Australia look to their women

The state backs a feisty female approach. Richard Yallop reports from Melbourne

If Evonne Goolagong, the Aborigine from Barellan, New South Wales, won Australian hearts at Wimbledon, then Cathy Freeman, the Aboriginal runner from Victoria, is poised to do the same in Atlanta. When Freeman, the Commonwealth 400 metres champion, pursues Marie-Jose Perec, of France, the world and Olympic champion, she will carry all Australia with her.

Australia is well-known to be sport-obsessed, which is reflected in the fact that its team of 425 will be its largest ever sent to an Olympics, and the third largest in Atlanta, after the United States and Germany. Female athletes comprise more than a third of the team, and carry many of the country's hopes.

Apart from Freeman there is Kathy Watt, the Olympic cycling road race champion; Rebecca Joyce, the world champion in the lightweight sculls; the imperious women's hockey team, which is unbeaten in 31 matches, and the women's basketball team. Kieren Perkins, the Olympic 1500m swimming champion, and his Melbourne challenger, Daniel Kowalski, may be the two best-known names but after them it is the women who capture most headlines.

This does not surprise Dawn Fraser, Australia's most famous female Olympian, who won triple gold in the 100m freestyle at Melbourne, Rome and Tokyo, and has since become a champion of Australian female athletics. She recently said: "Women in this country have always been a lot more gutsy than the men. Women have been the hardest-working segment of a nation that had to work its way up from colonial status. Their ability to endure explains a lot of our Olympic success."

Fraser is an Australian Olympic icon. It seemed that every Olympics someone like her, or Herb Elliot, the 1500m champion, or Shane Gould, who won three gold medals in the pool at Munich at the age of 15, would bob up.

But at the 1976 Olympics the pool of talent dried up. Australia won no golds in Montreal and only five medals in all. It was considered enough of a national crisis for the government to step in to devise some way of fostering new sporting talent.

The solution was to found the Australian Institute of Sport, which was opened in Canberra in 1981 as a training centre for elite athletes. The system was gradually strengthened as the state opened their own institutes. A specialist cycling squad was sent up in Adelaide, while the men's and women's hockey teams trained in Perth.

By Barcelona the system seemed to be working. Australia won 27 medals, including seven golds, the highest tally since the 35 at the "home" Olympics in Melbourne in 1956.

Sydney winning the 2000 Games promoted a further government investment of about pounds 65m in the Olympic sports from 1994 to 2000 and Freeman, Watt and Joyce are beneficiaries. All have scholarships with the Australian Institute of Sport, as well as additional funding from the state institutes in New South Wales and Victoria.

They continue the tradition of feisty Australian athletes established by Fraser. In 1968 she was prevented from defending her 100m title at Mexico by a 10- year-ban imposed by the Australian swimming authorities for alleged breaches of team discipline.

It is no surprise that she is now a staunch supporter of Watt in her battles with Australia's cycling administrators. Watt's competitive tunnel vision prevents her from seeing anything beyond her own impending race.

She is the best woman cyclist Australia has ever produced, and proved it at Barcelona where she won gold in the road race and silver in the 3,000m pursuit. Her unorthodox self-absorption did not endear her to Charlie Walsh, Australia's highly successful head coach, who prefers riders who bend to the team ethic, and he did not approve of her riding in both the road race and the track events.

Watt is now being threatened with exclusion from the pursuit, but she has taken her injustice to the newspapers and television, and engaged a lawyer to act against the Cycling Federation. There is an honourable and long-established tradition in Australian Olympic sports of athletes having to battle harder against their own administrators than they do against international opponents, and Watt is firmly upholding the tradition.

Freeman found herself embroiled with the administrators at the 1994 Commonwealth Games, where she was criticised by an official for carrying the Aboriginal flag round the track after her 400m victory, instead of the Australian flag. The official's attack on Freeman's mild display of black pride provoked uproar in Australia, but the official survived all the cries for his sacking.

Joyce has fought a different kind of battle to get to Atlanta. Her father ran for Australia in the Melbourne Olympics while she was an exceptional rower at school and had been selected for Australia when she was struck down by chronic fatigue syndrome. Everything in her life collapsed, including her marriage. She fought her way back and won the gold medal in the lightweight double scull.

Her departure from the Olympics was accompanied by a different kind of controversy from Watt. Resuming the modelling career she gave up at the time of her illness, she posed nude for a magazine spread of Australia's Atlanta athletes.

It was not the conventional preparation but it was quite in character for Australia's spirited female athletes. From the time of Dawn Fraser, they've had their eyes firmly set on being first to the finish line, but they do not always mind who they offend on the way there.

Life and Style
love + sex A new study has revealed the average size - but does that leave men outside the 'normal' range being thought of as 'abnormal'?
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Voices
The Palace of Westminster is falling down, according to John Bercow
voices..says Matthew Norman
Sport
Steve Bruce and Gus Poyet clash
football
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jake and Dinos Chapman were motivated by revenge to make 'Bring me the Head of Franco Toselli! '
arts + ents Shapero Modern Gallery to show explicit Chapman Brothers film
Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain performing for 'MTV Unplugged' in New York, shortly before his death
music Brett Morgen's 'Cobain: Montage of Heck' debunks many of the myths
Life and Style
life
Sport
Brendan Rodgers
football The Liverpool manager will be the first option after Pep Guardiola
News
Amazon misled consumers about subscription fees, the ASA has ruled
news
Arts and Entertainment
Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey in 'Banished'
TV Jimmy McGovern tackles 18th-century crime and punishment
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Whitehouse as Herbert
arts + ents
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company has won the award ...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 business...

SThree: Trainee Recuitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 business...

Recruitment Genius: Lettings and Sales Negotiator - OTE £46,000

£16000 - £46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn