At the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, Cecil Healy produced a sporting gesture which was described at the time as ‘an unsurpassable example of sportsmanship’. The great American swimmer Duke Kahanamoku, the race favourite for the men’s 100 metres freestyle, was disqualified, and by the rules in place this decision was correct. Whether it was just is another matter. Cecil, the second favourite, did not question the validity of the rules, or the ethics of the judges who enforced them, but he did not think the punishment fitted the crime and appealed to the authorities’ sense of fair play.
He wanted to win, but in the pool not out of it.
In a sense, a similar conundrum is being played out in the lead-up to the 2018 National Rugby League Grand Final. The Melbourne Storm’s great fullback Billy Slater has been charged with using an illegal shoulder charge in the preliminary final, which could see him suspended the grand final against the Sydney Roosters. Slater’s absence would inevitably improve the Roosters’ chances of claiming the premiership. But do they want to win that way?
In the following extract from their biography of Cecil Healy, John Devitt and Larry tell the story of what Australian Olympic Committee President John Coates recently described as the most outstanding example of great sportsmanship ever displayed by an Australian at the Olympics. The implication is that Cecil, who was born and lived much of his life in Roosters territory, would have wanted Slater to play …
CECIL HAD LITTLE TIME to change from his team uniform into his swimming costume before he was called to compete in the heats of the Stockholm Olympics’ first swimming event: the men’s 100-metre freestyle heats, the first of which began at 7pm in the still-warm glow of a summer twilight. Duke Kahanamoku was hot favourite to win the gold medal, but there was plenty of depth in the field, with competitors such as Harold Hardwick, Billy Longworth, the six-time English 100-yards champion Rob Derbyshire, Germany’s highly rated Kurt Bretting, who had been schooled in the crawl by Cecil in Hamburg back in 1906, Sweden’s Harald Julin, the bronze medallist from 1908, and three crack Americans all in the field. The top two from each of the eight heats and the fastest third place-getter would proceed to the second round, which put much attention on heat four, where Cecil was drawn to meet the USA’s Perry McGillivray and Ken Huszagh. The Duke was in heat five.
The first surprise was the elimination of Derbyshire, who finished third in tepid time behind Les Boardman in heat three. Then Cecil started slowly, but he was able to work his way past Huszagh to ensure his qualification in 1:05.2. McGillivray’s winning time was exactly one second faster, while Huszagh’s 1:06.2 was enough to get him through. Hardwick looked good as he dominated heat six, just as Bretting had impressed in his swim, but by then all the chatter was about Kahanamoku, who had scorched down the straight course in 1:02.6. Longworth was well beaten in second place, even though he recorded the same time as Cecil had done in the previous heat. The Duke’s time was quickly announced as a world record, though in fact it was one-fifth of a second slower than a time recorded by Bretting in a 25-metre pool in Brussels, Belgium, during the previous April. The German’s performance would be ratified by FINA immediately after these Games.
Still, the Duke was clearly all he was cracked up to be. Maybe more. Experts were calling him the ‘human fish’. Longworth would say, ‘He’s not a swimmer, he’s a motorboat.’ The official Olympic report noted:
The performance of the phenomenal Kanaka quite came up to expectations. He employs a special kind of crawl, with the motor-power derived from the ankles alone, and not from the hip- or knee-joints. The soles of his feet work up and down; both the upper and under sides of his feet pressing backwards against the surface of the water.
The second round — three races, with the first two in each race and the quickest third through to the semi-finals — was programmed to begin the next day at 1.30pm. For 90 metres in the first of these races, Bretting and Longworth, who was now suffering from a severe headache as well as excruciating pain in his ear, were neck and neck, before the German edged clear. Hardwick was third. Kahanamoku romped home from the German Walter Ramme in the second race, after producing a remarkable spurt in the last 30 metres, and Huszagh and McGillivray beat Cecil by a whisker in fast time, with Boardman a close fourth. The official report reads:
There was a very hard struggle between the first three men, all of whom did the distance under 1 minute, 5 seconds. As best third in the second round, C. Healy became entitled to take part in the semi-finals.
The draw was kind to Cecil: he and Longworth were joined by Ramme in the first semi-final; the three Americans and Bretting were in the second. The first two home in each semi and the fastest third-placed competitor would make the final. The races were scheduled for 8pm, a time that might not have suited some of the swimmers. On his return to Sydney, Longworth would tell the Daily Telegraph that no member of the US team was allowed on shore after 7 o’clock without a special permit. ‘No such restriction,’ the Aussie added, ‘was imposed upon the athletes of other nations.’
There are different accounts of exactly what led to the kerfuffle that happened next.
AT THE ASSIGNED TIME, the two Australians and Germany’s Ramme marched from the dressing sheds to the starting zone. At the starter’s signal, the trio hit the water simultaneously and were level for 80 metres, at which point Cecil surged to win narrowly in 1:05.6. Longworth, though suffering terribly from what doctors would soon discover was a large abscess in his head, between his ear and his brain, swam a gallant third, less than a second from his teammate.
The spectators at the pool now started shifting in their seats and murmuring to each other, as they were anxious to see the mighty Kahanamoku in action. But something was wrong.
Bretting appeared on his own. There was no sign of the Duke, nor his teammates, just a panicked flurry of activity among the organisers, who left the pool deck to contact the US camp. When they returned, they ordered Bretting to swim the semi-final alone.
The official report says: ‘Owing to some misapprehension, the three representatives of the USA did not put in an appearance, from their belief that all the seven men who qualified in the second round would swim in the final on the Monday.’ Elsewhere, it was claimed that the American coaches and officials had ignored the program of events that had been widely circulated and simply assumed that the semi-finals would be swum the next day. Bretting swam solo, recording an impressive 1:04.6. As he was doing so, the Duke was on the Finland, fast asleep.
Back at the pool, the judges chose to adhere strictly to the rules and disqualify the no-show Americans. Suddenly, the German Bretting and his old mentor, Cecil, seemed to have the gold medal between them. Ramme could not be dismissed based on his semi-final effort, but few rated him in the same class as his compatriot. Longworth was through to the final but his health was deteriorating by the minute, to the point, he would admit later, where his very life was in danger. The next morning, he would be admitted to hospital for an operation. His Olympic campaign was over.
US swim coach Otto Wahle and AAU secretary James E. Sullivan, the manager of the American team, tried to bluster their way out of the disaster, insisting that their three swimmers had not turned up to the semi-final because of that ‘misapprehension’. When this plea didn’t wash with the Olympic officials, the Americans changed tack and claimed that they couldn’t understand the program because they knew no Swedish. It was pointed out to them that the program was printed in English and French as well as the language of the host country.
While the officials argued, Cecil made the selfless decision for which — perhaps more than anything else in his remarkable life — he is revered. Any victory, he told himself, in a final in which the fastest swimmer in the world cannot compete would be hollow. He could not live with that. A gold medal won in those circumstances would be tarnished metal. His moral obligation was to refuse to swim in the final unless he could race Duke Kahanamoku, even though he knew that this meant he had much less chance of winning. Self-respect and good sportsmanship were worth more than golden glory.
The San Francisco Call’s matter-of-fact report of the affair confirmed that Cecil’s actions received international recognition:
The semi-final heats of the 100-metres swimming proved a fiasco as the Americans, McGillivray, Huszagh and Kahanamoku remained on the steamer Finland in the belief that the event was to be contested Monday. Some of the competitors protested against the semi-finals being held, saying they would be valueless without the three fastest competitors. The round, however, was completed …
Cecil went straight to ES Marks — who as well as travelling with the Australasian team had also been nominated to sit on a jury of officials from competing nations to adjudicate on contentious issues — and made his feelings clear: that in the spirit of the Olympics the Americans should be given a second chance. Marks then convinced his fellow jury members to offer Kahanamoku, Huszagh and McGillivray a reprieve. As the official report documented:
At a meeting of the International Swimming Jury, it was declared that no mistake had been committed by the leaders of the competition, but that the three representatives of the USA should be allowed to swim in a special heat to qualify for the final, the first man in this extra heat having to swim the distance in better time than the third man in Heat 1 of the semi-final, while, in the event of this being done, the second man in the extra heat would also be allowed to swim in the final, which was put off until Wednesday, July 10.
On ES Marks’ death in 1947, The Sydney Morning Herald would argue that he ‘probably did more for amateur sport in Australia than any other man’. Here, like Cecil, he covered himself in glory. And the ailing Longworth, too. In an interview in the early 1930s, Marks recalled that Cecil, with his teammate by his side, didn’t just ask for the Americans to get a second chance, he told him bluntly that he and his comrade would not participate in the final if Kahanamoku, McGillivray and Huzsagh were disqualified. Marks backed his men unconditionally. As far as he was concerned, their strong view ‘settled the opposition’. Marks also confirmed that German team management, no doubt anticipating medals for Bretting and Ramme, were unhappy that the Americans were being let off the hook. British officials, for what it was worth, agreed with the Germans. Their combined view was that the decision contravened Olympic rules, which clearly stated that anyone not arriving for their event on time could not compete. To no avail. The US contingent heaved a collective sigh of relief that may have been heard back in Manhattan, perhaps even in Honolulu.
The third semi-final was held on the Tuesday, July 9, and involved not just the three Americans but also Italy’s Mario Massa, who claimed he, too, had been confused by the programming (Massa had missed his second-round swim). The Duke made the most of his reprieve, winning the special swim-off in a blistering 1:02.4, equalling Bretting’s world’s best time. Behind him, there was only a ‘hand’s breadth’ between Huszagh and McGillivray, who were both credited with the same time: 1:06.2. The decision, and a place in the final, went to Huszagh. Massa failed to finish.
Before the final, the official Olympic newspaper Dagens Nyheter placed the Swedish and International Olympic bodies’ appreciation of Cecil’s uncommon sportsmanship on the record in an article which addressed Cecil directly:
Not only Stockholm, but the whole world of sport, rings with applause for your sporting action in permitting the semi-final of the 100 metres to be re-run. You, as well as anybody, realised the prowess of the swimmers you voluntarily admitted to the final test …
What Cecil had done, in the words of Dagens Nyheter, was provide ‘an unsurpassable example of sportsmanship for other Olympians to emulate’.
THE FINAL WAS SCHEDULED for 7pm. When the hour arrived, the evening sun was still shining on the 2400 spectators who’d come to see the medal race. Among them, in their royal eyrie, sat King Gustav and his queen, Victoria, their eldest son, Crown Prince Gustav Adolf, and his wife, Crown Princess Margaret, a cousin of the King of England. If they’d been following the form, the royals would have agreed with swimming aficionados everywhere that Kahanamoku was the overwhelming favourite.
Then the unthinkable. When the finalists lined up in their starting positions, the Duke was not among them. Incredibly, the laid-back Hawaiian was once more dozing but not, thankfully, on the Finland this time. His teammate, breaststroker Mike McDermott, found him under a bleacher at the side of the pool and hustled him to join his rival swimmers. The story entered family folklore. Kahanamoku’s younger brother Sargent would tell Sports Illustrated:
Brother Duke slept 99 per cent of his time. He could sleep while he was sitting there talking to you. And I always thought that was what made him a great swimmer. He was clear in the head. So at the Olympic finals, they found him asleep, snoring. He got up, said sorry, [and] got in the water to loosen up …
The pre-race drama seemed never-ending. Just as the competitors were settling for the start, Kurt Bretting held up his hand, left his mark and approached Kahanamoku, who was beside Cecil at the opposite side of the starting platform. The German ostentatiously shook both their hands and thanked Cecil for introducing him to the crawl. Cecil interpreted Bretting’s action as gamesmanship. The Duke did, too. Bretting, they suspected, was thanking Cecil for contributing to his own downfall in the impending race. When their rival resumed his place, Kahanamoku quipped to the Australian next to him, ‘Say, Healy, he must think he’s going to deliver the goods.
To which Cecil offered one of his favourite aphorisms: ‘Then blessed is he who expecteth nothing!’
If the German unsettled anyone, it was himself. No doubt to the delight of Cecil and the Duke, Bretting broke the start. As he lifted himself out of the water, he seemed extremely nervous.
Finally, the race was underway. At the 50-metre mark, nothing separated the swimmers. It seemed anybody’s race. The crowd bellowed as one; could there be an upset? The Duke made his move and snatched the lead, with Huszagh, Bretting and Ramme battling for second place. The Australian was last. Suddenly, Cecil clapped on the pace and flew past Huszagh and the Germans as if they were swimming on the spot. The spectators rose again, and cheered the underdog. It was grand theatre, but it wasn’t enough. Kahanamoku was far enough ahead to hold Cecil at bay. He won in 1:03.4; Cecil claimed the silver medal in 1:04.6; Huszagh was third, in 1:05.6; Bretting fourth in 1:05.8.
William Henry, who was poolside, claimed that Cecil ‘gave that great Honolulu swimmer a fright, as he was catching him fast in the last few yards’. Harold Hardwick concurred: ‘The Duke seemed to be tiring as he finished, and Cecil was coming on at a tremendous pace.’ Cecil himself said at the finish that the Duke’s feet were level with his head. The official report lamented the absence of Longworth but regarded it as ‘a grand race between the swiftest swimmers in the world’.
The fans went wild for Kahanamoku; he had shown them greatness. And then something happened that puzzled those who knew nothing of Cecil’s insistence that the Duke compete, and surely brought a glow to those who did. The Hawaiian extricated himself from the mob of backslappers and went to Cecil. He thanked him for his sportsmanship and held his arm in the air in the time-honoured athlete’s show of respect for an opponent. The Duke would wear the gold medal around his neck and Cecil the silver, but there were two winners this day.
Indeed, a Swedish reporter wrote, ‘Under the circumstances, Cecil Healy’s second place was worth a lifetime of firsts.’ A group of local fans lifted him onto their shoulders. Les Boardman would claim that ‘Healy’s swim in the final of the 100 metres at Stockholm was undoubtedly the most popular event of the swimming section of the Games’.
Many decades later, when recounting Australia’s most illustrious sporting moments, the Australian Olympic Committee’s official historian Harry Gordon wrote: ‘Healy gave a demonstration of the immaculate sportsmanship which characterised his career. He in fact sacrificed the prospect of an individual gold medal to ensure that his own version of justice was served.’ Gordon could not imagine such a sacrificial act occurring in the cut-throat modern Olympics. ‘Healy’s was a classic sporting gesture, but it belongs to another age.’