Cecil Healy was one of the heroes of the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, not just because he won a gold medal in the 4 x 200m freestyle relay but especially for his gallant sporting gesture — when he refused to swim in the 100m final unless Duke Kahanamoku, the famous Hawaiian, was allowed to swim. Kahanamoku, the race favourite, had been disqualified after US officials got the start time wrong. Cecil knew it wasn’t the Duke’s fault and refused to swim without him.
‘Under the circumstances, Cecil Healy’s second place was worth a lifetime of firsts,’ wrote a Swedish reporter.
‘In terms of great sportsmanship by an Australian at an Olympics,’ says John Coates, President of the Australian Olympic Committee, ‘Cecil Healy’s is certainly the most outstanding.’
Six years after Stockholm, Cecil found himself in a far more perilous place. He had enlisted in 1915 and spent the first two-and-a-half years of his military service in a relatively ‘cushy’ job, as a quartermaster sergeant. But that same sense of honour that had been on show at the Olympics compelled him to do more, and against the advice of friends and his commanding officer he sought and obtained a transfer to the front, as a second lieutenant with the 19th battalion. In a recent speech, the NSW Governor General David Hurley pointed out that Healy must have known that he was taking on a role with one of the highest mortality rates among Australian soldiers in the Great War.
On the early morning of 29 August 1918, as the Anzacs prepared for what would be an epic assault on Mont St Quentin, Cecil was leading his platoon across open ground when they were surprised by German machine-gun fire from a nearby wood. A colleague would later say that ‘his fearlessness supplied the enemy with too good a target to miss’. Healy was 36. He remains the only Australian Olympic gold medallist to die on the battlefield.
Cecil’s remarkable life and death is celebrated in a major biography, co-authored by two-time Olympic gold medallist John Devitt and award-winning author Larry Writer. The following extract describes the final few days of a great Australian’s life …
UNIT COMMANDING OFFICERS WERE summoned to 5th Brigade headquarters in Rivery Town Hall at five o’clock on the afternoon of August 25 to receive orders passed down from corps commander Sir John Monash. When the senior officers returned, units were assembled and informed that they would be part of a massive Allied push that would ultimately force the German Army back to the Hindenburg Line. Success would almost certainly spell defeat for the enemy, which by now had neither the numbers, the weaponry nor, increasingly, the will to mount another counterattack.
The 2nd Division’s first objective was to cross the Somme and snatch the town of Péronne from its German occupiers. Péronne was about 50 kilometres to the east of Rivery. But before it could be liberated, the Germans had to be driven from Mont St Quentin, 1.5 kilometres to the north, which though only about 100 metres high, held huge strategic value as it overlooked not just the town, but the river and the territory for kilometres around. The Hindenburg Line was another 25 kilometres further east.
Péronne, an ancient town protected by a star-shaped fort built in the 17th century by King Louis XIV’s military engineer Sébastien le Prestre de Vauban, served as a vital transport and communications hub for whoever was in control. The 2nd Division, with the 19th Battalion prominent, would seek to advance to Péronne along the south bank of the Somme. It would be accompanied by artillery companies, field engineers and ambulances, all the while keeping in close touch with the 3rd and 5th Divisions on either flank.
The weather was rainy and humid, which turned the tracks and fields of the region into thick, sticky, boot-gripping mud. The units had more than 20 kilometres to cover before reaching the Somme, where they would be forced to conduct an opposed river crossing.
The 19th spent the night of August 26 near the village of Morcourt, ten kilometres east of Villers-Bretonneux. On August 27, they occupied old German dugouts north-east of Chuignolles, still 40 kilometres from Péronne. The entry in the battalion’s war diary for that night reads in part: ‘Men help themselves liberally to large German stack of straw and make comfortable sleeping positions. Night dark and cloudy, but quiet. Scattered enemy shelling by long-range and other guns.’
What sleep was had was broken just before dawn by welcome news. The Germans were being forced back towards the Somme at Péronne by the 6th Brigade, and the 19th was ordered to make haste to support them, continuing along the Somme’s south bank to Salmon Wood (an area of trees and other vegetation known today as Bois Nanteuil). Battalion headquarters were established in nearby huts at Eclusier Quarry, just east of the village of Cappy. The plan was to spend the night there before linking with the 6th Brigade at Péronne during the following day, August 29. The town centre was now 25 kilometres away.
The battalion was pressing forward across farmland through late summer showers to Salmon Wood where it was detected by the Germans and shelled. This action might have slowed the men of the 19th’s progress, but it did not stop them. There was a certain excitement in being engaged in the rapid movement of mobile warfare, pursuing the enemy, which was a far cry from the foetid trench warfare of, say, the Ypres Sector in 1917. However, after four years of war, every AIF unit was understrength. The 19th’s ‘bayonet strength’ was less than 300 men. In C Company, the strength was about 40 men, including four officers; Cecil’s platoon was about 20 strong, although every platoon was carrying extra Lewis guns to beef up their firepower.
Cecil must have been grateful for his fitness. Each man was dressed in ‘Battle Order’, which for a rifleman included rifle, bayonet, entrenching tool, webbing ammunition pouches with at least 120 rounds, water bottle, small pack, some tinned rations, soap, razor and toothbrush, a multi-purpose rubberised groundsheet, a steel helmet and a gas mask in a bag worn across the chest for easy access. This gear, including the uniform and boots, weighed more than 20kg. Lewis gunners carried the gun and their No.2 men had extra 47-round magazines. Officers dressed almost exactly as the men, but were armed with a service revolver (some also chose to carry a rifle) plus a compass, binoculars, whistle and map case. For this rapid mobile style of warfare, everything you needed was on your back.
Cecil spent the night of August 28 in the company of his comrades, eating cold bully beef (for no camp fires were allowed), perhaps playing cards by dim candlelight, yarning about better, safer times to keep his nerves at bay. Tomorrow, he would be commanding his C Company platoon in his first ‘stunt’: an attack on a flagging but desperate and still lethal enemy. The camp was targeted by sporadic shelling throughout the night, and by a chemical irritant known colloquially as ‘sneezing gas’, but no damage was done. Sleep was fitful.
Well before dawn, the men of the 19th rose, packed up their groundsheets, wolfed down what food was handy, donned their equipment and at zero hour, 5am, moved out of Salmon Wood. Their orders were to ‘mop up’ the German-held village of Halle, just west of Péronne, and support the 17th Battalion by guarding its right flank.
The first part of the move was a road march by a column of companies, from Salmon Wood towards the village of Frise, in the dark before sunrise. They were led by men from the battalion’s Intelligence Section, who had reconnoitred the intended assembly area on the south-eastern side of Frise. This was a quick move and on arrival there companies shook out into their open formation for the advance towards the River Somme.
Within the battalion, A Company was left forward, Cecil’s C Company right forward, B Company was in depth behind them and D Company was the battalion reserve. On the 19th’s left flank was its sister battalion, the 18th; on their right flank, the 23rd Battalion of 6th Brigade. In front of them were several kilometres of generally open, gently rolling hills that led down to the Somme Canal, west of Péronne. This was the arena into which Cecil would lead his men.
The immediate obstacle of Mereaucourt Wood was easily cleared and the advance moved steadily forward in the early-morning gloom, but at 6.58am, as the sun rose, 19th Battalion patrols were fired on by riflemen and machine-guns in and around Bazincourt Wood and Ticker Copse, dense thickets on high ground just west of the Somme Canal. These positions were occupied by veteran soldiers of the 25th Bavarian Infantry Regiment, who had been ordered to halt or at least slow the ‘British’ advance.
THE BAVARIAN COMMANDER HAD chosen his position well. The ground in front of Ticker Copse sloped gently upwards and provided an almost unrestricted 180-degree view to front and flanks, allowing — from the German perspective — ideal fields of fire. The whole area was covered with trench systems left over from the 1915 skirmishes between French and German forces. Arnaud Alley, Callis Trench, Olmutz Trench and others provided excellent defensive positions — it was much easier to temporarily refurbish old trenches than dig new ones. And the tree-lined heights provided excellent withdrawal routes to the Somme Canal and the foot-bridges that were covered by small arms and artillery fire from positions in and around the village of Halle. They would provide protection for withdrawing troops after they had delayed the oncoming advance.
The key to the Bavarian commander’s delaying tactics was the positioning of his machine-guns. His principal weapon was the 7.92mm Maschinengewehr 08 (MG08), a heavy machinegun mounted on a folding four-point sled and manned by a six-man crew. Its rate of fire was about 450 rounds a minute, with an effective range of more than two kilometres. At this point in the war, he also had available a number of MG08/15, a lighter bipod-mounted machine-gun with a crew of two.
We will never know exactly how many of these weapons were on the battlefield this day: possibly ten or more. It is well recorded that one MG08 was firing from Bazincourt Wood to the north of Ticker Copse. What else is known is that these weapons were always sited in pairs and positioned to work together, by firing across each other’s front. The experienced German commander and his men had the ground in front of Ticker Copse well covered with both machine-gun and rifle fire.
AUGUST 29 WAS, ACCORDING to the 19th’s war diary, a ‘fine, bright day’. In the minutes immediately after 7am, with Péronne and squat Mont St Quentin, which stood sentinel above it, visible on the horizon a few kilometres away, the Australians walked into a killing zone. Some movement was noticed at the top end of a long, thin stand of trees known then, and today, as Sword Wood, and Cecil’s platoon opened fire. There were probably no more than a few grey-clad German riflemen concealed there, for this was low ground, and they were sent scurrying down the tree line to the canal to make good their escape. The Australians pressed on.
Only now the Germans by Ticker Copse, a kilometre to the north, had the advancing men well within range and in their sights. They waited expectantly in their trenches, invisible to the Australians who, coming from the west, had the rays of the dawn’s sun shining in their faces, accentuating their presence. As Cecil and his men moved down the gentle slope towards Sword Wood a machine-gun fired upon them. A member of his platoon would later say that ‘his fearlessness supplied the enemy with too good a target to miss’.
Cecil might have heard the dreaded percussive clatter of the machine-gun. He was hit in the back of the neck by a single bullet. The impact sent him sprawling and he lay bleeding from the wound, as a comrade, possibly 19-year-old Private Carl Bentin of Hobart, scrambled to his fallen leader’s side and tried to drag him to cover. The frantic movement drew another burst of machine-gun fire from near Ticker Copse. The second soldier fell dead, and Cecil was hit again, the bullet tearing into the right side of his chest. Prone on his back, Cecil lay breathing raggedly, unable to speak. His eyes, which were open, were losing their light. His heart beat on, and on. It took him an hour to die.
It may be that as he lay dying he was beyond thinking, or perhaps in his last moments he thought of home … of his close friend Muriel … of his family and mates … of good times on the beaches of Manly, some of Sydney’s finest … of the grand days when, in Sydney’s baths and ocean pools, he was Australia’s finest swimmer … and of the Stockholm Olympics in 1912 when he raced the great Duke Kahanamoku, and thousands cheered …
He died about 8am. At this hour, in peace-time in another land, Cecil Healy would likely have been careening down the face of a Manly wave.
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.