Australia's 122 year Olympic history
For the Australian athletes who earn the honour of being selected to compete at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games they will join a team that stretches back 120 years to the first modern Olympics back in Athens in 1896.
Proudly, Australia shares with Greece the honour of being the only nations to compete at every summer Olympic Games in the modern era. Australia has also hosted the Games in Melbourne in 1956 and Sydney in 2000.
Edwin Flack was the trailblazer that started this wonderful tradition. He competed in athletics, winning the 800m and 1500m. He also won bronze playing doubles in tennis.
Fred Lane and Stan Rowley continued the tradition (and gold medals) at Paris in 1900, and then from there over 3,500 Australians have represented at the greatest sporting event in history.
Our first female athletes were Fanny Durack and Wilhelmina Wylie at Stockholm in 1912.
Australia has gone on to produce hundreds of champions and many athletes that have competed at multiple Games. You’ll see from this summary table of Australia at the Olympic Games that the and trivia page some of the stars.
It is important to reflect and recall the journey of Australia’s Olympians
So our first Team only had one athlete (Flack) and no officials. In 2016 the Australian Olympic Committee is funding the Team to Rio 2016 to the tune of $32m to send around 465 athletes and 350 coaches, officials and support staff. We will be one of the biggest Teams to land in Brazil.
It is all about creating the right atmosphere and opportunity for the athletes to compete at their best.
Their uniform, all 100 plus items of Team kit, must arrive in advance and fit perfectly. Their medical facilities and recovery services are first class, their bed in the Village is comfortable and the room kept quiet, video review facilities, there is 24-hr access to food and the buses arrive on time to take them to their events.
Of course there are the latest Qantas A380 jets on standby to fly them home after it is all over.
Cast your mind back to 1952, the Games in Helsinki, Finland, to see the road that has been travelled since then.
The Team of 85 athletes flew on a Qantas plane. Originally the Australian Olympic Federation (now AOC) selected 35 athletes.
The flight left Tuesday and arrived Sunday after ten stops to refuel.
In those days if an athlete didn’t have the money to pay for the trip, they didn’t go. In 2016 the situation is vastly different, if you reach the qualifying standard you are on the plane AND the AOC pays for everything.
In 1952 Australian rower David Anderson had to raise 850 pounds to fund his trip to the Helsinki Olympic Games. That was the equivalent of one year’s pay.
Anderson was not alone, all the other athletes of that era were in the same boat.
The 1952 Team were lucky to receive a tracksuit and a pair of sandshoes before they headed off to represent their country.
They did it for all the right reasons, a love of sport and pride in their country. They scrimped and saved every penny because to them competing at the Olympics was a great honour bestowed on just a few.
Facilities provided by the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra did not exist in 1952.
Marjorie Jackson, a young sprinter from Lithgow, could only train at night because she had a day job.
There was no running track until the townsfolk chipped in and built one out of cinders. They could not afford to light it. Marjorie trained six nights a week in the pitch black, in sleet and snow, running towards the headlights of a car.
Her first set of spikes, a gift from her parents, were bought second hand.
Marjorie won the sprint double, the 100m and 200m, in Helsinki to become Australia’s first female athlete to win gold. She became known as the Lithgow Flash and an Australian icon.
Later she became the Governor of South Australia.
To help her relay team mates get to Helsinki, Verna Johnston and Winsome Cripps, and to fund her own trip, Marjorie did odd jobs including grooming greyhounds at Wentworth Park in Sydney.
Lionel Cox, a cyclist from Sydney, received 300 pounds from a raffle run by his mates at the fruit markets where he worked. He was still well short, so his mother, a sole parent took out a mortgage on the family home to get Lionel to the Games.
He repaid everyone with a gold and a silver medal.
Recently the 1952 Olympic Team attended its annual reunion, named the Kapyla Club, after where they stayed in the Helsinki Village.
The Kapyla Club members don’t begrudge today’s Olympians anything.
Athletes like Shirley Strickland, John Landy, Merv Wood, Russell Mockridge, Lionel Cox, John Treloar and Marjorie Jackson laid the foundation for today’s Olympians in what history calls the Golden Era of Australian sport.
Sixty years later you can imagine their horror at headlines about “entitlement” and athletes behaving badly.
To the Kapyla Club members those athletes are cheapening the blazer. They are lacking respect and showing total disregard for those who came before them.
If you want to learn about mateship and the Australian way it is hard to go past the Kapyla Club.
The Australian Olympic Committee and 2016 Team Chef de Mission Kitty Chiller are working hard to ensure the best environment for competition success in Rio but just as importantly they are making sure the culture and values of the Team will be what all of Australia can be proud of. Including all the Olympians, like the Kapyla Club, who have gone before them will be proud.
Rio 2016 will be 120 years of magic Australian moments and mates for life from the Olympic Games.
- With special thanks to the late Olympic historian Harry Gordon for the rich history and eloquent words he wrote over many decades.
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