Australian athletes you should know: who was Edwin Flack?

The Lion of Athens, middle-distance runner and gold medallist Edwin Flack holds an important place in the history of Australian athletics and Olympic glory, despite never officially representing the nation.
Who was Edwin Flack?

Editor’s Note: This is an article about Edwin Flack, a legend of Australian running. But before I get into who he was, allow me a small digression.

When I was a kid, I loved baseball. That was my sport. I wanted to play second-base for my hometown Toronto Blue Jays (like the legend of my childhood, Roberto Alomar) and turn crispier-than-burnt-toast double plays. Or chase down fly-balls in the barren desert of right-centre field a-la the smooth-as-butter Devon White

I had an almanac of Major League Baseball statistics, with league-wide and team-by-team hitting and pitching records, and I used to pore over that colossal book with the studiousness of an Enlightenment-era scholar.  

I memorised the stats, mainstream and obscure. I learned the names of the legends, and I gave myself about as thorough an education on the history of the sport as any 10-year-old kid could conceivably attain. 

By now, you’re probably (most definitely) wondering: how on Earth does this relate to running? Well, as a relative newcomer to the sport of athletics and distance running, my knowledge of its history is incomplete. 

I didn’t have an entire childhood of meticulous studying behind me: years of watching games, reading books, listening to sports-talk-radio, poring over stats, or examining trading cards. 

Discovering the sport of running (and becoming a runner) has meant engaging with its history in a more substantial way: trying to become a consumer of the sport as both a student and fan.

I’ve been trying to rapidly fill my knowledge gaps and learn about the history of running —  its legends, its records, its biggest events, its varied training philosophies — through reading books, listening to podcasts (thank you Inside Running Podcast), watching old races on YouTube, and by talking to friends, training partners, and my coach.  

This process of learning is almost as exciting as the act of running itself. There is something rewarding (is that the right word? Satisfying, perhaps?) about immersing yourself in the culture of a sport. And by looking to the past and understanding the history, we can find common-ground with one another as we run towards the future.

With this in mind, I’ve decided to write some posts about some lesser-known, but highly-worthwhile-getting-to-know legends of the sport. This is the first in a series titled: Australian legends every runner should know! First up is our original Olympian, the indomitable Edwin Flack.

The “Lion of Athens” Edwin Flack

Who was Edwin Flack? 

Anyone who has ever been to Sydney Olympic Park will be familiar with the name Edwin Flack. There’s a prominent avenue through the precinct that bears the man’s name. And it’s with good cause that Flack was memorialised in this way, ahead of the 2000 Summer Games. 

Flack is known as Australia’s first Olympic athlete of the modern era. And he was no mere competitor at the 1896 games in Athens, Greece. Flack was a gold medal-winning champion in two running events: the 800 and the 1500-metre. He also took a valiant crack at the marathon, despite having never run further than 16 kilometres beforehand).

Incredibly, Flack also competed in tennis and — despite not winning a match — came away with a bronze medal in the men’s doubles event, thanks to a timely draw.  

Now, there is a slight technicality, worth mentioning. Flack was born in 1873 in the United Kingdom. He immigrated to Australia in childhood, but he officially represented the UK at the games.

This was because Australia was not yet a country in 1896. That didn’t happen until the 1901 Federation of its (now) states, which were British colonies at the time.

No Green-and-Gold, just an old school singlet

Flack got around this technicality — and showcased his loyalty to the soon-to-be-born nation of Australia — by racing in his Melbourne Grammar School shorts and singlet. Imagine an Olympic champion racing in their school or club kit nowadays, with no flag or corporate sponsorship visible.

Flack was a good runner: he won Victorian and Australasian championships in his early 20s, and was the founder of the Melbourne Hare & Hounds running club (a precursor to the Old Melburnians Athletics Club). He was also a trained accountant, however, and something of a career-oriented fellow.

On the urging of his father, Flack returned to England in 1895. The objective was to get some work experience at the chartered accounting firm Price, Waterhouse, and Co. But he kept running. And he quickly made a name for himself. 

A nomination to compete in Athens

Flack was so impressive, the London Athletic Club nominated him to compete in the first modern Olympics.

After securing leave from work, he booked his passage to Greece. As lore goes, it was not an easy voyage. It took six days to reach Athens by train and ship. Flack succumbed to a nasty bout of sea-sickness, which left him feeling “quite weak” only days before the games began.

Luckily, he recovered just in time to become a champion and a fan favourite. He earned the nickname the ‘Lion of Athens’ from locals.  

What did it take to earn his gold medals in 1896? 

Flack ran a time of around 2 minutes 12 seconds (2:11.9) in the finals of the 800-metre race to secure his victory. 

  • At the 1900 Olympics, Flack’s time was bested by 10 seconds by Alfred Tysoe. And in the 120 years since, no Olympic gold medallist has run slower than 1:56.00.  
  • Flack’s time is 31 seconds slower than the current men’s world record (1:40.91), held by Kenyan David Rudisha. 
  • It’s 27 seconds slower than the Australian 800-metre record, set by Joseph Deng in 2018. 
  • It’s 18 seconds slower than the women’s world record (1:53.28) held by Jarmila Kratochvílová of Checkoslovakia.

In the 1500-metre race, Flack took the honours. He narrowly edged out an American named Arthur Blake by one second on the home straight. His finishing time was 4:33.20.  

  • At the next Olympics (Paris 1900), this time was bested by 27 seconds. 
  • Since 1920, no Olympic medallist has run slower than 4 minutes. 
  • It is more than a minute slower than the world record, held by Moroccan great Hicham El Guerrouj (3:26.00) in 1998. 

No glory in the marathon, but a valiant effort

Flack’s marathon attempt did not end in the same glorious fashion. He did take the lead for a brief stretch, but eventually ‘hit the wall’ and collapsed around the 34 km mark.

Given what we now know about the mental and physical preparation that goes into running a marathon, and the importance of mid-race fuelling and hydration, this is nonetheless a pretty impressive feat. 

Was Flack a great runner? For his time, sure. With hindsight, we can probably assume there were better runners who did not have the opportunity or privilege to race in these early Olympic meets, which did not yet have the prestige or global coordination they boast today.

But that wasn’t a fault of Flack. To win a race, you only have to beat those who are toeing the line next to you. Flack was nominated to run, he showed up, and he won two gold medals. Legend!   

Want more? Check out all of RunCreature’s features and interviews. We also have loads of great content on our ideas page.

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