Every year hundreds of young Australian track and field athletes put their lives on hold to venture overseas in the winter months, mainly to America and Europe, in search of the best competition and personal best performances. This is not a remarkable occurrence. Indeed, even in a sport with few financial rewards, such commitment is mandatory to make it into a World Championship or Olympic team.
In all the young Australian athletes making the trip across the other side of the world, in search of their athletic dreams, there is touch of the adventure and courage—a touch of the Edwin Flack spirit.
A young accountant working in London at the time, Edwin Flack set his sights on competing at the first modern Olympics to be held in Athens in 1896. He made it to Athens and competing in his Old Melburnian Athletics Club singlet, Flack won the inaugural 800 metre and 1500 metre track races. He also competed in the Marathon, which he did not finish due to exhaustion. He even found time to pair up with a British gentleman, his friend George Robertson, for a spot of doubles tennis! The pair won a bronze medal, making it into the semi-final of the tournament, where they were defeated by a Greece pair.
That Australia owes its first gold medal and its unbroken record of participation at the modern games to the carefree, adventurous attitude of one Edwin Flack from Berwick, Victoria, I think says a lot about the Australian character.
Peter Sweeney’s 2004 biography of Edwin Flack (“The Lion of Athens”) reveals a confident, intelligent and charming young man with a “can-do” attitude. The people of Athens lavished him with praise for his running ability. Upon pulling out of the Men’s Marathon, Prince Nicolas invited Flack back to the royal palace for a spot of brandy and egg-nog (so the story goes)!
Unbeknown to the Australian people and unaware of the true significance of the occasion himself, Flack etched Australia onto the Olympic map with his stellar performances in 1896 Games.
What is great about Flack’s story is his naivety. Blissfully unaware (and unperturbed) by the abilities of his fellow competitors, such as 800 metres favourite Arthur Blake of the US, Flack, in the colloquial Australian way “just gave it a crack”. His nonchalant approach worked, winning two gold medals.
The marathon turned out to be a bridge too far. Flack withdrew at approximately 32 kilometres, joining the majority of competitor who did not finish the arduous race.
So what can we take away from the Flack story?
First, adopting the “can-do” Australian attitude is a great asset in international competition. In this age of modern technology we tended to be swamped with information— information about our competitors, information about the minutiae of our physical make-up and performances and information about the psychology of competing.
While often advantageous, too much information can sometimes overcomplicate what is a pretty simple business. In exploring the seemingly endless information about our performances and those of our competitors, we tend to limit our thinking on what is possible.
There is something inherently appealing about seeing raw athletic talent uncovered. The likes of Sally McLellan, Dani Samuels, Mitchell Watt and Jeff Riseley are phenomenally talented athletes. In just the last two years, these four young athletes and many others have made their mark of the world athletics scene. But there is something more to their success than just talent. It’s attitude.
They have shown the importance of having the right attitude, of taking things in your stride and getting on with the job, and of being level-headed in the face of both disappointment and glory.
Australia needs more young athletes heading overseas, armed with the Edwin Flack spirit. The” can-do” attitude is quintessentially Australian as is the spirit of adventure. If you’re looking for some inspiration in your athletic endeavours, look no further than the story of Australia’s first Olympian, Edwin Flack.
N.B. The book I refer to is Edwin Flack, The Lion of Athens by Peter Sweeney, West Leederville, Perth (2004)