Edwin Flack was inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 1985 as an Athlete Member for his contribution to the sport of athletics and was Elevated as a Legend of Australian Sport in 2009.
Flack was a trailblazer – the first Australian to compete at the Olympic Games, and first to win. It was Flack’s private decision to go to Athens in 1896 that began Australia’s rare, unbroken link with the modern summer Olympics.
Flack left Melbourne in 1895 to study accountancy in London and in 1896 resolved to attend the Athens Games, the first of the modern Olympics. He took a month’s leave to travel to Athens by boat and train, rented a room there with an English friend, George Robertson, then embarked, as the only Australian participant, on what turned out to be the most exciting week of his life. By the end of the Games he possessed heroic status, and was followed in the streets by crowds who dubbed him The Lion of Athens. His unheralded appearance in Athens gave Australians their first real awareness of the existence of the Olympic Games.
Before going overseas he was well known as an amateur athlete. In 1892 he founded the Melbourne Hare and Hounds Club. He was the one-mile champion of Australasia in 1893 and 1894, and had won several colonial championships. In England he joined the London Athletic Club and the Thames and the Hampton Court hare and hounds clubs. He ran often and quite successfully. In November, 1895, Flack won the Thames Hare and Hounds Challenge Cup over 4.75 miles and gained valuable preparation for the Olympic Games in Athens by winning three of eight other races for the same club.
Australia had no national Olympic committee back then, and Flack was entered in the Games as a member of the London Athletic Club – but he chose to run in the dark-blue vests of his old school, Melbourne Grammar, and his home-town club, the Melbournian Hare and Hounds.
Just 21 years old at the time, Flack decided to run both the 800m and 1500m, and, even more enthusiastically, put his name down for the marathon. The favourites for the first two events were Lermusiaux of France and the American, Arthur Blake. Flack won his heat of the 800m convincingly in 2 minutes 10 seconds beating Hungarian Nandor Dani.
The next day was the 1500m race. There were eight contestants including two Greeks, but the favoured runner for the race was Blake. Because of the roughness of the track and the tight corners, the pace soon slackened but as they started down the last straight Blake caught up and almost levelled with Flack. But the Australian had his measure, pulling up fresh and strong in 4:33.2 seconds. The victory was popular because this was the first race won by a non-American in any track and field event at the Games. Two days later Flack became the favourite for the 800m final because Lermusiaux had withdrawn to concentrate on the marathon, and won easily in 2:11.9.
Later that afternoon he was in a coach travelling the dusty, stony road to Marathon; the journey took four hours. He fancied less and less the idea of returning on that track the next day, yet he knew he would regret it forever if he missed it. The longest distance he had previously run was ten miles on a grass surface.
The marathon started under a blazing sun in front of a huge and enthusiastic crowd. Lermusiaux bounded out in front; Flack at first chose to stay with the Greeks who had had most experience, but found the pace too easy. By the ten kilometre mark he had passed everybody but the leader. At the thirty kilometre mark he passed Lermusiaux, who soon after quit the race; Blake had already done so. With six kilometres to go he was still in front but finding it very hard. A figure swept by. A Greek. He could not win now, but neither could he stop. He swayed from one side of the road to the other and eventually sagged to the ground. He was transported by carriage to the stadium where he watched the finish and was visited by Prince Nicholas who ordered a drink of brandy eggnog to assist his recovery.
In company with his pal Robertson, he also tried his hand in the tennis competition among 15 other competitors, although neither had great skill at the game. Flack epitomised the Australian have-a-go spirit; although no more than a social tennis player and borrowing a racquet, he entered both the Olympic singles and doubles. Both lost their first-round singles matches, Flack to Akratopoulos of Greece, and together they were beaten in their only doubles encounter. But because only five pairs entered the doubles, and their first-round opponents did not turn up, their only match became in effect a semi-final. They have thus been accorded the status of bronze medalists. Flack did not know of this recognition when he died. At the end of the week Flack was being followed everywhere by adoring crowds, who had taken to calling him ‘the Lion of Athens’.
His athletic career had culminated in those seven wonderful days when the Olympic spirit was resurrected in Athens that hot summer of 1896. He later joined the Australian Olympic Committee and was part of the first Australian delegation to attend an IOC Congress.