Lest we forget: Swimmer killed in battle embodied true Olympic spirit
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Lest we forget: Swimmer killed in battle embodied true Olympic spirit

As myriad facets of society become increasingly sophisticated, fewer things truly stand out. A hundred years from now, do you suppose anyone will be able to tell you who won last year’s Big Bash; the NRL premiership way, way back in 2007, or the speed rock climbing at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, the year after next? 

But another century on from this very day, the monumental story of the Australian Olympian, the freestyle swimmer Cecil Healy, must never be forgotten.

Tragic loss: Cecil Healy remains the only Australian Olympic champion to die in the theatre of war.

Tragic loss: Cecil Healy remains the only Australian Olympic champion to die in the theatre of war.

Photo: Supplied

Next Wednesday marks the 100th anniversary of Cecil Healy’s death. Cecil WHO you may ask? Yeah, I did too, until very recently ...

Let me start from the end: not long after 7am on 29 August 1918, Second Lieutenant Cecil Healy of the 19th Battalion, 5th Brigade, 2nd Division of the Australian Imperial Force was mortally wounded by German machine gun fire on a battlefield by the River Somme in northern France, in the dying days of the Great War.

Healy had enlisted with the AIF in 1915, not long after the ANZAC soldiers stormed the beaches at Gallipoli. Completing his officer training in Britain, he wrote to mates back in Australia, and with prescience, recorded that “I am prepared for the worst, and am quite resigned to my fate”.

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Killed on the Somme, Healy became the first Australian Olympic gold medallist to die in combat, aged just 36. To this day Healy remains, thankfully, the only Australian Olympic champion to die in the theatre of war.

In 1904, Healy swam the fastest ever time in the 100-yard freestyle, though the achievement wasn’t recognised due to him not swimming in the sharkskin neck-to-thigh woollen costumes of the day. A year later Healy equalled the world record in the 110-yard freestyle, at the Australian championships.

Turn of pace: Cecil Healy, far left, competes in the 100 yards championship.

Turn of pace: Cecil Healy, far left, competes in the 100 yards championship.

Photo: The Sydney Mail

Healy qualified to compete for Australia at the 1908 Olympic Games in London, but didn’t. The amateur sporting bodies in NSW didn’t have the financial resources or the motivation to assist his journey. Cecil didn’t have anywhere near the financial means to fund the trip himself. And that was that. No blow ups on Twitter; no appeals; no whingeing.

Now to this point, as far as sporting careers go, maybe nothing seems overly remarkable. Healy did finally make it to an Olympics, in Stockholm in 1912. He won a gold medal as a member of Australia’s 4 x 200 metre relay team. He’d climbed the Everest of his sport; but again, on its own, hardly the stuff of legend … but that’s not the whole story.

Godfather of surfing: Duke Kahanamoku and Cronulla Surf lifesaving members on Cronulla beach.

Godfather of surfing: Duke Kahanamoku and Cronulla Surf lifesaving members on Cronulla beach.

Photo: Supplied

The American Duke Kahanamoku – the “human fish” – was the standout favourite to win gold in the
100-metre freestyle at those Games in Sweden (Kahanamoku is also the godfather of world surfing,
but that’s a story for another time). Kahanamoku broke the world record in the first-round heats and
easily won his second-round race, leading into the semi-finals. He was slated to race in the second
semi.

Healy narrowly won the first of those semi-finals, and thus qualified for the Olympic final in the blue riband event. As time came for the second qualifying race, Kahanamoku and his two fellow
countrymen who’d also qualified for the race failed to show; they were duly disqualified. The German Kurt Bretting was forced by the officious judges to swim the race solo. Unsurprisingly, he won easily.

Exactly why Kahanamoku and his compatriots failed to show for the semi-final is debated to this day. But what’s not in any dispute is that with Kahanamoku out, Healy became the raging favourite for gold.

Cecil Healy: Second Lieutenant of the 19th Battalion, 5th Brigade, 2nd Division of the Australian Imperial Force.

Cecil Healy: Second Lieutenant of the 19th Battalion, 5th Brigade, 2nd Division of the Australian Imperial Force.

Photo: Supplied

Now, just about anyone in that position these days (and maybe then) would SHUT THE HELL UP. But
what’s most remarkable for mine, about the narrative of Cecil Healy, is that he did the bloody opposite. Healy doggedly and unrelentingly petitioned the governing International Swimming Jury to dispense with its strict reading of the rules, and instead permit Kahanamoku and his countrymen the opportunity to swim in a specially organised “third” semi-final, to be held days later.

The jury relented. Kahanamoku blitzed the semi, and went on to win Olympic gold thereafter.
Healy, he came in second.

At the medal ceremony, after the presentation Kahanamoku sought out Healy, lifted his right arm high in the sky and exclaimed “this is the true Olympic champion”.

Which, of course, Healy would certainly have been in the record books as well as in spirit, had
he not discharged what he perceived to be his own moral obligation to refuse to swim in the Olympic final unless he could race Kahanamoku. For gold without “The Duke” in the race would be tarnished metal.

Halcyon days: Cecil Healy with Manly Surf Club in 1911.

Halcyon days: Cecil Healy with Manly Surf Club in 1911.

Photo: Manly Library

And that, sports fans, is a story so remarkable I’d venture to say it’s quite unlikely to ever be repeated in this age of ME ME ME!!!

Underlining the sheer force of the all-devouring tsunami which is social media, the American
Psychological Association this week published research that concluded that over 60 percent of senior high school students in the 1970s read books, magazines or newspapers every single day; but that by 2016 only 16 percent reported doing the same thing.

Why? Because, more than four in five of the class of 2016 had their necks permanently craned
towards their phones, supping up fake news and alternate facts on Facebook and Twitter. We keep
heading that way, general elections will be conducted via Twitter.

Earlier this month acclaimed author Larry Writer and two-time Olympic champion John Devitt together published the first definitive biography of Cecil Healy and his extraordinary, if not tragically short life.

I for one, intend buying a copy for my son. If you have kids, I implore you to do likewise.
I sure as hell can’t force him to read it, however I do know how to change the wifi password if he
doesn’t.