Help! Rival lifesavers in feud over oldest club

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If Australians worship the beach, then lifesavers are their gods. But as the volunteer movement prepares to celebrate its centenary, an unholy row has broken out between two leading clubs.

Lifesavers at Sydney's Bondi Beach claim to be proud members of the nation's oldest club. Barely a mile away, colleagues at Bronte Beach claim the same honour for their club.

The movement itself was founded in 1907, when seven clubs got together to form the Surf Bathing Association of New South Wales, a lobby group and political voice. The association became Surf Life Saving Australia (SLSA), and there are now 305 clubs, with 37,000 active members patrolling some of the country's busiest beaches.

With their strapping figures and their wholesome image, surf lifesavers are the embodiment of Australian beach culture. Although the true pioneers were probably American, Australia calls itself the home of the world's ,"longest continuous tradition" of volunteer lifesaving.

That is not in dispute. Nor is the fact that Bondi and Bronte were among the seven founding clubs. After that, though, the waters become murky. Bondi's members think the club was started 1906. The Bronte club claims it started in 1903. With the centenary approaching, the SLSA decided to commission independent academics to investigate the rival claims.

Sean Brawley and Ed Jaggard, of the University of New South Wales, examined club records, newspaper clippings and local government records. They reported that Bondi was formed in 1907, a year later than previously thought. Members were crestfallen, and a sign stating the foundation date had to be removed from the front of the clubhouse.

However, the historians also concluded that Bondi preceded Bronte by several months. Bronte is sticking to its guns. A sign at the top of its website proclaims "First Surf Club in the World since 1903". "And no, we won't be removing it," said the club's chief executive, Ross Miles. "We've already celebrated our centenary in 2003."

Mr Miles admitted that the club has few records to back its claim, although it does possess an official minute from 1906 referring to a fourth annual meeting, and a signed document from the 1930s in which the then SLSA president stated that the movement began at Bronte in 1903. The document was found in a time capsule after the clubhouse burnt down in 1972.

"We've always believed we were the first club, and that's been generally accepted, except by Bondi," Mr Miles said. "It's only in the past 10 years, really, that this controversy has em-erged. I think Bondi's on very shaky ground, and we refute its claim vigorously."

He also hinted that political considerations may have prejudiced the judges. The SLSA is based at Bondi and the world-renowned beach has been declared the movement's birthplace. Outside Australia, or even Sydney, few people have heard of Bronte. The New South Wales Sports Minister, Sandra Nori, officially launched the 100th patrol season at Bondi last month. To make matters more complicated, a number of other clubs have already celebrated centenaries.

To most Australians, the dispute is absurd. Surf lifesavers, who wear red and white caps, already have a place in the national iconography. Since 1930, they have saved half a million lives. Sean O'Connell, spokesman for the SLSA, said lifesavers played an important role in establishing an Australian identity. "They became iconic figures, in the same way as the bushman and the digger (soldier). They symbolised the proud new Australia."

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