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Australian athletes: professional and amateur champions

Warning. Australian Stories may contain the names and images of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people now deceased. Australian Stories also contain links to sites that may use images of Aboriginal and Islander people now deceased.

Betty Cuthbert, 18 years winning at the Melbourne Olympics, 1956. Courtesy of International Association of Athletics Federation Hall of Fame and Allsport.

The essence of athletics – running, jumping, walking and throwing – has been around as long as humans and athletic events exist across all cultures. Since the 1880s, Australian athletes have set world standards in both professional and also amateur events.

In the 1800s professional athletics, called pedestrianism, attracted huge crowds who placed enormous wagers on the competition. Professional foot racing was popular in the gold rush towns of New South Wales and Victoria. Miners raced against each other in handicapped races for the gift of a gold nugget offered by the mine owner.

‘Gift’ races, with substantial prizes, were very popular with Aboriginal sprinters from mission stations. Charlie Samuels, a Kamilaroi man, was a world record holder in 1888. In 1894 Jack Marsh equalled the world record set by an American, John Owen, in 1890.

Edwin Flack, Australia's first Olympic gold medalist in Athletics, who won the 800m & 1500m in Athens in 1896, statue located in Berwick, Victoria.

Professional sprinters were called ‘peds’. On the other hand, amateur athletics had to attract athletes who would compete for no financial return.

Amateur athletics was given a high profile when Australian athletes competed in the newly revived Olympic Games in 1896 and Edwin Flack won two races. In the inter-war years, two female amateur Australian athletes won medals at Olympic Games and the 1938 Empire Games.

The Australian obsession with sport has helped establish a sense of Australian identity separate to its colonial status, as well as promoting an ethos of competition, ‘fair go’, and good sportsmanship. It was this background that encouraged the early participation of Indigenous athletes.

Ralph Doubell winning the 800 metres in Mexico,1968.

After the Second World War, Australia's track athletes became household names and icons of Australian identity: Marjorie Jackson, Shirley Strickland de la Hunty, Betty Cuthbert, Marlene Matthews, Herb Elliott, John Landy, Ralph Doubell, Ron Clarke, Peter Norman, Raelene Boyle, Robert de Castella, and of course, Cathy Freeman. 

As the first Australian to win a gold medal in athletics at the Olympics since 1896, in 1952 Marjorie Jackson set a new standard for Australia's athletes, showing how you can be the world's best and still retain your humility on the world stage.

Indigenous athletic champions, 1850s to 1900s

At reserves, missions and mission stations which were established as a form of ‘protection’ for Aborigines from the 1860s, exemptions were given to Indigenous residents to leave the missions to play sports.

The earliest account of an Aboriginal runner winning a competitive race is in February 1851 when Manuello in Victoria beat Tom McLeod, regarded as the fastest man in Australia, over 100 yards (91 m). Manuello also beat the NSW champion, Freddie Furnell, over 100 and 150 yards (137 m). (Colin Tatz, Aborigines in Sport (PDF 3.76MB), p.26–27)

Bobby McDonald's crouch start from 1887 illustrated in Tatz, Aborigines in Sport, p. 12

In Sydney in 1887, Bobby McDonald, an Aboriginal sprinter from Cummeragunga Mission, surprised everybody by starting from the crouch position, described as the kangaroo or the Australian start. This position was first seen in America at Long Island New York when it was demonstrated by C H Sherrill of Yale in 1888. (Referee, a sporting journal, July 1913 and Edward S. Sears, Running Through the Ages, 2001, p. 97)

Aboriginal Test qualifying cricketers Jack Marsh and Albert Henry were excellent runners as well as cricketers. Marsh won at least five major handicap events. In 1896, the Referee journal said of Jack Marsh that 'no man in Australia can beat him at the present time in a 75 yard run'. (Max Bonnell, How Many More Are Coming? The Short Life of Jack Marsh, Walla Walla Press, 2003 and Tatz, Aborigines in Sport, p. 28)

Charlie Samuels – ‘champion sprinter of the world’ 1887–1897

Charlie Samuels (1863–1912), a Kamilaroi man, was the first Aborigine to emerge as an international class athlete. At Botany in Sydney in 1888, Samuels was recognised as the world record holder with his best time in running one hundred yards in 9.1 seconds and 130 yards in 12.5 seconds.

However, Samuels ended up with little of the prize money in his wins over Tom Malone, the Irish champion, and the £90,000 won for his backers against Ted Lazarus in 1887.

Samuels equalled the times of English champion Harold Hutchens with a 300 yard (274m) race in 30 seconds. This led to a successful mastery series challenge to Hutchens in 1897. Australian Town and Country, said no one could 'dispute Samuels' claim to the title of champion sprinter of the world'.

Rife with bribery and corruption, however, pedestrianism was barely surviving by 1892, as amateur athletics and other sports gained greater popularity … success as a runner led to handicaps that restricted both his winnings and the financial rewards for his managers, who increasingly left him on his own.
Charles Samuels, Australian Dictionary of Biography

The Referee described Samuels as built for speed; his 'beautiful action was … the secret of his pace, as he was a lovely balanced runner'.

The Stawell and other 'Gift' races

Lynch Cooper, from Cummeragunga Mission, after winning the Stawell Gift, 1928. Courtesy of Percy Mason and Colin Tatz.

The Stawell Gift race, held in all but four years since 1878, is one of the world's most prestigious foot races. Every Easter thousands of runners and athletics fans from all over the world make their way to the tiny historic gold-mining town of Stawell. The main race, run on grass, is handicapped and is run over 120m up a slight gradient.

Bobby Kinnear, from Antwerp Mission near Dimboola in Victoria, won the Stawell Gift in 1883. Another Indigenous runner, J Dancey, won it in 1910.

In 1928 Lynch Cooper from Cummeragunga Mission won the Gift. Then in April 1929 he won the World Sprint Championship in 1929 over 75 yards, 100, 130, and 220 yards (68m, 91m, 118m, and 201m). (Colin Tatz, Aborigines in Sport, pp. 16-7, 28)

Doug Nicholls – the 'Black Streak' from Cummeragunga Mission

In 1929, Doug Nicholls, also from Cummeragunga Mission, won the Nyah Gift and then the Warracknabeal Gift, which was second only to Stawell in importance. Following these wins he became known as the ‘Black Streak’.

As a professional athlete or ‘ped’ Nicholls was paid by the organisers of the Gift races an appearance fee, board and expenses to enter races.  (Wikipedia, Douglas Nicholls)

Nicholls was a finalist in the Melbourne Thousand which was then the world's richest professional footrace. Established in 1928 it had an inaugural prize of £500, (won by a South Melbourne football player), with the sprint last run in 1932.

1900–1938 Amateur athletics in the Olympic and Empire Games

Amateur athletics had to attract athletes who would compete for no financial return. ‘The Grammar Schools of Sydney and Melbourne were proponents of the amateur side of the sport’. In 1887 the Amateur Athletics Association of New South Wales was formed ‘to take the management of amateur athletic sports in the colony’. Other states followed suit. (Paul Jenes, History: Athletics in Australia)

Whilst walking was part of colonial life, especially in the Gold Rush period when newly arrived immigrants walked to the diggings, long distance walking became a very popular form of amateur athletics. In 1878 W. Edwards won a 100 miles race in 24 hours in 1878. In 1882 he won a six-day tournament over 432 miles around Melbourne.

Australian amateur athletics was made popular in 1896 by Edwin Flack who won both the 800 and 1500 metres championships at the first modern Olympic Games in Athens (although there were no gold medals). Flack broke a pattern of US domination in track and field as well as promoting athletics and an awareness in Australia of the revived Olympic Games. (Edwin Flack )

Athletics race finish at Cambridge, Tasmania, 1910. Courtesy of AOT- PH30-1-4210

Following Flacks win at the Olympics, amateur athletics clubs were established in various parts of the colonies. In Tasmania, there were two clubs in Hobart in 1902, the New Town Harriers and the Hobart Harriers, as well as the Launceston Harrier Club. That year the Tasmanian Amateur Athletic Association was formed, and held the first Tasmanian track and field championships.

In 1903, 39 competitors started, in freezing conditions, in the Hobart Post Office to Pinnacle (Mount Wellington) Race. Two died of exposure, a tragic start for athletics. Tasmania affiliated with the Australian Athletic Union in 1905, and in 1908 staged its first national titles at the Hobart Cricket Ground. Alfred Clemes won the one-mile race, the first Tasmanian athlete to win a national title. Tasmania's first track and field Olympian, Bill Barwick, competed in the mile race in the 1932 Olympics. Female participation grew slowly, but in the early 1930s separate clubs for women were formed.
Robin Hood, Athletics (Amateur), The Companion to Tasmanian History, Centre for Tasmanian Historical Studies

Sport and athletics as a healthy past-time

Annette Kellerman in one piece bathing suit 1900s, promoting fitness. Courtesy of George G Bain Collection, Library of Congress

Many, but not all, of Australia's amateur athletic champions in the 1900s came from the bush or, like Flack, from ordinary homes in the city. It was this environment that encouraged talent and a tough and sheer determination. At the same time, Australians generally believed in sport as a healthy past-time, followed sport intensely and encouraged it in children from a young age.

The promotion of fitness and a healthy lifestyle in the 1920s was made popular by swimmer Annette Kellerman, a world record holder in swimming. Kellerman went on speaking tours and demonstrations around Australia to promote the advantages of swimming and a healthy lifestyle.

At the 1938 Empire Games, Australian women Decima Norman, Thelma Peake, Joan Woodland and Jean Coleman won gold medals for the 660 yard Medley Relay, as did Eileen Wearne as a member of the 440 yard Medley Relay team. (She's Game, Commonwealth or Empire Games Gold Medalists )

Betty Cuthbert, Marlene Mathews and Norma Croker at the Melbourne Olympics, 1956. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia, vn3288849

Post-war athletes – Australian female athletes sprint greats

Whilst Europe was recovering from the devastation of the Second World War (1939–45), Australia, like the United States of America, had an environment of peace and prosperity. Although it was peace-time, there were still circumstances that bred a toughness and determination. These qualities led to a golden age for Australian athletics on the world stage, especially for female athletes.

Immediately after the War, at the 1948 London Olympic Games, silver medals were awarded in the 4 x 100m relay to the Australian women's team: Shirley Strickland, June Ferguson, Joyce King and Betty McKinnon. Strickland went on to become one of Australia's greatest athletes. (She's Game, Olympic Medalists and Participants)

Marjorie Jackson – 'the Lithgow flash'

Marjorie Jackson crossing the line to win the 200m event at the Helinkski Olympics, 1952.

In the early 1950s Marjorie Jackson trained six days a week in a second-hand pair of men's shoes that were too big.

When I got selected for the Olympic Games … the people of Lithgow all put in and built this track with the help of the council, I believe … they didn't have any money left to put any lights up, so, … I trained in the fog and the sleet and the snow for those Olympic Games by the lights of one motor car.
Marjorie Jackson, interview, George Negus, ABC Radio, 31 May 2004.

In 1952 Marjorie Jackson attended the Helinski Olympics to race in the 100 yards and 220 yard sprints. She was the first Australian woman to win gold in track and field events and the first Australian to win a gold medal in athletics at the Olympics since 1896. (Australia's first Olympic gold and silver medallists were Fanny Durack and Mina Wylie at Stockholm in 1912)

When Jackson returned to her home town of Lithgow, west of the Blue Mountains in New South Wales, between 18,000 and 20,000 people turned up to see her. Despite her place on the world stage, Jackson retained her humility. However, Jackson had set a new standard for Australian athletics – to be the world's best.

Jackson won more gold medals at the Commonwealth Games in 1950 and 1954.

Shirley Strickland in the 80m hurdles at the Melbourne Olympics, 2 December, 1956

Shirley Strickland (de la Hunty) – sprints and hurdles

Shirley Strickland was an all-round athlete who came to specialise in sprints and hurdles. Strickland was born in Guildford, WA, the daughter of a Stawell Gift winner. Her Olympic medal tally of seven – three gold, one silver and three bronze, through the Games of 1948, 1952 and 1956 – has never been bettered.

In 1952, in winning the 80 metres hurdles at the Helsinki Olympics, she set world records two days apart in her heat and final. By the time of the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games, she was 31 and had a three year old son. Strickland ignored suggestions of retirement, and again she won gold.

Betty Cuthbert – the 'Golden Girl'

Betty Cuthbert holding her gold medal, still detail

Elizabeth 'Betty' Cuthbert grew up in suburban Sydney and practised her running while collecting plants for her father's nursery. At the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, Cuthbert won two gold medals in the individual track sprints (100 and 200 metres) and a third gold in the 400 metre relay.

The 18 year old golden-haired runner raced her way into the hearts of millions of Australians. Nicknamed the 'Golden Girl', she was instantly acclaimed as a national heroine. Unfortunately a ham string injury prevented her from doing well at the 1960 Olympic Games.

With determination, Cuthbert came back to win a gold medal in the 400 metres in 1964 at Tokyo, which she regarded as her greatest win. 'It was the only perfect race I have ever run', she later reflected.

Cuthbert is the only Olympic sprinter, man or woman, to have won gold medals in the 100 metres, 200 metres, and 400 metres. She set or equalled 18 world records between 1956 and 1964 over 60 metres, 100 yards, 220 yards, 400 metres, and in the 4×100 and 4×220 relays. There is a statue of Betty Cuthbert outside the Melbourne Cricket Ground showing her high leg style of running.

Marlene Matthews kissing her spikes at the Melbourne Olympics, 8 December 1956. Courtesy of Fairfax

Marlene Matthews – one of the greatest sprinters

Marlene Matthews, a Sydney girl, competed with this trio of golden girls, setting records and is recognised as one of Australia's greatest but unlucky sprinters.

Matthews was considered for Olympic team selection in 1952 at the age of 18 after coming second in the 100 yard at the NSW Championships, behind Marjorie Jackson but ahead of Shirley Strickland. Unfortunately she suffered a severe muscle tear injury which prevented her from reaching top-form again for another three years.

In the lead up to the Melbourne 1956 Olympics she equalled Marjorie Jackson's record times for the 220 yard race. Despite running third to Cuthbert and then beating Cuthbert in trials, Matthews was not selected to run in the relay with Cuthbert and Strickland, and she had to watch from the sidelines as they ran on to win gold.

Post-war: revolutionary running training for the men

John Landy – sportsmanship

John Landy breaking the 4 minute record at Helsinki, 22 June 1954

One of the greatest gestures of sportsmanship belongs to long-distance runner John Landy, one of Australia's best athletes in the 1950s. Landy grew up in Geelong. At the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games Landy watched Emil Zatopek win the 5000, 10,000 metres and the marathon. Landy then accepted an invitation to train with Zatopek, developing a new rigorous regime.

In 1954 Landy was the second man to break the four-minute mile barrier. When he raced Roger Bannister the first man to break that barrier, it was called the 'Miracle Race' and was heard over the radio by 100 million people and seen on television by millions more.

At the 1500 metres final at the 1956 Australian National Championships, just prior to the Melbourne Olympics, with a crowd of around 22,000 watching, Ron Clarke and Landy were leading when Clarke fell. The field of runners jumped over Clarke. Landy too leaped over him and his sharp spikes tore into Clarke's shoulder.

In a spontaneous gesture, Landy stopped running, bent down to help Clarke up, and apologised. Clarke set off after the rest of the field, who were now 30 yards ahead. Landy followed. Incredibly, in the final two laps Landy made up the distance to win the race. (John Landy: a significant life)

The Melbourne's Sun reported that 'It will be remembered as one of the finest actions in the history of sport' and it is considered one of the greatest moments in Australian sporting history. In January 2001, Landy was sworn in as the 26th Governor of Victoria

Herb Elliott and the Golden Mile, with trainer Percy Cerutty

Herb Elliott competing in the 1500 m at the Rome Olympics, 1960, no source

Herb Elliott attributes his success to his coach, Percy Cerutty, whom he met as a 15 year old in Western Australia. Cerutty impressed Elliott with his astonishing athletic body at the age of 60 years, commitment to healthy eating and lifestyle, practice of yoga, passion for improvement and high quality of training.

Cerutty trained Olympic athletes for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics in Portsea with a philosophical rather than a didactic approach. Postal worker turned athletics guru, Cerutty revolutionised running training in Australia – most famously by making his athletes run up and down sand dunes. (Herb Elliott on Percy Cerutty)

In 1958 he broke the mile and 1500m world records in Dublin and Gothenberg respectively, and won gold medals over the mile and 880yds at the 1958 Cardiff British Empire and Commonwealth Games.

At the 1960 Rome Olympic Games, Herb Elliott won the 1500 metres race by the largest margin that had been recorded in Olympic history. Over the six years that Cerutty trained Elliott, from 1956 to 1962, Elliott was the undefeated champion of both the 1500 metres and the mile running events.

Ron Clarke – world record holder from two miles to 20 kilometres

Ron Clarke, competing in the Mexico City Olympics,1968

Ron Clarke was born in Melbourne in 1937 and was educated at Melbourne High School. He became one of Australia's most prolific world record breakers in long distance running. At one stage he held every world record from two miles to 20 kilometres.

In 1965, at the peak of his career, Ron Clarke competed 18 times in eight countries during a 44-day tour of Europe, setting 12 world records. Nine of those records were established inside 21 days. He lowered the world 5000 metres mark four times (by a total of 18 seconds) and the 10,000 metres record three times (clipping it by an overall 39 seconds). (Athletics Australia Hall of Fame, Ron Clarke)

While Clarke did not win Olympic gold, he won bronze in the Tokyo 1964 Olympics, and was placed ninth in both the 5000 and the marathon. His own candid assessment is that he ran bad tactical races. In Mexico City in 1968, with the high altitude, Clarke ran out of oxygen late in the 10,000 metres but staggered on to finish sixth. Later, Emil Zatopek gave Clarke his gold medal for the 5000 metres from the 1952 Helsinki Olympics in recognition of his determination and record breaking runs.

Mexico City 1968 Olympics – heat and politics

Ralph Doubell

In the heat of Mexico City, Australia's Ralph Doubell created an upset when he beat the favourite, the Kenyan Wilson Kiprugut, sweeping past him in the last 50 metres to win in 1:44.3, a world-record time that still stands as the fastest by an Australian. (Watch Ralph Doubell(WR), 800m.1968 Olympic Games, Mexico City

Ralph Doubell's coach was the Viennese born ex-skier, Franz Stampfl, who had fled Austria just after the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Strampfl coached Roger Bannister to the world's first sub-four-minute mile, using his scientific system of 'interval training'. (Ralph Doubell & Franz Stampfl)

Peter Norman – medalist, human rights activist and Australian 200m record

Peter Norman, silver medallist standing on the podium whilst Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise their arms in a 'Black Power' salute, Mexico City Olympics, 1968. Courtesy of BBC

The Mexico City Games took place months after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Peter Norman, silver medallist in the 200m at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, will be remembered for his support of the Afro-American sprinters and civil rights activists Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who won gold and bronze. As they turned to hear the American anthem they raised their fists in what was recognised as a 'Black Power' salute in support of Afro-American civil rights. 

The photograph of that moment was declared by LIFE magazine and Le Monde to be one of the 20 most influential images of the 20th century. {The other man on the podium)

Norman, an apprentice butcher from Melbourne, had learned to run in a pair of borrowed spikes. He was sympathetic to his competitors' protest, having grown up in a Salvation Army family. In support of the activists, Norman wore a human rights badge on his tracksuit. All three athletes wore Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) badges. Norman, a critic of Australia's White Australia Policy, expressed empathy with their ideals. (History Learning Site, Peter Norman)

Peter Norman crossing the line in the 200m for a silver medal at the Mexico City Olympics, 1968. Courtesy of BBC

Norman was reprimanded by his country's Olympic authorities and ostracised by the Australian media. He was not selected for the 1972 Olympics in Munich, despite being ranked 5 in the world, and having qualified 13 times over.  Consequently for the first time, Australia did not enter a sprinter in the Olympics.

In 2000, when Peter Norman found himself the only Australian Olympian to be excluded from making a VIP lap of honour at the Sydney Olympics, he was invited to stay in the USA quarters of the Olympic village. Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at Norman's funeral in 2006. (Mike Wise, Clenched Fists, Helping Hand)

Norman still holds the Australian 200m record 44 years on. (Australia's Legendary Olympic Runners)

Raelene Boyle – beautifully balanced

Raelene Boyle on the podium at the Brisbane Commonwealth Games, with her gold medal for the 400 m, 1982

Raelene Boyle was born and educated at Coburg High School in Melbourne. Boyle's 14 year international career began with a silver medal in the 200 metre sprint at the Mexico Olympics. The 1972 Munich Olympics was marred by violent shootings and allegations of drug cheating by competing athletes. Boyle was beaten twice into second place by an East German athlete who was later alleged to have been a drug cheat.

The rise of very strong eastern European female athletes, allegedly due to banned drug use, represented a large ideological difference between the healthy lifestyle choices promoted by Australian and other athletes in earlier years.

In further frustrating circumstances, at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, Boyle was disqualified in the 200 metres, after being ruled guilty of two false starts. Film footage later demonstrated that she hadn't jumped the gun in the first of them. Boyle was selected to compete in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow but eventually withdrew from the team after a long dispute within Australian sporting circles over whether to join the USA led boycott of the Games. At Commonwealth Games, Boyle won seven gold and two silver medals,

Jesse Owens, winner of four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics …offered the opinion: 'I have not seen a girl so beautifully balanced'. (Athletics Australia Hall of Fame, Raelene Boyle)

Post Montreal Olympics 1976 –

A new generation of athletes and a new approach to training emerged after the Montreal Olympics where no Australians won medals. There was a perspective of a crisis in Australian sport so the Australian Institute of Sport was established to lead the development of elite sport in Australia.

Robert De Castella – marathon man

Robert De Castella wins the Commonwealth Games Marathon, Edinburgh 1986

In 1981, Robert De Castella won the 25km national road title mid-year, then in November he ran his fastest ever 5,000m – 13.34.2 in Melbourne. The following month he won the Fukuoka Marathon in 2:08.18, just missing Alberto Salazar's 2:08.13 world best set two months earlier but bettering Derek Clayton's then Australian best of 2:08.34.

Later Salazar's New York time was found to be based on a course almost 500 metres short which made Rob the then fastest marathon runner of all time. At that time Fukuoka and Boston were the number one marathon races in the world. (Athletics Australia Hall of Fame, Robert De Castella)

Field Athletics 1978–2000

Off the track and on the field has seen a group of women athletes pursuing field events and winning medals at the Commonwealth Games. In 1978 Gael Mulhall was a Gold Medalist at Edmonton Commonwealth Games in shot put. In 1982 Suzanne Howland won gold at the Brisbane Commonwealth Games for javelin throw. At the same Games, Glynis Nunn won gold for the Heptathlon.

Nova Peris (left) and Rechelle Hawkes after the gold medal presentation at the Atlanta Olympics, 1996. Image by Trent Parke, courtesy of News.

In 1990, Jane Flemming won two gold medals at the Auckland Commonwealth Games for Long Jump and the Heptathlon.  At the next Commonwealth Games in Victoria 1994, Australia also won at long jump with Nicole Boegman winning gold. Louise McPaul won gold at Victoria for javelin throw.

In 1996, Nova Peris, an Indigenous woman from the Northern Territory, became the first Aboriginal Australian to win an Olympic gold medal as a representative in the Australian Women's Hockey team at Atlanta, Georgia. In 1997, she switched sports to athletics.

Women track winners 1988–2000

Debbie Flintoff-King started athletics as a hurdler, long jumper and pentathlete and after many world championships, she won a gold medal at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.

In 1998 at the Kuala Lumpur Commonwealth Games Kate Anderson won a gold medal in the 5000m race. Nova Peris won two gold medals for the 200m event and the 4 x 100m relay. Jane Saville won gold for her 10km Road Walk.

At the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games there was a silver medal for Michellie Jones who won silver in the Triathlon.

Cathy Freeman with the Aboriginal flag after winning gold for the 400 metres race, no source

Sydney 2000 Olympics – Cathy Freeman – a dream alive

In 2000, Cathy Freeman, an Indigenous sprint champion, was the standout Australian athlete at the Sydney 2000 Olympics. Freeman, born in Mackay, Queensland, was the first ever Aboriginal Commonwealth Games medalist. She won gold at age 16 in 1990, and gold in both the 200m and 400m in 1994.

In front of a crowd of 110,000 and with the eyes of the nation on her, Freeman won gold for the 400 metres race. On her right arm, visible to spectators, she had the words 'Cos I'm Free' tattooed mid-way down her arm. Freeman ran a lap of honour carrying the Aboriginal flag and the Australian flag.

This was just over a hundred years from when Kamilaroi man Charles Samuels was proclaimed the 'champion sprinter of the world' for his wins from 1887 to 1897 but had been denied his prize money.

Great Australians and great Australian qualities

The excitement of track and field athletics has not dimmed since the first Stawell Gift race in 1878. Whether it is the 12 seconds of the Stawell Gift or the many stages of a two to three hour marathon, Australians are keen to support the endeavours of athletes, marvelling at their skill and grace, appreciating their commitment to training and admiring their sheer determination.

At the same time, a quality of sportsmanship is encouraged. Humility is now seen alongside a celebration of a right to participate in all athletic sports – whether amateur or professional – as a human being in a natural and free form.

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References

  • Max Bonnell, How Many More Are Coming? The Short Life of Jack Marsh, Walla Walla Press, 2003
  • Edward S. Sears, Running Through the Ages, 2001
  • Colin Tatz, Aborigines in Sport (PDF 3.76MB), 1987

Last updated: 16 June 2013
Creators: Kathryn Wells

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