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.

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