Saturday, August 03, 2013
“Over 200,000 excited people had gathered along the roads and at the finishing point. It was not money that created the interest. There was no betting, and the prizes were medals, diplomas and the much coveted laurel. It was a feeling of patriotism which had seized all classes, rich and poor alike, and both sexes. Louis’ victory was the best thing that could have happened. It put the coping stone of success on the gathering, and the representatives of other nations were treated with regal hospitality afterwards” Edwin Flack.
As is evidenced by the above, there is much to be said about the exemplary sportsmanship displayed by Australia’s first Olympian. To state that one’s competitor’s victory is the optimal outcome, and this despite the fact that he had no experience of the running track, is the height of chivalry, regardless of whether, in his exhaustion-induced delirium while running the 1896 marathon, Flack punched to the ground, a Greek spectator who tried to help him. Flack was subsequently removed from the course and tended to by no less a personage than Prince Nicholas of Greece himself.
Flack praised the Greeks sportsmanship and the work of the Games officials and the support given by the Greek royal family to the 1896 Games. Everything, he said, had been carried out perfectly, and the crowd’s appreciation of his own victory could not have been more generous. He had as the historian Gilchrist records, “received unusual attention from Greek royalty, after the marathon race, Prince Nicholas had come to the dressing room and given him a drink of egg beaten up in brandy the prices had given him an ancient Greek coin as a personal memento; and for some days he had virtually been a royal guest, accompanying the royal family to church and on other occasions.”
The Australian media was decidedly dispossessed of the sporting spirit when regarding the ultimate victory of the shepherd Spyridon Louis over Flack and others in the marathon, with the Sydney Bulletin commenting:
“[Flack’s] defeat by a modern Matoosekos Greek at the Olympic Games was a severe blow to his professional pride, which finally fell to pieces when King George of Greece shook his hand in vigorous sympathy. The Swanston Street fruit-sellers were at last avenged.”
The City of Casey, on the other hand, where Flack eventually retired to breed Friesan cattle, has recently sought to honour Spiridon Louis, the first winner of the modern Marathon, by erecting a statue to him on High Street, Berwick. This is exciting news. While this is not the first statue of Spridon Louis to be erected in Australia, for one already exists in the Sydney suburb of Brighton Le Sands, that particular statue could represent a classical, idealised portrait of any athlete, not the foustanella clad Louis that the world came to know and idolize. We are therefore possibly on the brink of something unique in the annals of Australian municipal history – the unsolicited erection of a tsolia, in suburban Melbourne. It is in fact a statue paid for by the State Government.
Surprisingly, Berwick residents are horrified at this prospect and have circulated a petition signed by one thousand residents, against the erection of a statue of the first Modern Olympic Marathon winner. Bill Kemp, the grandson of William Gamble who share-farmed with Edwin Flack, is quoted in the petiiton as sharing in the disgust felt by the “entire community” about the placement of the statue.
“Placing a statue of Spiridon in Berwick is an insult to Edwin Flack who won two gold medals for Australia and more importantly helped to establish Berwick as a thriving town.”
How this is an insult to Flack, who, if his own writings are to be believed, had a high regard for Louis, is not explained. Other claims made by enraged residents, such as the fact that there is no evidence that Flack ever met Louis also don’t seem to explain why the erection of a statue to an Olympic champion are to be precluded.
Perhaps we get to the nub of the matter when in their letter to the Council, the protesters suggest that the rather than being placed in Casey, the statue be donated to the City of Darebin, which has a significantly higher Greek population. What this seems to suggest is that these residents believe that there exists no place for a statue in honour of a foreigner in their city. According to what appears to be a rather narrow and parochial understanding of the world, Louis, a wog, has nothing to do with them, so he should be shunted off to another municipality inhabited by wogs who can appreciate him, and to whom he belongs. The presence of the statue of a wog in their local area, is not just inappropriate, but rather, an insult to them and their history – a history that excludes the histories of other Australian citizens who do not happen to derive their origins from the British Isles.
The fact that all around the world, citizens, councils and governments erect statues to personages they deem worthy of admiration or emulation, because their acts have enhanced humanity as a whole seems totally alien to a blinkered and racially exclusivist conviction that statues of wog athletes are an insult to the legacy of non-wog athletes. It also seems to fly in stark contrast to the traditional Australian obsession, nay worship of sport, in all its forms. This is a tradition that prizes fair play, striving for excellence and applauds and admires victory. It is definitely not a tradition that shuns athletes because of their race, culture or religion. No better personage than the gentlemanly Flack, who was so feted by the Greeks during his brief stay in Athens, and who applauded the victory of Aristides Akratopoulos over him, in the men’s singles tennis. Given his example of sportsmanship and ability to accept defeat gracefully, one would venture to say that it is his modern-day partisans, are anxious to protect his legacy from defilement, who actually insult it.
Spiridon Louis means nothing more to the Greeks of Australia than to any other citizen of the world. An unlikely champion, he has become an international symbol of doughty perseverance and honest competition and any attempt to play ethnic politics with his memory is ill-conceived. The City of Casey should be commended for its unanimous decision to proceed with the erection of the statue in the face of opposition, with Casey Mayor Amanda Stapledon going so far as to state that: “Council will not hesitate to take action, and encourage the police to take action, against anyone responsible for vandalising or damaging the statue once installed.”
Yet one question does remain unanswered about the City of Casey’s decision. It has been resolved that in Louis’ statue upon High Street, will be placed next to the re-located statue of Edwin Flack. Will Flack’s statue be placed behind that of Louis in graphic re-enactment of the first marathon? And will, as we all hope, Louis be clad in the palikaria of his foustanella, there to inspire pedestrians and drivers alike with his glory, for ever more? Slow and steady wins the race, every time.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 3 August 2013