‘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.