Despite running for Great Britain, Edwin Harold Flack is considered Australia’s first Olympian, and subsequent member of the Australian Olympic Committee, following Federation in 1901.
The first Olympic Games were held in Athens, Greece, in April 1896, and were pioneered by French educator Baron Pierre de Coubertin. He had been fascinated by the integration of physical education into the British school system, as well as by the ancient Greek Olympic Games, and sought to translate attributes of the historical triumphs into a modern world: a fighting spirit and good sportsmanship. de Coubertin subsequently organised the International Olympic Committee in 1894 and, as such, the first modern Olympic Games were held two years later for amateur athletes competing in cycling, fencing, gymnastics, swimming, shooting, tennis, wrestling, weightlifting, and athletics. The latter would see Flack win over local hearts with his efforts for Great Britain.
Born in London on 5 November 1873, Edwin Flack and his family moved to Melbourne when he was five years old. He had a natural talent for running, competing in events around Victoria and at his school, Melbourne Church of England Grammar. After finishing school in 1892, Flack was very active in the Melbourne running community. He won the Australasian Championship in 1893 for a mile sprint, alongside a series of other races. While he didn’t always win, he always fought for his place and became extremely respected among Melbourne runners. Flack even founded the Melbourne Hare and Hounds running club in 1893, and in 1894 won both mile and half-mile races for Victoria.
While running was an enjoyable hobby for Flack, his profession was in accounting. After spending a few years working with his father’s accounting firm (Davey, Flack and Co.) after finishing school, he ultimately decided to head to London in 1895 to gain more experience.
The London Athletic Club, which Flack would run with, nominated the Aussie to compete at the very first Olympic Games. Flack applied for time off from his accounting job, and made the treacherous six-day journey by train and boat to reach Greece. Despite suffering from a serious bout of sea sickness, he managed to win the gold medal in the 800-metre and 1500-metre sprints, as well as receiving bronze in the doubles tennis with partner George Robertson. Running in his old Melbourne Grammar shorts and singlet, Flack unknowingly represented the underdog that was the new Australia.
Having previously only run a maximum of 10 miles, Flack geared up for the 26-mile marathon event. Held during the hottest part of the day, the marathon was gruelling and tiresome for Flack, who had won gold only a day prior. He led a lot of the way, but eventually collapsed after an impressive 24 miles. Even though he didn’t win, Flack was an extremely popular competitor and would have locals and sports enthusiasts following him down the streets. Dubbed the ‘Lion of Athens’, Flack would return to normal accounting life in London shortly after. When he eventually came home to Australia in 1899 to rejoin the family accounting firm, he became a member of the Australian Olympic Committee, significantly contributing to the presence of Australia on an athletic global scale.
In 1996, a statue was erected in Flack’s hometown of Berwick to commemorate his contribution to athletics in Australia.