Of all the glorious parts that made up Cathy Freeman’s famous triumph at Sydney 2000, one that received plenty of publicity was the suggestion Cathy’s gold was Australia’s 100th gold medal in the history of the Summer Olympics.
It seemed fitting that such a memorable performance from one of Australia's greatest athletes should bring up our Olympic century.
Now, 16 years on, with Jared Tallent finally recognised as an Olympic champion in the 50km walk, Australia is moving ever closer to its 150th Olympic gold medal. The 500th Olympic medal is also in sight. However, because the overall medal tallies of the International Olympic Committee and the Australian Olympic Committee are out of alignment, it might be impossible to recognise exactly which athlete or team is responsible for reaching this second, important landmark.
First, it must be explained that while Olympic medals were not awarded until St Louis in 1904, it is universally accepted that successes from 1896 and 1900 are traditionally part of overall medal tallies. And triumphs by Australian athletes from 1908 and 1912 have also been included even though, strictly speaking, these swimmers, boxers and rugby footballers were representing Australasia. The men’s 4x200m freestyle relay team that won gold in Stockholm featured three Aussies and a New Zealander.
On this basis, the AOC website regards Australia as having won 495 Olympic medals: 483 at Summer Olympics and 12 at Winter Games.
The IOC does not officially recognise medal counts by country. However, if you add up all the medal winners they regard as Australian on its database, their total comes to 490:
AOC: 495 medals — 147 gold; 162 silver; 186 bronze.
IOC: 490 medals — 147 gold; 159 silver; 184 bronze.
These tallies include the five gold, three silver and four bronze medals won by Australia’s Winter Olympians.
The disparity between the AOC and IOC involves three seconds and two thirds achieved by the runner Edwin Flack (pictured) and swimmer Frank Gailey between 1896 and 1904.
Flack famously became our first gold medal winner at the first modern Olympics in 1896, in the 800 and 1500 metres. Less well known is the fact he combined with the Englishman George Robertson to finish third in the doubles at the tennis.
The AOC’s long-time historian, the late Harry Gordon, described the Athens tennis tournament of 1896 as ‘picnic tennis’. Some competitors, Flack among them, apparently entered on a whim, and for many years he and Robertson were listed as representing Great Britain. The AOC has included Flack’s third place in Australia’s medal tally. The IOC, more appropriately, describes the duo as a ‘mixed’ team.
The case of Francis ‘Frank’ Gailey is more intriguing. As Harry Gordon discovered in 2009, Gailey was born in Australia but sailed for California in early 1904. The Australian Town & Country Journal of 13 January 1904 reported that ‘Frank Galley, ex-champion sprint swimmer of Queensland, left for America on Monday by the Ventura. He has purchased a share in a cattle ranch through having drawn the third horse in one of Tattersall’s sweeps on the Caulfield Cup.’
Gailey joined the Olympic Swimming Club in San Francisco and quickly established himself as one of the finest swimmers on the American west coast. The Olympic club sent a team east to St Louis for the Olympic swimming races; Gailey was included, and he finished second in the 220, 440 and 880 yards, and third in the mile.
The other Australian competitor in St Louis, the hurdler Corrie Gardner, had the backing of the Amateur Athletic Union of Australia (a forerunner of the AOC), whereas Gailey did not. However, it seems highly unlikely — given Gailey was an Australian citizen and had only been living in the US for a number of months — that he would have considered himself to be anything other than Aussie. This said, he did live most of the rest of his life in the US, even fighting for America in World War I. He died in California in 1972.
Since 2009, the AOC has included Gailey’s medals in its overall medal tally. The respected Olympic historian, David Wallechinsky, also lists Gailey as an Australian.
Of course, medal tallies — especially historical medal tallies — can be somewhat fluid. Just ask Jared Tallent. Or the cyclist Michael Rogers, who in 2015 was retrospectively promoted from fourth to third in the 2004 individual time trial. Or take the case of the shooter, Donald Mackintosh. As late as 2012, the AOC claimed Mackintosh as a winner and third-place finisher for Australia at the 1900 Olympics. The IOC did not. It is true the events in which Mackintosh competed in Paris were once given Olympic status, despite the fact some shooters earned considerable cash prizes and the organisers at the time never promoted their competition as ‘Olympic’. However, some pre-eminent Olympic historians, led by the doyen of Olympic researchers, Dr Bill Mallon, conducted a forensic examination of the various events conducted in 1900 and ruled on what should and should not be included in the official Olympic records. Some professional sailors and shooters, Mackintosh among them, duly lost their Olympic recognition.
In the lead-up to the London Olympics in 2012, clarification was sought from the IOC’s Olympic Studies Centre in regards to the status of Mackintosh and Gailey. Their reply read in part:
‘For Donald Mackintosh: There were various shooting events at the Olympic Games in 1900 in Paris with unclear status. In the past, these events created some controversies and errors among Olympic historians. Today this event is not considered as an Olympic event by the IOC …
Francis Gailey is listed as having won medals for the United States. The reason for this is that, as per the rules in force at the 1904 Games, an athlete was registered by a club and as such his/her status was linked to the ‘nationality’ of the club. In the case of Mr. Gailey, he was entered by the San Francisco Olympic Club. As such, despite his Australian citizenship, he is designated as a participant for the United States due to the fact that the club was American.
In 2012, this writer questioned the AOC about Mackintosh’s status as an Olympic medal winner. Quickly, a story appeared stating that the IOC’s decision to delete the shooter from Australia’s list of medal winners was ‘bewildering’. But Mackintosh’s name no longer appears on the AOC’s list of Australian gold-medal winners.
In regards to Gailey, the IOC’s Olympic Studies Centre has recently confirmed that they still regard the Australian-born swimmer as having ‘competed for the United States of America’.
It must be said that the AOC’s case for Gailey to be recognised as an Australian representative remains compelling. Most likely, their argument will eventually win the day. But, with significant landmarks approaching, what should be done for now? Can the AOC ‘go it alone’ when logic says if the IOC regards Gailey as an American representative, he must — at least in terms of overall medal counts — remain American?
If Gailey is designated as a US swimmer, and with Flack a ‘mixed-team’ tennis player and Mackintosh a non-Olympian, Australia’s requirement to reach the 500 medals across Summer and Winter Olympics stands as the IOC database has it: 10 medals needed. Take out the Winter Olympics, and the target becomes 22. Australia won eight gold, 15 silver and 12 bronze medals in 2012.
In regards to gold medals won at Summer and Winter Games, Australia needs three victories in Rio for 150. Restricting the count to just Summer Olympic medals increases the target to eight. At the moment, we all seemed agreed on that.
Back in 2000, when Cathy Freeman was lauded as our 100th gold medal winner at the Summer Games, Donald Mackintosh was still considered in most quarters to be an Olympian and Dr Mallon and his cohorts were still to complete their research. With Mackintosh out, Australia’s 100th gold medal was actually won two days later by Lauren Burns in the women’s flyweight taekwondo.
In Rio, it would be nice to get the name of our 500th medal winner right. Not just for the moment, but forever.
‘Great’ is arguably the most overused word in sport, but there is a good explanation for this, for greatness comes in many guises. Consequently, any list of Australia’s 10 greatest Olympic athletes or our 10 greatest Olympic moments has to be subjective, and so it is with this brief study, where our interpretation of ‘greatness’ is based largely on a comment by Steve Waugh, the famous cricketer.
‘The greatest athletes,’ Waugh said, ‘are the ones who through their exploits redefine expectations as to what can be achieved in their role and in their sport.’
Perhaps no one did this more emphatically in Australia’s Olympic history than HERB ELLIOTT, who dominated middle-distance running so emphatically between 1958 and 1960 that he was never beaten in an officially sanctioned race at 1500 metres or a mile.
At the Olympics in Rome in 1960, Elliott took off with 750 metres to go, ignoring the accepted practice, where even the best milers of the day were supposed to ease off fractionally in the third lap to save themselves for a final sprint. Instead, gradually, mercilessly, he extended his lead, to the point he was almost 20 metres clear at the finish, becoming the first man to win the Olympic 1500 metres in world-record time since 1936. No one has done so since.
‘A being from another world,’ is how France’s Michel Jazy, the silver medallist in the 1500 at Rome and a future world record holder, described Elliott.
Perhaps the two track performances that got closest to Elliott for greatness came from BETTY CUTHBERT in the 400 metres in 1964 and CATHY FREEMAN in the same event in 2000.
Cuthbert’s triumph, coming on top of her three wins in Melbourne in 1956, gave her a unique place in Olympic history: the only athlete, male or female, to claim gold in the 100, 200 and 400 metres track events. Tony Charlton’s call for Australian television of her win in Tokyo, when he shouted, ‘My God, she’s going to win it!’, remains among the most memorable in our sporting story.
In the lead-up to Freeman’s 400 — which drew a nervous capacity crowd and one of Australian TV’s biggest ever audiences — it was as if no one expected her to fail, yet somehow she overcame this pressure with a superb, tactically brilliant run. Partly through her central role in the opening ceremony, when she lit the flame, but mostly because in winning gold she fulfilled Napoleon’s theory that ‘great men (and women) seldom fail in their most perilous enterprises,’ Freeman remains our No. 1 memory from Sydney 2000. Unless the Olympics return one day to Australia, we will never see another win to match it.
In swimming, Australia’s premier event has been the men’s 1500 metres, and among a pool of legends, perhaps two-time champion KIEREN PERKINS (1992, 1996) reigns supreme. Certainly, Perkins was cut from the same cloth as ‘Boy’ Charlton (1924) and Murray Rose (1956), and he set a standard that his successor Grant Hackett (2000, 2004) almost but didn’t quite touch. Perhaps this has a little to do with Perkins memorable win from lane eight in Atlanta, when he barely qualified for the final but still surged away to glory.
Statistics, of course, rarely tell the whole story, but sometimes they can be hard to counter. DAWN FRASER’s three golds in the 100-metres freestyle — the first swimmer, male or female, to win the same event at three Olympics — was a phenomenal achievement in itself; the third win, in Tokyo, coming in the same year in which she spent six weeks with her neck in plaster following a car accident in which her mother was killed, was epic.
No Australian, not even Our Dawn, has won more gold medals than IAN THORPE’s five, among them two of the most memorable in Olympic history: first, that famous charge down the Sydney Aquatic Centre pool to overcome Gary Hall Jr and win the 4x100m freestyle relay; and then, four years later in Athens, his glorious defeat of two champions — Holland’s Pieter van den Hoogenband and the USA’s Michael Phelps — in the 200 metres.
Better even than the ‘Thorpedo’, it is hard to argue with the sheer enormity of SHANE GOULD’s effort in Munich in 1972, when she won an Australian record five medals, three of them gold, all five in individual races. Gould was only 15 when she won her Olympic medals, and there was youthful audacity about the way she swam that rattled her American rivals, who were reduced to wearing t-shirts carrying the message ‘All that glitters is not Gould’.
Another bold Aussie was two-time Olympic single sculls champion ‘BOBBY’ PEARCE, the first Australian to successfully defend an Olympic title (1928, 1932). In the quarter-finals in Amsterdam, Pearce was so confident of victory that when a mother duck and her ducklings appeared in front of him, he merely slowed and waited for them to pass.
‘I had to lean on my oars and wait for a clear course, and all the while my opponent was pulling away to a five-length lead,’ he recalled just before his death in 1976.
Pearce recovered to win this 2000-metre race by half a minute. No Australian Olympic rower, not even the members of the celebrated ‘Oarsome Foursome’, ever approached such dominance. Similarly in cycling, no other Australian has ever obliterated a field the way RUSSELL MOCKRIDGE did at Helsinki in 1952.
Before the Games, officials insisted Mockridge pledge allegiance to the amateur ranks for two more years, but he called their bluff and eventually a compromise was reached. Old-timers couldn’t remember administrators backing down in this way, but Mockridge was a special case and he went on to claim two gold medals on the same day: the time trial by a record-breaking 1.6 seconds and then the 2000m tandem with Lionel Cox. Perhaps, among Australian riders, only Cadel Evans, 2011 Tour de France champion, and Anna Meares, who will go to Rio seeking to add to an Olympic bounty that already includes two gold medals, are entitled to be ranked with Mockridge, but that is all.
Few athletes came bolder than the late Muhammad Ali, who fighting as Cassius Clay won the Olympic light-heavyweight gold medal in 1960. To many, Ali was the greatest athlete of the 20th century. Ali himself said he was the ‘double greatest’, because, ‘Not only do I knock ’em down, I pick the round.’
Yet in Rome, over three stirring semi-final rounds, he was very fortunate to ‘beat’ an Australian, TONY MADIGAN.
Nat Fleischer, the widely respected long-time editor of the renowned US publication Ring Magazine, reported from ringside that the crowd ‘booed and hissed the decision’ to award the fight to the American. ‘Clay definitely didn’t win the fight as I saw it,’ Fleischer wrote. ‘Chalk this one up as just another of the weird, atrocious decisions that have deprived many young men of the highest honour in amateur boxing — an Olympic gold medal.’
Fleischer’s view was shared by another experienced observer, Bud Palmer, who called the fight for the American CBS TV network. Had this decision gone the other way, Tony Madigan could well have become the first Australian boxer to win Olympic gold. He’d be known to all Australians as the man who beat Ali.
He’d be one of the greatest.