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Edwin Flack

Our first Olympic champion
 

 

Edwin Flack, Australia's first Olympic championAustralia's first Olympic champion, Edwin Flack, owned and operated a dairy farm in Berwick and his final resting place is in the Berwick Cemetery.

 

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 Flack Statue in High Street, Berwick

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

 

Panathenaean Stadium, Athens 1896

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

 

Presentation ceremony, Athens 1896 Olympic Games

Day One, Opening Ceremony - Easter Monday, 6 April, 1896

Edwin won the first heat of the 800 metres in 2:10, beating Hungarian Nandor Dani. There were 14 competitors in the two heats. The second was won in 2:16.6 by Albin Lermusiaux of France. This runner withdrew from the final to save his energy for the coveted marathon event. It was the only event the Americans didn't contest.

Day Two - Easter Tuesday, 7 April, 1896

This was a great day for Australia. There were eight contestants in the 1500-metres event including two Greeks, but the favoured runner for the race was American, Arthur Blake. Although Frenchman Lermusiaux led early, in a diary entry by Flack following the race he stated:

"I made the pace all the way with the Yankee Blake waiting on me. As soon as I got into the final straight I went for all I was worth. He almost caught me in the first 30 yards, and we raced together for about the same distance, when to my relief, I felt that he was falling back and that I had him beaten. I finished up strong and fresh but he was quite done up."

Flack finished in 4:33.2, five metres ahead of Blake. Flack's victory was the first by a non- American in any track and field event at the Games.

Day Three - Wednesday, 8 April, 1896

Edwin Flack competed in the lawn tennis competitions and was among 15 other competitors assembled at the Temple of Olympeion. He lost in the first round of the singles to Akratopoulos of Greece after borrowing a racquet. He partnered his English friend and roommate, George Robertson (later Sir George Robertson, QC) to play doubles tennis even though he was to compete in the 800 metre final. They lost in the first round to a Greek pair who eventually reached but lost the final.

Better fortune awaited him in the 800-metre event against two other runners. Due to Lermusiaux's withdrawals, Flack, the "incomparable runner", won easily in 2:11.5 against a Hungarian and Greek runner.

At this stage two matters should be resolved. When Flack won his events the Union Jack flag was raised, and the British anthem, "God Save the Queen" was played. He had been nominated by the London Athletic Club and until 1936, the results listed Flack as a winner for Britain.

Day Four - Thursday, 9 April, 1896

Despite not having competed over a distance beyond 16 kilometres (10 miles) before, Flack was determined to try and win a third event.

The field was very strong with 25 runners, all but four were Greeks. The foreign runners were the placegetters: Flack, Blake, Lermusiaux and the Hungarian, Kellner.

The Greek nation was very keen to see one of their competitors win and large inducements were made. George Averoff offered a million dracmas and the hand of his daughter in marriage for any Greek runner who could win the marathon.

The race started at 2pm under difficult conditions, which meant that runners faced a gruelling test, running under a 'blazing sun'. The marathon field was led early by Lermusiaux with Flack second after 10 km. Flack gained the lead after 30 km, but was passed at the 34 km mark by the eventual winner, collapsing at the 37km mark.

The Greek victor, Spiridon Louis, was given a wonderful reception by the Greek people at the stadium. He was showered with jewellery and flowers as he headed for the finish line.

After collapsing, Flack was transported by carriage to the stadium and was visited by Prince Nicholas who ordered a drink of brandy eggnog to assist his recovery. It was of great coincidence that the aid provided by George Robertson to assist Flack in the marathon was V.W. Delves-Broughton - amazingly, a former student of Melbourne Grammar School.

Flack's consideration for the occasion is shown in a letter written to his family after the marathon:

"They tell me I have become the 'Lion of Athens'. I could not go down the street without having a small crowd of people following me on all sides. I could hear people talk Greek and have my name mentioned."

What the newspapers said about Edwin Flack

 

"Olympic Honours for our Runner"
 

Edwin Flack

Saturday, 11 April, 1896 -   Victorian athlete Edwin Flack has beaten the world's best athletes to win both the 800 and 1500-metre finals at the Olympic Games in Athens. The 23-year-old Victorian was awarded two silver medals, two crowns of wild olive branches, and two diplomas when he won the races at the first modern Olympics held in Greece earlier this month.

But Olympic officials were stumped as to which flag to raise for Mr Flack's award ceremony. After inadvertently raising the Austrian flag, it was finally replaced by the Union Jack.

He won the 800 metres in 2:11 and completed the 1500 metres in 4:33.2. Mr Flack's athletic prowess emerged when he was a student at Melbourne Grammar School. He has gone on to win many races in Victoria, New South Wales and New Zealand.

The six-foot tall (183cm) sprinter is regarded in athletic circles as having a huge stride and exceptional stamina. The son of Mr Joseph Flack of South Yarra, the young athlete left Melbourne to study in London in autumn last year.

 

 

After the Games, back to London, the stockbook and the journal

 

Edwin Flack and Panathenean Stadium, Athens

It is reported that Flack led the procession of competitors to mark the closing of the Games on 15 April, 1896. Each winner received a diploma, a silver medal and a crown of wild olives branches. The runners-up received only olive branches. No prizes were given for third place.

Interestingly, it was reported that when Herb Elliott won the 1500 metres at the Rome Olympic Games in 1960, a reporter told him he was Australia's first track and field gold medallist in that event. Elliott replied: "I am not the first. A fellow called Stack or something was the first."

The name Flack was used to denote "determination, courage and sportsmanship". Edwin Flack was feted by people including King George I and Princes Nicholas and George of Greece, who took him as their guest to churches and theatres and the like, with immense crowds applauding him in public.

Contemporaries called him Flack, the "Lion of Athens". When he departed Athens he received a farewell befitting Alexander the Great.

Edwin Flack left Athens on April 18, 1896, three days after the Olympic Games closing ceremony, and arrived in England a week later. He returned to work at Price, Waterhouse and Company on April 27, precisely one month after he began his leave.

What a month for a young person - going from arriving sick and weak in Athens after suffering sea-sickness on the voyage from London, then having wonderful victories in two events, followed by defeat in the marathon.

It is recorded that Flack received an excellent reception from the staff at Price, Waterhouse and Company. What tales and stories must have been passed on!

25 things you probably didn't know about Edwin Flack

 

Edwin Flack aboard his car in Berwick

Here's some interesting facts about our local Olympic champion:

  1. He joined his family's accounting firm in Australia in 1898, disembarking in Western Australia to open offices in Perth and Kalgoorlie.
      
  2. He joined the Australian Olympic Committee and was part of the first Australian delegation to attend an IOC Congress.
      
  3. He held a senior position with Old Melburnians from 1899 to 1924.
      
  4. Flack was a member of the Committee of Management of the Alfred Hospital, Melbourne from 1918 to 1934.
      
  5. Flack was a keen photographer. Price, Waterhouse and Company held several photographic albums but not a word has been written to describe the photographs. By place names and scenery it can be seen that Flack travelled throughout Japan and New Zealand.
      
  6. It is believed Flack did not compete upon his return to Australia but became a keen golfer.
     
  7. His family business, Flack & Flack was a highly regarded accountancy firm, which was absorbed by Price, Waterhouse and Company.
     
  8. He purchased a farm at Berwick, "Burnbank", establishing a Friesian stud farm and showing his cattle at the Royal Melbourne Show. He travelled from Melbourne at the weekends to stay in Berwick.
     
  9. During the week he lived in an apartment at Cliveden Mansions, a large building in East Melbourne on the current site of the Hilton Hotel.
     
  10. He drove two kilometres to work in Melbourne and always double-parked outside his office. It was the duty of a staff member to find "proper parking".
     
  11. He was a director of several large Australian companies, including Australia Iron and Steel; Howard Smith Ltd; and Robert Harper and Company.
     
  12. A very suitable bronze statue of Edwin Flack, which cost $22,000 was placed on the median strip of High Street, Berwick by the Edwin Flack Memorial Committee on 26 October, 1998. Our first Gold Medallist is truly a great "Bronze Aussie".
     
  13. He died on January 10, 1935, in a private hospital after an operation. The funeral service was held at the Fawkner Crematorium on January 12, 1935. His ashes are now interred at the Berwick Cemetery and are marked by a headstone.
     
  14. His name is perpetuated by the E.H. Flack Scholarship at Melbourne Grammar. This scholarship is for an all-round student from rural Australia who would not otherwise be able to attend Melbourne Grammar. It is worth about $22,000 a year.
     
  15. An Australian 45 postage stamp was printed to honour Flack in 1996, the Centenary of the Olympic Games.
     
  16. His Will made provision for the establishment of a charitable fund that distributed large sums to charity.
     
  17. Berwick Recreational Reserve was renamed in his honour as the Edwin Flack Reserve on 16 June, 1996.
     
  18. Participants in The Olympic Dream Fun Run on November 18, 1990, received the Edwin Flack Medal for participating.
     
  19. Edwin Flack Avenue is the street adjacent to Sydney's Olympic Stadium in Homebush Bay.
     
  20. Edwin Flack has been inducted into the Australian Sports and Athletics Australia's Hall of Fame.
     
  21. His statue was unveiled by another Australian running legend John Landy. Landy was also a 1500m Olympic runner competing in Melbourne in 1956 and Rome in 1960.
     
  22. A poem, Two Sprigs of Olive from Mount Olympus, was written in his honour.
     
  23. Edwin Flack was the founder and inaugural treasurer of the Henley on the Yarra Regatta.
     
  24. He was a member of the Melbourne Club, the Australia Club and a life member of Old Melbournians.
     
  25. The name of his stud farm "Burnbank" was used by a Mr R.A. Strachan of Hamilton, Victoria, for another Friesian stud.

Acknowledgments:
Gordon, H., (1994) Australia and the Olympic Games: An Official History, Queensland University Press, St Lucia.