Lifestyle

They had the chance to distil the fortnight into its most perfect essence – and blew it

by
April 16, 2018

Riverine Herald editor ANDREW MOLE has covered sport from the Olympics to little athletics, from district baseball to the AFL, and in 40-plus years on the job has battled to identify more than a handful of people he believes represent the true spirit of the game.

THERE has been much written about the Ball Tampering Three.

Their shortcomings, their venality, their remorse (real or otherwise) and the sad news about the small fortunes they may, or may not, have forfeited.

I don’t care to hear about any of it, don’t care about them — and won’t have their pictures on this page.

For me sport is not just the field of victory, it is, at its purest, the best a human can be.

My sporting heroes, in no particular order, are as follows:

John Stephen Akhwari

Peter Norman

John Landy

Luz Long

They have been my benchmark for most of my life.

It is a seriously tough list to get on but recently I was moved to add Nikki Hamblin and Abbey D’Agostino.

Jim and Derek Redmond haven’t made the list but it was a split decision.

And now, for only the second time this millennium, I have inducted another entry.

Eloise Wellings, Madeline Hills and Celia Sullohern.

I know it’s almost a whole crowd but it has been worth the wait.

So where do my heroes fit in your Top 10?

Now be honest, could you even tell me who most of mine are?

Let’s take a punt here and assume you recognise Norman and Landy but I would never assume you have any inkling why they are there.

Of all the people on my list I only met Landy.

And while I was around in 1956 when he ran the mile in the Australian nationals it would be years before I was made aware of what happened that day.

Landy was the second human to run a sub four minute mile but his moment for all time came on the track in Australia when he saw rising junior superstar Ron Clarke felled after being clipped on the ankle.

Landy stopped and doubled back to make sure Clarke was OK, got him back on his feet and waited until he was running again before he resumed his own race.

You could not have scripted the final two laps as Landy ate up the deficit and surged to the front to win the title.

A title that meant nothing, I could not tell you who had won in 1955 or 1957 – or 2017 or even ’18. And don’t really care.

But will never forget the first time I saw the race in a documentary and saw what a true sportsman does.

John Stephen Akhwari and Peter Norman made 1968 the biggest year on my list.

Who could forget Norman – the fastest white man in the world over 200m – splitting the Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos.

We got to see the race on grainy black and white TV.

But Norman’s shining moment was still to come.

As the three men turned towards the flags for the US anthem after receiving their medals the Americans raised black-gloved fists in a Black Power salute.

Norman was wearing a small badge that read: Olympic Project for Human Rights. It was a fledgling organisation opposed to racism in sport.

In true amateur sporting administration style the Australian Olympic Committee shunned Norman; he never raced for Australia again.

Fifty years ago his time in Mexico City was 20.26 seconds – the Australian and Commonwealth record.

In 2018 the Australian record for the 200 is still 20.26, but Norman was never allowed to run again. For wearing a badge.

In 2000 when Norman was not invited to the Sydney Olympics as soon as the US delegation discovered the snub the US Olympic Committee arranged to fly him to Sydney to be part of its delegation.

He was also invited to the birthday party of 200m and 400m gold medallist Michael Johnson; where he was to be the guest of honor. Johnson took his hand, hugged him and declared Norman was one of his biggest heroes.

In 2006 when Peter Norman died, Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave his eulogy and were pallbearers.

At the other end of the 1968 scale, the marathon, Tanzania was represented by John Stephen Akhwari.

He was given no hope, and for good reason. He was merely a good runner.

But even his most remote of chances was gone when he succumbed to cramps, possibly a side effect of the high altitude Olympics. And then it went totally pear shaped as he fell in a melee of runners jockeying for position.

He was badly cut, smashed his shoulder into the footpath and dislocated a knee.

His race was over; in fact 18 of the 75 starters had pulled out, or soon would.

Officials thought he should go to hospital; Akhwari asked them to treat his injuries and then started running.

Well, not really running. It varied between an agonising trot and a broken down stagger but more than an hour after the winner, Akhwari approached the finish line.

When he entered the stadium he had broken into a shuffle and thousands cheered him on; had waited after hearing of this unknown’s lonely struggle to finish what he had started.

Asked why he put himself through that for nothing he replied: “My country did not send me 5000 miles to start the race. They sent me 5000 miles to finish the race”.

Akhwari soon disappeared into the mists of time but not from my list.

So Luz Long.

He was a German sprinter and long jumper – in 1936 he was the European long jump champion.

It was also the year Nazi Germany hosted the Olympics and a black man from America came to run the 100m, 200m, 4 x 100m and do the long jump.

His name was Jesse Owens and he won them all.

But in the long jump qualifiers he had fouled his first two attempts.

At which point Long walked over and offered some quiet advice on how to adjust his run-up to make the qualifying distance.

Owens’ next jump was a success and then he launched himself into legend winning the gold medal to complete his set of four.

Long, now long forgotten, received the silver medal.

“You can melt down all the medals and cups I have,” Owens would later say. “And they wouldn’t be plating on the 24 carat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment.”

In 2016 Kiwi Nikki Hamblin and American Abbey D’Agostino collided with 2000m to run in their 5000m heat at Rio.

The American got up first and tried to help Hamblin to her feet – before collapsing herself because of her leg injury.

Hamblin then pulled the American to her feet and the pair ran most of the rest of the race together before embracing on the finish line.

They were reinstated in the final but D’Agostino was too injured to start – she had torn her ACL.

Hamblin finished 17th.

Both received the Olympic Fair Play Award.

As Hamblin put it: “She helped me first and I tried to help her, but she was pretty bad – that girl is the Olympic spirit right there”.

Derek Redmond and his father Jim just missed my list – and not because they are Poms.

Redmond was in a heat of the 400m at Barcelona in 1992 when he tore his hamstring.

He got up and tried to do an Akhwari and finish what he started.

His pain was too much for dad, who leapt out of the stands, hip and shouldered officials, and putting his arm around his boy got him to the finish line.

The crowd roared.

The amateur officials stamped ‘disqualified’ in the record books.

Now Wellings, Hills and Sullohern are on the list.

Please tell me you recognise these names.

It only happened last week.

They were our runners in the 10,000m at the Gold Coast Games and finished where most white runners do over these distances – somewhere off in the distance.

But what they did next is what elevated them from also rans to superstars.

For more than five long minutes they alone hung around and waited for Lesotho’s Lineo Chaka to finish the run – stone cold last.

Without any fanfare, without looking for the cameras, the trio walked over and each gave her a hug.

Then they walked off, almost certainly beginning their own journeys into the mists of time.

Australians love the Commonwealth Games. Because we win.

Commentators get lost in paroxysms of gloating, toting up the count of gold medals.

Yet when they had the chance to distil the two weeks into its most perfect essence they did, by and large, blow it.

In 2022 get yourself along to a quiz night just before the Birmingham Games begin and put the trio’s names in a question and see who can identify them.

But they are on my list.

None of the three had any need to do it, other than it seemed like the right thing to do.

The same goes for everyone on my list.

They did not act as competitors, as rivals. They chose to act as humans. As friends.

This brings me back to where I started.

Australian cricketers.

In the semifinal of the 2003 World Cup Adam Gilchrist was given not out to an appeal early in his innings.

He turned around and walked.

As he would throughout his illustrious career.

Because he believed it was the right thing to do.

I don’t ever want to know what he said to opposition players when he was behind the stumps, or when he was batting.

I want to keep that picture in my mind.

In an era when we all seem more interested in what a player earns than what a player is worth, what is the latest scandal not who could be considered a Samaritan or saint, walking is the last great gesture that is solely the decision of the batsman.

Gilchrist doesn’t need to talk the talk; he has spoken quite clearly with his feet. The only reason he is not on the list is the same reason drug cheats in many professional sports have asterisks next to their achievements.

I don’t know if Gilchrist was that good in every aspect of his sporting career – and don’t want to.

There is a message there for many beyond the Ball Tampering Three.

A message for you and me.

Play the game, don’t let the game play you, it makes it much easier to sleep at night.

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