“It is of great comfort to know that a little bit of Manly beach, will always lie with one of Manly’s favourite sons.”