On this day, July 10 1912, Australian swimming legend Cecil Healy was responsible for one of the most selfless acts of sportsmanship in Olympic History.
At the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games, Healy gave away a certain gold medal by staging a protest to have his biggest rival included in the Olympic final. Healy a hero in and out of the water would tragically also become the only Australian Olympic Gold medallist to be killed in action. This is a story every Australian should know.
Cecil Healy was just the second swimmer to represent Australia (the first was Freddy Lane who won two events in Paris). For a time Healy was the fastest freestyler in the world. But then, along came Hawaii’s Duke Kahanamoku.
Kahanamoku would go on to become the father of modern surfing, like Healy he was a lifesaver. Healy had been recognised for his extreme bravery in saving lives during a massive storm swell on Manly beach.
Kahanamoku famously rescued multiple people from a stricken boat off Honolulu in huge seas.
In the lead up to the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, the Duke had broken the world 100m freestyle record several times and cemented himself as an overwhelming favourite. Healy was clearly the second fastest swimmer in the world.
After the Olympic heats, the Duke as expected was on top, Healy looked like the silver medallist with the second fastest time. Semi-final day and Healy was ready to swim, the Duke however was sound asleep.
The American officials had misread the schedule and the champ and his team-mates thought the semi-finals were later in the day. Healy took out his semi and was clearly the fastest qualifier for the final. An Olympic Gold medal, the highest honour in sport, was within his grasp.
However, honour meant more to Healy than victory. The Australian launched a protest. Healy gathered the other finalists, he said they should refuse to race unless the Americans were given a chance to swim another semi-final.
Healy claimed it would be unsportsmanlike to prevent a swimmer of the Duke’s standing from having a chance at an Olympic gold. In the end, the officials agreed. The Duke swam a time trial and qualified for the final.
In the final, the great Hawaiian took Gold. Healy inevitably touched in second, when he did the Duke reached across and raised the Australians hand to acknowledge his act of chivalry.
A friendship forged in respect led the Duke to Australia two years later where he met up with Healy and famously gave a surfing exhibition. The great Hawaiian rode a board he had carved from sugar pine at a local lumber yard, at Freshwater beach.
Thousands gathered at the beach as the magnificent waterman put on a display for the ages. Today, on the Freshwater headland stands a statue of the Duke as a memorial of the day Surfing was introduced to Australia. The board he rode still stands proudly on display inside the surf club.
The Duke went on to be one of the most famous figures in surfing, he always remembered the Australian’s sacrifice that so honoured the true calling of the Olympics.
The memorial to his Australian friend is sadly a cross in a shared grave at Mount St. Quentin in Northern France.
Just three months before the guns of WWI fell silent, Healy was killed charging a machine gun nest in the muddy and bloody tragedy that was the Somme. He had won an Olympic Gold medal in the 4×200 freestyle relay at the 1912 Games and remains the only Australian Olympic Gold Medallist killed in action.
Healy’s memory lives on with Australia’s Olympic team. In May of 2022, decathlete Cedric Dubler (on left below) won the inaugural Cecil Healy award for the Australian Olympian who shows exceptional sportsmanship.
Dubler slowed down in the final event of the Tokyo Decathlon to scream encouragement to medal hope Ash Molony helping his mate hold on for Bronze. “I could hear his voice bouncing in my cranium like a bat out of hell” Molony said soon.
Exactly what Dubler was yelling at his long-time training partner isn’t something we will print but it did the trick.