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Australia’s Olympic history is full of triumphant moments. But things don’t always go according to plan.
BATON HEARTBREAK IN HELSINKI
At the final baton change in the women’s 4x100m relay in Helsinki in 1952, the Australian team had the gold medal at their mercy. They had already set a world record in their heat, and now the world’s fastest woman Marjorie Jackson had the baton safely in her hand.
“I was floating on air because I knew this was ours,” Jackson recalled later.
As previous runner Winsome Cripps slowed, her knee happened to collide with Jackson’s arm at the bottom of her stroke. The baton was knocked out.
Jackson, who had earlier won the individual sprint double, somehow managed to catch it as it bounced up off the track, but by then had lost crucial momentum. The race was over.
The United States took gold, and although the Australians a week later beat them comprehensively in a new world record time, the gold medals were gone forever.
Jackson and 80m hurdle gold medallist Shirley Strickland were inconsolable – not so much for themselves as they had already won individual events, but for team mates Cripps and Verna Johnson, who lost their only chance of an Olympic medal.
RUNNING ON EMPTY
Ron Clarke went to the 1968 Mexico Olympics as the world record-holder in both the 5,000m and 10,000m.
On paper he was a strong favourite, but Clarke was always uncertain how he would handle the oxygen-sparse air more than two kilometres above sea level.
He ran his heart out – almost literally.
With about 600m to go in the 10,000m Clarke was challenging for the lead when the oxygen shortage hit him like a ton of bricks.
According to contemporary reports he turned a pale grey and staggered to the line virtually unconscious, whereupon he collapsed.
He had finished sixth in a time more than two minutes slower than his world mark.
Australian team doctor Bryan Corrigan charged from his seat in the stands to administer oxygen while Clarke remained unconscious for more than 10 minutes.
Somehow Clarke recovered sufficiently to run in the 5,000m three days later, and trailed in fifth behind runners who all lived or trained at high altitude.
“I was frankly worried that he might die,” Corrigan said later. “What we didn’t – couldn’t – realise then was that he suffered heart damage, rupturing a valve controlling the heart muscle.”
Clarke, who set 17 world records, never won an Olympic gold medal.
When an Australian team of 184 athletes set off for the Montreal Olympics in 1976, there were predictions they would return home with 30 or more medals.
They came home with five – none of them gold.
There were two bronze medals in sailing (one of them to a young Finn sailor called John Bertrand – later to become the hero of the 1983 America’s Cup triumph), and a bronze to the equestrian eventing team.
There was disaster on the track, where Raelene Boyle was disqualified from the 200m final for making two false starts, the first of them highly dubious.
The men’s hockey team were overwhelming favourites but were beaten 1-0 by lowly New Zealand in the final.
But the biggest disappointment was the defeat of Steve Holland.
Holland had broken 12 world records when he arrived in Montreal and broke another one in the 1500m freestyle final. Unfortunately for him, two others broke it by more.
The young Queenslander abandoned his normal tactic of going out hard and when it came to the final sprint, Americans Brian Goodell and Bobbie Hackett were too good for him.
Holland, who was made to feel like a failure, never swam competitively again.
But it was a watershed Olympics that provided the impetus for Australia to become the slick, medal-winning sports factory that it now is, thanks in great part to the subsequent establishment of the Australian Institute of Sport.
GROUNDS FOR PROTEST
Australia’s Alex Watson was one of 10 athletes who returned positive drug tests at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
But unlike Ben Johnson, there is substantial doubt that he intended to cheat.
Watson was tested after the fencing day of the modern pentathlon, in which he had bouts against 63 other competitors in 12 hours.
The Cokes and coffees Watson gulped down to combat fatigue put his caffeine level to a mark thought only attainable with a deliberate mega-dose.
Watson was given an hour to pack his bags and was flown out of Korea in disgrace as the first – and so far only – Australian to be kicked out of an Olympic Games for a doping offence.
Two years later pharmacology expert Professor Donald Birkett told a senate hearing in Canberra that as few as four cups of coffee could produce blood caffeine levels similar to those Watson had returned.
Watson, who had initially been banned for 10 years, served a two year ban and returned to compete in his fourth Olympics in Barcelona in 1992, and was competition manager for modern pentathlon at the Sydney 2000 Games.
“I knew in my heart that I had done nothing wrong,” he said later.
Although the IOC never formally cleared Watson or offered an apology, caffeine has now been removed from the WADA list of prohibited substances.
Watson’s ordeal had one other side effect. It convinced the AOC of the need to appoint a team advocate to help athletes deal with similar issues in the future.
MANY A SLIP
Shane Kelly’s time had come in Atlanta in 1996.
As a 20-year-old he had won silver in the 1km time trial in Barcelona four years earlier. Now for the gold.
He was the clear favourite and with good reason – the previous year he had beaten Frenchman Florian Rousseau in the world championships, setting a world record in the process.
Rousseau was last but one of the 20 finalists to pelt around Atlanta’s Stone Mountain velodrome, and duly put himself in the lead.
But his time was more than two seconds outside Kelly’s world record, and the Australian was the last rider.
Kelly settled himself, and at the start signal, pushed down hard on his left leg.
Somehow, a leather strap binding his foot to the pedal slipped, and his foot came out of the mountings.
Kelly was stranded at the start line like a bird with a broken wing.
The Olympics are full of heartbreaks, but this seemed especially cruel on Kelly, who responded with a mixture of dignity and sportsmanship that earned him universal respect.
Now aged 36 he comes to his fifth Olympics, with a silver, two bronzes and two fourths to his name. It will be his last chance to win gold.
LYING DOWN ON THE JOB
Forget the 17 Australian gold medallists in Athens in 2004. For sheer celebrity, no one came near a young woman who failed to finish her race.
With about 600m to go in the women’s eight final, Sally Robbins stopped rowing and lay backwards in her seat. With her crewmates screaming at her to pick up her oar, she remained there for the rest of the race and the crew finished last.
The Lay Down Sally affair divided the country between those who thought she was a quitter who had let down her mates, and those who thought she had rowed herself to exhaustion and deserved sympathy.
Australia’s sports editors devoted hectares of newsprint to the story, which they later voted the biggest of the year.
Daunted, perhaps, but not deterred, Robbins returned four years on to try to qualify for the Beijing Olympics as a sculler.
The soap opera ran throughout the trials until she was finally eliminated from the squad through lack of form.