The cry “man overboard” made Australia’s Olympic team members rush to the rails of the passenger liner sailing across the Indian Ocean enroute to France for the Paris 1924 Games.
Tommy Adrian, the personal coach and mentor of 16-year-old Manly distance swimming sensation and world record holder Andrew Boy Charlton, had inexplicably jumped overboard off the top deck of the RMS Ormonde, a repurposed World War I troop carrier.
Charlton had to be physically restrained by three teammates to stop him diving in to save Adrian, a survivor from the bitter Western Front battles in the Great War.
Adrian was suffering from what’s now recognised as post traumatic stress disorder and was prone to massive mood swings and depression.
Fellow passengers flung lifebelts into the ocean as the ship mounted a dramatic rescue, doing a swift, wide circle to double back and pluck Adrian from the ocean in a lifeboat. Being a strong swimmer, Adrian treaded water for 30 minutes until help arrived.
Not wanting to court any more chaos, the Captain confined Adrian to quarters for the rest of the troubled voyage.
Time was now of the essence. The ship was running behind schedule due to a broken tail shaft damaged by the strain of the single-propeller circle back to save Adrian.
So the 37-strong, all-male Australian team disembarked at Toulon, France, instead of Tilbury in Essex England, and took the long 840km journey to Paris by train.
This dramatic start to what was a hugely successful Olympic campaign that put Australia on the world map, was faithfully recorded by the nation’s first Olympic decathlete Dennis Duigan, a 21-year-old stock agent from Melbourne.
“We stepped off the boat at Toulon feeling very fit and ready to settle down to hard track work,” wrote Duigan, the son of Lieutenant Colonel Harry McLeod Duigan, a decorated soldier, Melbourne solicitor and sportsman.
“The French Olympic team invited the Australians to train with them. This was a great relief to us as there were 45 nations competing in Paris in 1924 and it was exceedingly difficult to train in public at the Olympic training track.”
The unfamiliar French food was playing havoc with Australian stomachs to the extent that the tourists abandoned their hotel fare in favour of a “little English tearoom” where they feasted on “juicy steaks and fresh fruit”.
The change in diet worked wonders especially for the three gold medallists who all came from the northern Sydney beach haven of Manly – Andrew Boy Charlton (1500m freestyle), Nick Winters (triple jump) and Dick Eve (high dive).
Charlton scored the trifecta, also winning silver as part of the 200m freestyle relay team plus bronze in the 400m freestyle. Fellow distance freestyle champion Frank Beaurepaire, a three-time Olympian with two silver and two bronze medals from London (1908) and Antwerp (1920), rounded out Australia’s medal haul of three gold, one silver and two bronze, by coming third behind Charlton in the 1500m.
The 1924 Paris Olympics became known as the Hollywood Games famous for launching the movie career of America’s triple freestyle champion Johnny Weissmuller, who went on to star as Tarzan and Jungle Jim in more than a dozen Hollywood films.
The Games also immortalised British track legends Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell who won the 100m and the 400m respectively as portrayed in the multiple Oscar-winning film “Chariots of Fire”.
And let’s not forget the Flying Finn Paavo Nurmi who won five gold medals including the 1500m and 5,000m held only an hour apart. Nurmi also won the individual cross country and two team gold medals in the 3000m and cross country relays.
Duigan’s Olympics started splendidly but were marred by the unfamiliar cinder tracks. He finished 10th in the one-day pentathlon and was faring well in the decathlon two days later before succumbing to injury.
“It is very important that the length of spikes be greatly shorter for most events run on cinder tracks, as compared with grass tracks, especially the jumps. Not having my spikes shortened for the high jump I tore my ankle ligaments,” Duigan wrote.
“I had not reckoned with the fact that a cinder track is much harder than turf. During the night my foot became worse, despite the efforts of a masseur and every conceivable electrical gadget, and although I started the next day in the final series of five events, I had to retire after clouting the hurdles with the same ankle.”
Despite this bitter disappointment Duigan described his Olympics as an “invaluable” adventure.
“There is a good deal more to the Olympic Games than one might first imagine and I was very thankful for the chance given to me to meet so many notable persons, see such interesting sights and above all to see collected for the sake of sport so many fine men, 3000 in all from 45 nations. I shall never forget the parade before the opening of the Games as long as I live.”
After the French President declared the Games open in front of 100,000 spectators, Duigan said “pandemonium broke loose”. “Twenty airplanes came flying low overhead, artillery salvos were fired at intervals,” Duigan reported. “Then 5000 pigeons were released, bearing messages to all parts of France proclaiming that the Olympic Games had started.”
For a young country hungry for heroes and international status, the 1924 Games established Australia’s reputation as a country that fights above its weight in world sport.
A headline in The Age newspaper published on July 28, a day after the Games ended, declared Australia “Left Paris with a Great Name”. Former Prime Minister Sir Joseph Cook, who was the UK High Commissioner during the Games, declared “the Olympic team has done more than anything to put Australia on the map”.
Proud Australian Olympic Federation president James Taylor summed up the success saying: “had we deliberately exploited the 1924 Olympic Games as an Australian publicity campaign, we could not have popularised internationally our country more than we did.”
Louise Evans is an award-winning journalist who has worked around Australia and the world as a reporter, foreign correspondent, editor and media executive for media platforms including The Sydney Morning Herald (eight years), The Australian (11 years) and Australian Associated Press (six years in London, Beijing and Sydney).
A women sports’ pioneer, Louise was the first female sports journalist employed by The Sydney Morning Herald and the first female sports editor at The Australian. Louise went on to work at six Olympic Games, six Commonwealth Games and numerous world sporting championships and grand slam tennis events.
Louise is the Founding Editor of AAP FactCheck, the Creator of #WISPAA – Women in Sport Photo Action Awards and national touring Exhibition and the author and producer of the Passage to Pusan book, documentary and exhibition.
In 2019 she was awarded the Order of Australia Medal (OAM) Queen’s Honour for services to the media and sport and named an Australian Financial Review Top 100 Woman of Influence for services to the arts, culture and sport.
In 2020 she won a NSW Volunteer of the Year Award plus the NSW Government Community Service Award for her women-in-sport advocacy work.