Edwin Flack won two ‘Gold Medals’ (actually Silver) for ‘Australia’ (a yet to be united country – save for a cricket team) at the 1896 Olympics in Athens in the 800 and 1500 Metre races. The results were reported in Australian newspapers two days after the events took place as the results were first telegraphed to London and then retransmitted to Australia. The reports in the Australian papers were generally brief which would have reflected the terse telegraphic reports on which they were based.
The three major newspapers in Melbourne in 1896 – The Age, The Argus and the Herald, all had a very similar coverage of international events, often using the same language. This would be as a result of receiving the same telegraphed reports about international news. Some of the major international stories in the papers during the April week of the Olympics concerned the recognition of Catholic Schools in Manitoba, an American diplomatic initiative to try and free a British boat held by Venezuela, and various British military campaigns in Africa trying to shore up their Empire. Cecil Rhodes was conducting military operations near Bulawayo and the British navy was dealing with pirates near Lagos. The same events were generally reported across the three papers.
Thus on Wednesday April 8 readers of the Argus, the Age and the Herald were informed that on Monday April 6 King George of Greece had opened the Olympics and Edwin Flack of Melbourne had won a heat of the 800 metres. As an aid to their readers it was explained that 800 Metres was about half a mile. The Age also provided some detail of Flack’s running career here in Melbourne from his time at Melbourne Grammar through to his InterColonial athletic exploits with the Melbourne Hare and Hounds club. Despite calling him Edward all week The Age provided its readers with the useful intelligence that
Flack is tall and spare, being fully 6 feet (182 cm) in height though under 11 stone (70 k) in weight. He runs with a free swinging gait, and has an enormously long stride. Despite his being so lightly muscled he possesses wonderful stamina …
The reason Flack attended the Games was because he was in London being trained as an accountant at Price Waterhouse where his father had trained prior to coming to Australia. After the Second World War Flack and Flack became part of the worldwide Price Waterhouse network of Accountants. While he arranged for leave from his job to attend the Olympics, Flack did not think he should tell his employers that he was going to Greece to participate in an Athletics carnival as they may have thought it frivolous.
Flack returned to Australia after his training as an accountant was completed in 1898 and landed in Perth, at least in part to check out business opportunities in the mining boom colony. In 1905 when Flack and Flack set up an office in Perth they were described as having been active in Perth since 1898. While in Perth he gave an interview to a well informed fan, Pegasus, and an article describing his memories of Athens was published in The Inquirer & Commercial News of27 May 1898.
Did you train for the ‘games?’ ‘No; but I was never in better form, and had rather an easy victory in the 800 metres race. In the 1500 metres race the task was not so easy, and I had some fear about beating the American. A representative of France led for a considerable distance. To make the pace stronger I had to join the French man, and we ran together for a lap or two. The vast gathering became furiously enthusiastic, and when the American, who had been following closely in our wake, got on terms in the last lap and the Frenchman dropped back, the real struggle began. It was a long straight, and a bitter fight for supremacy. The American failed to stay it out, and I won rather easily in the final 50 yards.’
Flack also entered the Marathon and was in front when he had to pull out about 2 miles from the finish. He had been a successful competitor over 10 mile races in Australia but had never run a Marathon distance previously. The Marathon was invented as a signature event for the revived Olympics and the Greek competitors had the experience of participating in a trial race a month before the Olympics.
‘This event created extraordinary interest, and the Greeks had set their hearts on winning it. On the previous night prayers were offered in the churches for the success of the Greek competitors, and one of their number (who proved the winner) visited the church on the morning of the race and prayed for victory. The streets were lined and the road between the two points was thronged for miles. Over 200,000 excited people had gathered along the route and at the finishing point. It was not money that created the interest. There was no betting, and the prizes were medals and diplomas and the much-coveted laurel. It was a feeling of patriotism which had seized all classes, rich and poor alike, of both sexes.’ Mr. Flack was in front two miles from Athens, but he collapsed at that point, and the powerful Greek struggled on gallantly to the end, and in the eyes of his compatriots immortalised himself by getting the judge’s verdict. When the Greek was proclaimed victor there was a deafening outburst of enthusiasm, which lasted for some minutes. ‘It was really,’ remarked Mr. Flack, ‘the best thing that could have happened. That victory had put the coping stone of success on the big gathering, and the representatives of other nations were treated with regal hospitality afterwards.’
There was an interesting comment piece published in The Argus on Saturday April 11 where the writer paired the revival of the Olympics with a production of Aristophanes’ comedy The Birds (in Greek) at Ormond College to reflect on the contributions of Ancient Greece to our culture, and then draw the conclusion that modern times were an improvement over the good old days, and that the modern Englishman represented the highest advance of civilisation.
The fact that a Victorian athlete has made his appearance in the Olympic Games and, apparently, romped over all competitors, is a circumstance calculated to soothe the pride of this community and yet to stir its sense of humour.
And not only its sense of humour, but also its civic pride and ambition:
.. the Olympic Games are to be an institution “on wheels.” The Olympic Games of 1900 will be at Paris, those of 1904 in New York (in St Louis, actually), of 1908 in London, and they may even in due course offer themselves to the delighted gaze of Melbourne.
Nevertheless, concluded the writer, a sense of perspective is required about the revived Olympic Games as being completely representative of the highest form of sporting endeavour in the year of our Lord 1896:
For ourselves, we vehemently suspect that an average Victorian football team, in good condition, would outrun, outjump, outkick, and outlast an equal number of athletes from the age of PHIDIAS or of PERICLES. The football season is coming fast, and when Melbourne and Essendon or Geelong and South contend together the green turf of the M.C.C. or of the S.M.C.C. will witness feats of skill and speed and endurance equal to anything ever seen under the shadow of Mount Olympus or on the banks of the sacred Alpheus.
A writer in the Herald on Wednesday had been only slightly less parochial when he concluded that
…an honest revival of the old Greek idea is a good thing, and if it eventuates in giving the shades of bygone heroes the chance of seeing a rattling good game of cricket so much the better. Even the fields of Elysium must get a trifle dull sometimes.
The news about Edwin Flack may have been slower getting here, we may not be able to hear the opinion of the man (let alone the woman) in the street, but you still get the idea from these comments in the papers that many average Melburnians in 1896 were happy to talk about sports in general, even some odd Greek variant of it. But in the end all this Olympic fandango could not compete with a decent game of Aussie Rules.
Edwin Flack gave up running on his return to Melbourne as an accountant and took up golf instead. He also owned a stud farm at Berwick and there is a bronze statue of him in the Main Street.