|Our first Olympic champion|
Australia boasts the record of having been represented at every one of the modern summer Olympic Games. It is a debatable honour, for Australia did not send an official team to the first of the modern Games, at Athens in 1896. Indeed, Australia, as such, did not exist at that time. Federation was still five years away.
But like many of the other 12 nations at Athens, Australia was represented unofficially. The fine middle-distance runner Edwin Flack, a Melbourne accountant based in England and running under the auspices of the London Athletic Club, was Australia's lone competitor.
Flack was one of the stars of that inaugural sportsfest. On the first day of the athletics he won his heat of the 800m and a day later beat Arthur Blake of Boston by 5 metres in the 1500m. Then on the fourth day, Flack easily won the final of the 800m from two other starters.
Just a day later Flack tried for a treble, in the first ever marathon, even though he had never run a race more than 10 miles, less than half the marathon distance. He was in second place behind Frenchman Albin Lermusiaux, bronze medallist in the 1500m, for much of the race. After 32 kilometres, the Frenchman dropped out and Flack was left in the lead. But with just 4 kilometres to go, Flack suddenly collapsed. So delirious was he that, when a Greek spectator tried to help him, Flack punched him to the ground. A Greek shepherd, Spiridon Louis, went on to win the marathon from fellow-countrymen, Charilaos Vasilakos and Spiridon Belokas. But it was later discovered that Belokas had sneaked a lift in a carriage. He was disqualified and ostracised by the other athletes.
Back at the stadium, Crown Prince Nicolas of Greece took Flack under his wing and Flack spent the next four days recuperating under the watchful eye of the royal family.
What is little known is that Flack also competed in the tennis singles and doubles at the Athens Olympics. He was beaten in the first round of the singles by a Greek named Akratopoulos. In the doubles he was paired with an English friend George Robertson and similarly dispatched by a Greek duo who were eventual runners-up.
Flack's victories at Athens were said to have caught local officials by surprise. There are stories that they raised the Austrian flag and played the anthem at the victory ceremonies by mistake. But these stories are undoubtedly apocryphal. The organisers most certainly would have raised the Union Jack and played God Save the Queen.'
A long road to the Games
Edwin Harold "Teddy" Flack was born on November 5, 1873, in Islington, East London. His family migrated to Australia before he was five years old and attended Melbourne Grammar School from 1886 to 1892.
Edwin showed potential both in the classroom and on the sporting field. He competed in "inter club" events in Melbourne and was the foundation secretary of the Melbourne Hare and Hounds Athletic Club in 1892. (He joined two similarly names clubs when he ran in England prior to the Olympic Games).
He was an above-average athlete and won the Australasian Championship in November, 1893 (4min 44sec) and the Victorian mile and half-mile titles on the same afternoon in December, 1894.
He is credited with victories in various mile, four-mile and seven-mile events at club level between 1892 and 1894. He also ran in New Zealand but no results are available.
After he left school in 1892, Edwin was placed in his father's accountancy partnership, Davey, Flack & Co. and it was at the insistence of his father that he went to England to gain further training and study in accountancy. In 1895, Edwin's father, Joseph arranged with his former employer, Edwin Waterhouse, for Edwin to join Price Waterhouse in London, visiting the Buenos Aires office of the company en route to London.
No record of his accountancy progress is available, but he took a keen interest in athletics, joining three clubs: London Athletic club (which nominated him for the Games); the Hampton Court Hare and Hounds Club; and the Thames Hare and Hounds Club. In November, 1895, Flack won the Thames Hare and Hounds Challenge Cup over 4.75 miles. He gained valuable preparation for the Olympic Games in Athens by winning three of eight other races for the same club.
He was well aware of the plans for the 1896 Olympic Games in Athens and saved up leave in a plan to be in Athens as either a competitor or spectator, provided his employer (a man referred to in Flack's diary as JGF) would grant him time off.
Flack received a letter from a family friend and Victorian athletics administrator, Basil Parkinson, suggesting Flack's father was very willing for Edwin to go subject to him not spending more than £30 ($60). He booked a seat on a boat the day his employer granted him a month's leave, and he spent six days travelling to Greece by train and ship, arriving on April 1, 1896, five days before the Games were due to start.
These days athletes could fly between the two countries in about two hours.
Edwin suffered from sea-sickness during the journey and was very weak when he arrived. He hadn't bathed for days and found the trip totally unbearable.
He shared a house with two English friends, one was George Robertson who later finished 4th in the shot put and 5th in discus at the Games. They sometimes ate out at restaurants and the nearby Minerva Hotel. There was no Olympic Village for competitors in 1896!
The 1896 Olympic Games
The 1896 Olympic Games in Athens, the first Olympics of the "modern era", were revived by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, a Frenchman who wanted to promote athletic values based on Christian and amateur ideals and sought to have athletes competing for the honour of competition.
It was an ancient tradition de Coubertin was reviving - it had been 1503 years since the previous Games.
The Olympics were held at the Panathenean Stadium in Athens, which was financed by Greek Merchant, George Averoff who donated 920,000 drachmas. The opening ceremony, on Easter Monday, 6 April 1896, drew a crowd of almost 80,000.
There were 311 athletes present, representing 13 countries. Greece, naturally, was very strongly represented with 230 contestants.
Edwin was very upset that people had to pay to see the opening ceremony. After seeing that half of those attending had been locked outside despite sufficient room in the stadium. He believed all people should have had the right to attend the opening ceremony without charge.
Very few photographs are available, but Edwin competed in his Melbourne Grammar Sports uniform. He did not wear Australia's green and gold colours - after all, Federation was still five years away.
The track for running events was very unusually shaped having a long straight and very tight bends. Estimates made with the help of the Greek Studies faculty at RMIT University are that the track had two straights of 160 metres each, with 35-metre bends at either end of the stadium. One lap equalled 390 metres.
It was impossible to run the 200-metre event as runners fell over at the bends, making sprinting almost hazardous.
A standard track today has straights of 80 metres and bends of 120 metres, making one lap 400 metres. As a further interesting factor, running events were run in a clockwise direction instead of today's usual anti-clockwise way.
The track was slow and rough, made with loose cinders. Again, it must be stated that the turns were ridiculously sharp. The scene is thus set for our Melbourne runner to join in the competitions.
|Flack's four days of glory|
|After the Games, back to London, the stockbook and the journal|
|25 things you probably didn't know about Edwin Flack|