THE WEEK THAT WAS: Champion sprinter Betty Cuthbert’s death was a reminder that female athletes have always punched above their weight in Australia’s proud Olympic history but a surprisingly large number of them have had to take the bad times with the good, writes RON REED:
NATURALLY, a very long queue formed to pay tribute to athletics legend Betty Cuthbert who died at 79 this week. There were none more prominent than fellow Olympic sprinters Raelene Boyle and Cathy Freeman, who had more than that in common with her. Cuthbert, Boyle and Freeman are just three of a remarkably long list of Australian female Olympians whose lives have been scarred by significant misfortune, at best, and unmitigated tragedy at worst.
In no particular order
CUTHBERT contracted multiple sclerosis at a relatively young age – the first symptoms appeared in 1969 when she was only in her early forties – and spent most of the rest of her life in a wheelchair. She also lost her life savings to a conman and a home to a wild weather event. But she never became bitter and always had faith that God would one day allow her to get out of the chair and run again.
BOYLE fought breast cancer in 1996 and ovarian cancer in 2000 and 2001 and triumphed every time. She now works hard to raise awareness of breast cancer. A triple silver medallist at the Olympics, she also had the misfortune to be twice narrowly beaten by a drug cheat, East German Renate Stecher, in Munich in 1972 and was denied a fourth Olympics when she succumbed to political pressure to boycott Moscow 1980.
FREEMAN’S sister Anne-Marie, who was a long-term victim of cerebral palsy, died of an asthma attack not long after the 1990 Commonwealth Games, in which Cathy first emerged as an international star. She also lost her brother Norman in a road accident nine years ago.
DAWN FRASER, the greatest female swimmer of her era with four Olympic gold medals, was behind the wheel when a car crash claimed the life of her mother not long before the 1964 Olympics. She was told that her mother had a heart attack and the crash was not responsible for her death, but much later she learned otherwise.
SHIRLEY STRICKLAND-DELAHUNTY, a triple Olympic gold medallist (a record seven medals in all) on the track and a contemporary of Cuthbert, died in 2005 in circumstances so mysterious that her family, with whom she had been feuding, had to deny that she had committed suicide.
TRACY WICKHAM, a world-beater who, like Boyle, succumbed to pressure not to go to Moscow where she would have been favourite for two gold medals, has been through hell since her swimming career ended, losing her daughter Hannah at 19 to cancer and going through divorce, several surgeries and bouts of unemployment and financial insecurity. “I’ve always been a fighter – it’s not in my heart to give up,” she said the last time her problems were creating news.
DEBBIE FLINTOFF-KING famously won the 400m hurdles gold medal at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 only a fortnight after the sudden death of her sister Noeline.
BEV WHITFIELD, an Olympic champion swimmer, died of a heart attack at only 42.
KERRYN McCANN’s thrilling win in the marathon was the most memorable event of the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne but the mother of three young children died of breast cancer less than three years later.
For the golden girls of Australian sport, life has not always been easy. It’s almost as if there was a hoodoo.
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FOOTY FANS like to talk of the super drafts, such as the one in 2001 that yielded Luke Hodge, Luke Ball and Chris Judd in that order, as well as Sam Mitchell. Maybe it’s time we started talking about super exoduses at the other end of the season. Certainly 2017 is shaping as one of the most comprehensive losses of talent, experience and achievement in memory, made all the more obvious by what is now becoming a standard practice of announcing your exit a month or so in advance. It started with Hodge, with Mitchell, Matt Priddis, Nick Riewoldt, Scott Thompson, Matthew Boyd, Denis Armfield, Jobe Watson, Steve Johnson and Jesse White all following in rapid succession. There will be more big names, including Josh Gibson, possibly Bob Murphy and even Gary Ablett.
This beats last year’s list, which included Dane Swan, Matthew Pavlich, Corey Enright, Brent Harvey and Nick Dal Santo, but might not match 2007, which saw off James Hird, Nathan Buckley, Mark Riccuitto, Chris Grant, Glenn Archer, Anthony Koutifides and others. Michael Ramsay, of the West Australian newspaper, has gone to the trouble of quantifying exactly what is being lost as the current group grows and I hope he will excuse me spreading his work a little wider. He notes we are losing two Brownlow medallists (Mitchell and Priddis, three if you include Watson), three Norm Smith medallists (Johnson and Hodge twice), five club captains (Riewoldt, Mitchell, Watson, Hodge and Boyd), 12 premierships (Hodge and Mitchell 4, Johnson 3, Boyd) and 21 All-Australian selections (Riewoldt 5, Hodge 3, Johnson 3, Mitchell 3, Boyd 3, Watson 2, Thompson and Priddis 1).
Watson’s exit appears to have generated more interest than any of the others and its’ not hard to work out why – he has been central to the biggest controversy the game has ever experienced and there is still a significant school of thought that he and his team-mates were and will forever be drug cheats. The fact they were suspended for a year makes that difficult to dispute and yet my instincts insist that he was probably led by the nose into harm’s way rather than deliberately setting out to cheat, and ditto for the others. That might be a gullible or naïve view but for better or for worse that’s where I sit. One thing is for sure, of all the words spoken and written about the retirees, Watson takes the prize for the killer quote that has resonated in every single report. Asked how he felt about footy now, he said: “It’s a little bit like you’re in a relationship and a partner cheats on you … you might get back together but you probably don’t love her the same way.” Reckon there might be a few Essendon fans out there who would second that sentiment.
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THE word cheat has been bandied about a lot this week, mainly to do with American sprinter Justin Gatlin raining on Usain Bolt’s retirement parade by winning the 100m at the track and field worlds. But it also surfaced when Spanish cyclist Alberto Contador pulled the pin on his chequered career, announcing the forthcoming Vuelta in his own country would be his last race. Judged only by results, Contador, 34, is one of the greatest riders of the 21st century, second only to five-time Tour de France champion Miguel Indurain among his countrymen. He won seven grand tours, including Le Tour twice in 2007 and 2009, and is one of only six riders to have won all three three-week marathons. But in 2012 he was stripped of a third French title from 2010 and banned for two years for doping with clenbuterol, which he claimed was ingested through eating contaminated meat. It’s possible – Australian rider Michael Rogers was exonerated after a positive test for precisely that reason.
But I observed Contador at close quarters on several Tours during that period and was especially struck by the awkward, evasive manner in which he tried – and failed, in my view – to explain in media conferences why he should not be regarded as a serial cheat when other damning evidence surfaced. Again, instinct comes into play as well as the facts – and I have little doubt he was dirty. He emerged at the tail-end of the Lance Armstrong era and rode for the notorious Astana team. His results have tailed off and he wasn’t really a factor in this year’s Tour de France. He could well be riding clean now, which, I would suggest, probably makes him a bridge between the sport’s drug-ruined and much cleaner eras. If so at least he should be acknowledged, if not exactly applauded, for seeing the light – but who really knows? Regardless of what artificial help he might have been getting or not getting, he was a passionate performer who could really get the job done, so from that perspective it is unfortunate that his record will forever carry an asterisk.
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OBITUARIES don’t come much more complimentary than the tribute to Melbourne boxing identity Frank Quill on the World Boxing Council’s website this week. Quill, who has died at 76, was chairman of the WBC’s ranking committee but had also been president of the Oriental and Pacific Boxing Federation and the Australian Boxing Federation, overseeing dozens of major fights. He also worked as a journalist, which is how I made his acquaintance many years ago and found him to be a fine man who was endlessly helpful to anyone interested in the sport – and prodigiously knowledgeable about it. The WBC said he demonstrated “passion, intelligence, deep understanding, common sense and clarity of vision and was polite, loyal, kind and witty.” Melbourne’s leading promoter Brian Amatruda recalled that Quill often offered to waive the supervisor’s fee if he thought the promotion had been too expensive to run and would have to be told not to worry, it was all budgeted for. “Such was the man, he only had concern for others,” Amatruda said. Vale.
AFL PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Say what you like about the levels of accountability for the Essendon supplements saga, but the man in the middle – former captain, former Brownlow medallist JOBE WATSON – handled himself with dignity and class when the time came to announce his retirement.
WINNER OF THE WEEK
ENGLAND cricket captain JOE ROOT completed a 3-1 demolition of South Africa in his first campaign in the job, a very encouraging prelude to the upcoming Ashes blockbuster.
LOSER OF THE WEEK
YOU would never call the astute and engaging RODNEY EADE a loser in the pejorative sense but his coaching career has been brought to an end at the Gold Coast Suns without him ever getting a clean, clear run at a very difficult assignment – and, of course, without a premiership at any of the three clubs he coached. He deserved better
“Let me list the reasons why that is one of the stupidest statements I have ever read.” Former St Kilda star NATHAN BURKE is unimpressed with Patrick Dangerfield’s claim that if Lance Franklin had played in the Lockett-Dunstall era he would have kicked 2,000 goals, 700 more than Lockett’s record.
“I was picked on by Dad. I don’t know the reason because you don’t know what people are thinking when they’re on drugs but he had something against me. I don’t hold that against him. I love him and he loves me.” Young Port Adelaide emerging star SAM POWELL-PEPPER opens up about his troubled early family life.
“Until cheats are ineligible for major championships forever as part of their ban, results like Gatlin’s will keep happening.” And “Get out of the sport you filthy cheat.” Commentator and Olympian DAVID CULBERT is no fan of Usain Bolt’s conqueror in the 100m at the track world championships, Justin Gatlin.
“He is a great competitor. You have to be at your best against him. I really appreciate competing against him and he is a good person.” BOLT himself is in the minority who have no issues with Gatlin beating him.
“To be honest, I didn’t want to care any more. I fell into a heap of sad emotions, depression. I didn’t want to get out of bed. I was crying at training. I’m not an excuses person … so it’s a shit feeling.” Aussie 400m runner MORGAN MITCHELL looks back on the aftermath of a disappointing performance at the Olympics and wonders why it was no better at the worlds.
“I went through a pretty rough time. The reason I stayed in football is because I knew it brought so much joy to my life. I love competing and trying to be the best. So, I’m glad I stayed in, but it was a rough ride.” SAM KERR, star of the Matildas national soccer team, has also emerged from a dark place, but with better results than Mitchell.
“Carlton really made me proud with their support for indigenous rights. Refused to tag McDonald-Tipinwuti at any stage.” Blues supporter ADAM REED laments on Twitter the exciting young Bomber’s destruction of his team.
“The last three months has shown that if we play our best footy, we can pretty much match it with every side.” Sydney footballer SAM REID speaks for at least half of all players at about 10 clubs as the finals close in and the clichés go into overdrive.
“Even if we win a game it wasn’t even a win, it was a relief that we weren’t going to hear about our coach being potentially fired. When the club came out and said, ‘He has got until the end of the year,’ as it was always thought, the pressure is off. We are not playing in fear every week.” Collingwood captain SCOTT PENDLEBURY reveals that it hasn’t been only the players feeling the heat as the season sinks without much trace.
“It’s about ego and I’m not an ass-kisser like the guys around him. It’s all about status. He’s a scumbag. It’s all about who kisses his ass better.” Trash talking is par for the course in boxing but it usually comes from the opposition camp – this is UFC star Conor McGregor’s own sparring partner PAULIE MALIGNAGGI delivering a few choice barbs after walking away from the job.
Author: Ron Reed
RON REED has spent more than 50 years as a sportswriter or sports editor, mainly at The Herald and Herald Sun. He has covered just about every sport at local, national and international level, including multiple assignments at the Olympic and Commonwealth games, cricket tours, the Tour de France, America’s Cup yachting, tennis and golf majors and world title fights.