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.