Vale, Betty Cuthbert

  • August 10, 2017

I would like to associate myself with the remarks made in the House by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition following the very sad recent passing of Betty Cuthbert. I want to commend both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition on their incredibly moving speeches in tribute to a person who will last throughout the ages as one of Australia’s greatest athletes.

For a person whose interest in sport is little known, it was a surprise to me in 2000 how infectious the Sydney Olympic Games were for our city and for me personally. There are few events in our life, I suspect, that will ever match the spirit that we saw in Sydney during 2000. I was extraordinarily privileged to have the opportunity to attend the opening ceremony of the 2000 Olympics. I think for every Australian in that stadium it was one of the most exciting, moving, exhilarating and incredible experiences, as the world’s eyes looked to our city. But, of course, the most poignant moment of that whole ceremony was that leading up to the lighting of the Olympic flame. To this day, I will never forget the reaction of the crowd as Betty Cuthbert appeared on the track, pushed, as she was in her wheelchair, by Raelene Boyle. When she came into the stadium arena, the crowd was exhilarated but also so incredibly moved. To see her hand the flame to her good friend, Dawn Fraser, and to be reminded of her own Olympic contribution during those games was something that I will forever treasure.

It was appropriate that she played that role at the Sydney Olympics for both her sporting record and her achievements, but also because it reminded us that she became Australia’s golden girl at the first, and previous, time that the Olympics were held in Australia—the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. I can only imagine that for Melbourne, and for Australia, hosting those Olympics in the 1950s would have created the same sense of excitement and anticipation that Sydney did in 2000. Just as athletes like Cathy Freeman starred—our hearts stopped as she completed her own race in 2000—the whole nation would have been behind, and just so overjoyed to see, the success of Betty Cuthbert at the 1956 Olympics.

She was, of course, one of our greatest athletes. At the 1956 Olympics, she was able to walk away with three gold medals. She was then to achieve a fourth gold medal at the Rome Olympics eight years later. That followed a period in which she, like many athletes, had retired from the sport but got the calling to return to the vocation that she loved and it followed the 1960 Olympics in Tokyo, where due to an injury she sadly had to bow out of competition. Her coming back eight years after her great achievements in 1956 to win the 400 metres was something that I know excited all Australians at the time. Those four gold medals are really the pinnacle of what was an incredible athletic career.

It’s worthwhile reflecting on the fact that during her career she recorded world records for the 60 metres, the 100 metres, the 200 metres, the 220 yards and the 440 yards. She is the only athlete, according to my understanding, male or female, to this day who holds gold medals for all three sprint events—the 100, the 200 and the 400. Of course, for 40 years, alongside Murray Rose and Dawn Fraser, she was one of the only athletes to win four gold medals for Australia at the Olympics. She was only to be beaten in that record by Ian Thorpe at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

Of course, all of those records and achievements, as worthy as they are, say little about Betty Cuthbert the person. What we know of Betty is that she was an incredibly modest person, who didn’t want the public acclaim and accolades—who was, in fact, extremely uncomfortable with becoming a national hero, as she did. After the 1956 Olympics, she went back to working at her father’s nursery and tried to avoid the media spotlight. But she also recognised in 1969, when she was first diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, that she could be an example—and how brave she was to endure for so long that disease, which saw her wheelchair bound in the end and which saw her legs, which had driven her to such fame, wither away underneath her as she became incapacitated with MS. The 2000 Olympics reminded us of that bravery as did so much that she did during the course of her life.

I think it is important that today we reflect upon Australia’s Golden Girl, a truly great Australian that we continue to be proud of because of her achievements. We thank her family, and particularly Rhonda Gilham, her long-time friend in Western Australia, who cared for her during those last decades when she was suffering from MS. A Sydney girl originally, a Western Australian in the end, but a great Australian. Vale, Betty Cuthbert.