If there’s one Olympian serviceman who sums up the Olympic ideal it’s the late Cecil Healy – the only Australian gold medallist to be killed in action during wartime.
He went to war as an Olympic champion, a living legend of Australian swimming and a man noted for an extraordinary act of sportsmanship at the 1912 Stockholm Summer Olympic Games.
Second lieutenant Cecil Healy died in a burst of machine-gun fire at the Somme in France on August 29th, 1918 as part of an Allied push, serving with the Australian 19th Battalion AIF.
Cecil had signed up at Victoria Barracks in Sydney on September 15th, 1915, boarded a troop transport ship on November 25th that year, headed for Egypt and eventually, France.
He was popular with his fellow soldiers, not least because of his Olympian status. But he also organised and participated in numerous sporting events both in France and in the United Kingdom.
Swimming, rugby, rowing and even in the boxing ring.
Although, as a quartermaster sergeant, he knew the realities of the trenches in France, he was keen to fight in the frontline as a commissioned officer.
He left for the front in June 1918 after completing the necessary exams at Cambridge University. The Australian 19th Battalion joined an Allied offensive that was ultimately successful in forcing the retreat of the German forces at the Somme.
At dawn on August 29th, as it approached an area known as Sword Wood, Cecil Healy’s platoon was strafed with rifle and machine gun fire. Cecil, aged 36, and four other men died in that action.
Cecil’s death was keenly felt in the Olympic movement, not only because of his exceptional qualities as a freestyle swimmer, but particularly for the sportsmanship he displayed at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics.
Cecil Healy denied himself a certain gold medal by insisting the race favourite Duke Kahanamoku be allowed to compete in the 100 metres freestyle final despite the American champion missing his semi-final due to an apparent mix up. Healy felt that without the American in the final, any gold medal that he won would be tarnished.
Healy’s stance led to officials holding a special semi-final, which included the American, who went on to win the final with Cecil Healy picking up the silver. Cecil, however, won gold as a member of the victorious Australasian 4 x 100 freestyle relay team.
After the race, Duke Kahanamoku went across to Cecil Healey and held his arm in the air. Two champions, not one. The Duke went on to be famous in Australia for other reasons after the war – he popularised surfboard riding in the country and there’s a statue in his honour at Sydney’s Freshwater Beach.
Marking 100 years since the death of Cecil Healy, on August 29, 2018, the Australian Olympic Committee announced an award for exceptional sportsmanship and exemplifying Olympic values at an Olympic Games. Australian athletes attending the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in 2021 will be the first in contention for The Cecil Healy Award.
Much of the material in this short account is drawn from the definitive account of Cecil’s life and times – “Cecil Healy – A Biography”, written by Olympic gold medal swimmer John Devitt and author Larry Writer.