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Sporting greats

Australia reveres and treasures its sporting heroes.

Sporting greats have inspired and united Australians, who have shared, celebrated and rewarded their successes. Since the advent of television in the 1950s, Australians have embraced the opportunity to see their heroes live in action, and the achievements of Australian sportsmen and women are now closely followed by the media and, consequently, by their Australian fans. Many of our greatest sportsmen and women have been named Australian of the Year.

One of the most popular ways of sending support to a sportsman or sportswoman is to send a herogram - this is usually an email or fax that is delivered directly to a specific sporting event. In the tense arena that is international sporting competition, many sporting personalities have commented that they have been greatly encouraged and motivated by receiving so many messages of support from their fellow Australians.

Photograph of Don Bradman

Don Bradman
Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia

Australia's most revered sportsperson is Don Bradman (1908-2001). The cricketer from Bowral in New South Wales had a first-class cricket career that spanned 21 years. He retired in 1948 with a batting average of 99.94 runs.

Affectionately known as 'The Don', Bradman has been honoured with a long list of accolades, among them a knighthood (1947) and a Companion of the Order of Australia (1979). It is not only Bradman's prowess as a cricketer that is honoured and awarded, it is his humility and sportsmanship that is respected and admired by Australians past and present.

Bradman was not alone in his sportsmanship. Perhaps one of the greatest gestures of sportsmanship belongs to long-distance runner John Landy.

Landy was one of Australia's greatest athletes in the early 1950s. At the time, he was a serious contender for becoming the first person ever to run a mile in less than four minutes, and with the 1956 Melbourne Olympics looming, Landy was under immense pressure to create a new world record at the 1956 National Mile Championship.

A crowd of around 22,000 were watching when Ron Clarke and Landy began the third lap at a cracking pace, and it seemed as though a world record was about to fall. As the two of them turned into the corner, Clarke fell. The field of runners jumped over him.

Landy too leaped over the falling figure in front of him and his sharp spikes tore into Clarke's shoulder. In a spontaneous gesture that cost him that world record, Landy stopped running, bent down to help Clarke up, and apologised. Together, Clarke and Landy set off after the rest of the field, who were now some 55 metres ahead.

John Landy

John Landy, 1985
Image courtesy of the National Archives of Australia A6135; K2/85/53

More than 50 years later, Australian athletes still feel tremendous pressure when they are close to breaking a world record. But perhaps none greater than swimmer Ian Thorpe leading into the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Internationally touted as a one-off phenomenon, Thorpe was only 14 when he dived into the history books in 1997 as the youngest male swimmer ever to represent Australia. Two years later, at the Pan Pacific Championships in Sydney, Thorpe broke four world records in four days.

Notwithstanding Thorpe's achievements, it was Cathy Freeman who was the standout Australian athlete at the 2000 Olympics. After fulfilling the honour of being the Australian athlete chosen to light the Olympic cauldron, Cathy ran her third Olympic 400 metres race with the eyes of the nation upon her. Having won the two previous World Championships, she was favourite to win the gold medal, and in front of a crowd of 110,000, she fulfilled that expectation.

Today's athletes often refer to past outstanding Australian athletes as their inspiration and mentors. Following is a small selection from that extensive list:

Swimming legends
  • Dawn Fraser, MBE - the first woman to swim 100 metres in less than one minute; the only swimmer in the world to win the same event at three Olympic games in a row;
  • Shane Gould - the only athlete to hold every world freestyle record from 100m to 1500m simultaneously, and the only swimmer ever to win three Olympic Gold Medals in world record time;
  • Kieren Perkins - dual 1500m Olympic gold medal-winner; world champion; famous for winning the Atlanta Olympics 1500m in what became known as 'the swim of the century'; and,
  • Murray Rose - star of 1956 Melbourne Olympics; the most successful Australian male Olympian to date.
Tennis legends

Australia loves a sporting hero, and none more than an 'underdog' who achieves victory. Steven Bradbury, the unlikely gold medallist in speed skating at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002, is such a winner.

Bradbury won Australia's first gold medal in the Winter Games. As a four time Olympian he is celebrated in Australia, as much for his luck in reaching the final in first place, as for his skill as a speed skater.

Sporting greats in Australia are not limited to individuals. Teams are also celebrated for their success.

The 1948 Australian cricket team captained by Don Bradman, for example, became known as 'The Invincibles' for their unbeaten eight-month tour of England. This team is one of Australia's most cherished sporting legends.

The Australian public has lauded cricket players in Australia throughout the centuries. In May 2003 Australian Cricket Board Chief Executive Officer James Sutherland said of all Australian Test cricketers:

The 385 players who have worn the baggy green cap have collectively contributed to a sporting tradition that in turn, has helped develop our distinctive Australian national culture.

Australians flock to see their sporting heroes in tickertape parades in capital cities following major sporting events, to celebrate with athletes and share pride in nationhood with fellow countrymen. In Sydney, after the 2000 Paralympic Games, for example, thousands flocked to Sydney's streets to cheer the athletes on.

Premier of New South Wales, Bob Carr, told the athletes:

Your achievement went beyond medals. You held the rapt attention of all Australians. On this day of legend I salute you. Victors in the field of honour and the most successful sporting team in our history.

Sporting greats in Australia are not limited to people - one of the country's most legendary sporting heroes is the famous race horse Phar Lap, considered by many to be the greatest racehorse ever.

In racing during the Depression of the 1930s, Phar Lap stood out as unbeatable and was a bright light in the lives of a great many Australians. His death in 1932 was mourned by Australians from all walks of life, who had come to love the icon of their generation.

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