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Edwin FlackEdwin Flack (1873-1935)

When Edwin Flack returned from the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896 to the London office where he was working as a trainee accountant, he received asummons from his boss. This caused him some trepidation, because he was feeling guilty that he had banked up holidays to make the journey, and kept it secret.

“My main concern before the trip,” he explained in a letter in 1932, “was lest Mr Edwin Waterhouse might hear of what I was doing.” He felt his chief would disapprove of the very notion of a staff member of his highly respected, even starchy, accounting firm gallivanting across Europe to engage in the pursuit of sport. Consequently, Flack discussed his plans only with an underling who agreed to keep very quiet about them.

Flack’s letter of recollection made modest reference to his “good luck in the 800 metres and 1500 metres”, and went on to describe his misgivings at being called on his return to front the boss. Then: “My fears, however, I am glad to say, were quite unfounded … to my surprise and delight he congratulated me, and followed it up with an invitation to spend the following week at his country home.”  

Flack was unused to being a sporting hero. Sure the Athenians, after his Olympic triumphs, had made an awful fuss of him, trailing him through the dusty streets, calling him “the Lion of Athens”. But the Games had very modest status in their first year of existence. Apart from himself, some friends, his parents and a Sydney sportswriter called Richard Coombes, few people in Australia had even heard of them.

It was not until the news came through, days after the race, of Flack’s first victory in the 800 metres championship, that Australian newspapers paid any attention to this new phenomenon: the Olympic Games. The reaction was a shade parochial. “An Australian in Greece,” boasted a headline in The Australasian. “The Olympic Games Revival: A Victorian Competitor,” said another in Melbourne’s Age.

The Melbourne Argus reflected editorially that there could be a future in this new festival: “A line of games which begins somewhere in the Stone Age, with the figure of  Zeus … and ends with the popular Victorian amateur, Edward (sic) Flack, of the Melbourne Grammar School Hare of Hounds, and the year of grace 1896, is surely … wonderful.”
Edwin Flack was born in London, where his father worked as an accountant with his friend Edwin Waterhouse (after whom young Flack was probably named). Known as “Teddy”, the boy was 12 months old when the family migrated to Melbourne, where he attended Melbourne Grammar and excelled at sport. By the time his father sent him back to London in 1895 to work and study with his old firm Price Waterhouse, he was Australasian mile champion. 

Australia was still a collection of colonies then, with no flag, no anthem, no postage stamp, and not much visible international identity. In London Flack joined several athletic clubs, and ran in cross-country events with success. In Athens, as the sole Australian, he chose to compete in the colours of his school and its associated club, Old Melburnians.

He saw the trip as a great, vigorous adventure, and even entered the tennis singles and doubles as well as three events on the athletics program. He was just a social tennis player, and was bundled out in both first rounds. But he won lasting glory on the track.

Flack won both the 800 and 1500 metres championships, breaking a pattern of US domination in track and field. Although he is recognised now as having reached double gold medal status, there were no gold medals in those first Games. His rewards were two commemorative medals, two crowns of olive branches (which he later presented to his old school) and a couple of handsome diplomas.

On the day after his 800 metres final, he competed cheekily and gallantly in the marathon, over a distance he had never run before. It was one race the Greeks desperately wanted to win --- and when a cyclist brought the news to the main stadium that Flack had taken the lead at the 30 km mark, he was abused and threatened by an angry crowd. Fortunately for Greek pride (and the safety of later messengers), Flack collapsed at the 34 km post and was passed by the eventual winner, a local villager called Spiridon Louis.

Flack’s performances warranted the adulation he received everywhere in Athens after the Games. But it was not until many years later that the dimensions of Australia’s debt to him became apparent. It was he who first caused an awareness of the Olympic Games in this country. He was the first hero: the first to compete, the first to win. 

And it was this one man’s private decision to embark on an adventure in Athens which began Australia’s rare, proud and unbroken link with the modern summer Olympics.

© Harry Gordon, 2000. Provided courtesy of the author and not to be used elsewhere without permission.

1896 Olympic Games, Athens
Gold medal 800m
1895 Australasian Mile

Flack was born in East London in 1873 and arrived in Australia at the age of five with his family. He was educated at Melbourne Grammar School and competed for the Melbourne Hare and Hounds Club. He won the Australasian 1 mile championship in 1893 in Melbourne in 4.44.0. He was Victorian mile champion in 1894 in 4.49.4. In 1895 he went to England to work for Price, Waterhouse and Co and ran for the London Athletic Club.

Whilst in England he heard of the Olympic Games and travelled with members of his club to Athens where he won both the 800 metres (2.10.0) and 1500 metres (4.33.2) to become Australia’s first ever Olympic champion. Flack also entered the marathon and hit the front at the 25km mark. However the heat, the dust and the tough course took its toll and he was passed at 32km. Flack collapsed just after 34km and pulled out.

On the morning of the 800 metres final Flack played both doubles and singles tennis at those Olympic Games losing both to Greeks. Flack was very popular with the Greeks, especially the Greek Royal family.

Flack finished his competitive career in 1897 then returned to Australia where he worked for the family accounting firm Flack and Flack. He was very involved with his athletics club for many years. He died in 1935.