The 20th Olympic Games, Munich, West Germany, September 1972
‘Obviously you can’t accept the gold under those circumstances,’ insists the Sydney Sun’s Ernie Christensen from the edge of my dorm bed; I’m still off balance from finding his baggy-suited form in my room after dropping by to collect gear for tonight’s 1500-metre final. Hunched keenly at the foot of my bed with notebook at the ready, his hack reporter cliche lacks only a fedora with a press pass in the band. ‘The gold’ is the medal which might soon replace my day-old silver for the 400-metre freestyle, on reports that its first owner returned a doping positive.
My first news of Rick DeMont’s pending disqualification had come an hour ago at the briefest of briefings with our team submanager, Stuart Alldritt. ‘Keep mum about it or we’re both in strife,’ he’d winked roguishly, leaving me to suspect it was not yet a done deal. His only attempt at elaboration had been to mutter ‘ephedrine positive’. My reaction — I was still shell-shocked with a sense of injustice at my 1/100th-second loss — had been a messy thrill of shock, elation, and redress. Alldritt’s news flipped my world from Olympic heartbreak to a farce of firsts: the first electronic timing to make you lose by inhuman margins, the first swim doping disqualification, and then, presto! — my first gold. Except that I was suddenly the one getting a fraction ahead of myself: Alldritt had raised only the likelihood of a medal reallocation.
And now the brashness of Christensen’s twin presumptions — that I must reject a gold medal already mine — plunges me back into confusion. ‘Can’t accept?’ I silently fret. ‘Obviously?’ Is this a new sporting etiquette known to all but me? At barely eighteen, after a decade of waterlogged obedience, I need to add ‘silver-tongued QC’ to my CV to succeed; ditto the still-sixteen DeMont. My old craving to be both glorious and agreeable is suddenly a pathetic conceit. Pressed for the reply, I remind myself that Christensen’s a tabloid journo fishing for a headline, and the jerk who’d just baited me with the line, ‘The poor kid was DQ’d for taking his asthma medicine.’
‘Of course I won’t,’ I scoff, ‘until I get the full story,’ relieved to have defused his dodgy ploy for now. After he springs for the door with a parting tap on my shoulder, I stay on the bedside chair to let the interview sink in; his neat impression’s still on the bedclothes, but I’m left in turmoil. Why couldn’t I have tartly answered, ‘I don’t make the rules, I just swim under them.’ I’d been interviewed by scores of journalists in the past and had never felt steamrolled like this; even when the odd paraphrasing appeared in the stories, I hadn’t minded, because I knew it simplified longwinded answers.
I dig for other slights too. Had he chosen his time knowing teammates and officials had already left for the finals? How had he known I’d be dropping in? Who’d given him permission to wait alone here, and pointed out my bed? And what was that about an asthma medication?
Soon I’m trying to forget him as I hurry off with my gear to the warm-up for my 1500-metre final, thankful only that I never use its full time allocation. And I needn’t concern myself about a frosty reception from my coach, Don Talbot. We’ve been on near-mute terms for weeks anyway, from the day I impulsively jerked my arm free of his trademark custodial wrist clasp in a poolside pep talk. (I’m not sure who got the bigger shock, but he was spectacularly speechless for ten seconds.) I’m also over the ‘novelty’ of his chestpoking rebukes. It’s strongly rumoured he’ll be based in Canada after the Games, so those presumptuous handcuffs and savage pokes will soon be out of my life forever.
Yet Christensen isn’t entirely to blame for my lateness. He kept a promise that he’d only be five minutes, but earlier in the Olympic Village I’d been unable to resist a chance introduction to Betty Cuthbert. I was immediately shocked and saddened to find running’s former Golden Girl in a wheelchair with MS, though her own impish charm and easy banter showed not a trace of self-pity. Because just one Olympics separated the end of her career from mine, I’d anticipated the same vital figure of legendary press photos — lunging at tapes with neck thrust, mouth ecstatically open, short curls flying. Soon finding her as inspiring in adversity as in health, and relaxing in her humbling aura, I chatted longer than I’d allowed for. Leaving her for the dorm, I soon recalled that people of my father’s generation called MS ‘the athlete’s disease’, and wondered if a similar spectre stalked swimmers’ futures. (I’d long been primed for such torments by an old schoolmate’s serial ribbing that all repetitive exercise ‘fried motor neurons’, but had never thought this more than a geeky taunt until now.) Was it possible that humans, with our highly symbolic drive for identity, could push our bodies harder than nature intended?
But I’m jerked back to a more immediate concern as I follow the colour-coded overhead guide rails to the pool: the 1500-metre final itself. In a couple of hours, I’ll dive in with the world’s best time after DeMont’s, yet with my fitness suddenly in doubt after experiencing an all-too-familiar breathing tightness in the heats. I’m hoping there won’t be a repeat of the respiratory arrhythmia that left me clinging breathlessly to lane ropes in January’s NSW 1500-metre championship.