Edwin Flack - Our first Olympic champion

Australia's first Olympic champion, Edwin Flack, owned and operated a dairy farm in Berwick and his final resting place is in the Berwick Cemetery.

In the Athens 1896 Olympic Games, the first Olympic Games of the modern era, Edwin Flack won the 800 metre and 1500 metre athletic events. Flack was one of the most popular athletes at the 1896 Games and became fondly known as the 'Lion of Athens'.

Edwin Flack owned and operated a dairy farm in Berwick and has been laid to rest in the Berwick Cemetery. A statue commemorating Flack and his athletic achievements stands in the median strip of High Street, Berwick.

The Australian Olympic Committee has recognised Flack's importance in Australian Olympic history and has adopted the name Edwin Flack Avenue to one of the streets adjacent to the Olympic Stadium in Homebush Bay, venue of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games.

Read through the fascinating story of Edwin Flack's trek to Greece for the first Modern Olympics.

  • The City of Casey thanks John Riley for his assistance in compiling this story. Casey also acknowledges "Australia and the Olympic Games: An Official History", by Harry Gordon (Queensland University Press, 1994)

Edwin Flack Virtual Tour

Now's your opportunity to visit some Olympic sites around the City of Casey without leaving your computer!

Visit the Edwin Flack Reserve, site of the Community Celebration on August 7, 2000

 
 
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Look at the Edwin Flack Statue in High Street, Berwick

 
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Visit Edwin Flack's Berwick property, "Burnbank"

 
 

Visit Edwin Flack's grave at the Berwick Cemetary

 
 
 

A long road to the Games

Edwin Harold "Teddy" Flack was born on November 5, 1873, in Islington, East London. His family migrated to Australia before he was five years old and attended Melbourne Grammar School from 1886 to 1892.

Edwin showed potential both in the classroom and on the sporting field. He competed in "inter club" events in Melbourne and was the foundation secretary of the Melbourne Hare and Hounds Athletic Club in 1892. (He joined two similarly names clubs when he ran in England prior to the Olympic Games).

He was an above-average athlete and won the Australasian Championship in November, 1893 (4min 44sec) and the Victorian mile and half-mile titles on the same afternoon in December, 1894.

He is credited with victories in various mile, four-mile and seven-mile events at club level between 1892 and 1894. He also ran in New Zealand but no results are available.

After he left school in 1892, Edwin was placed in his father's accountancy partnership, Davey, Flack & Co. and it was at the insistence of his father that he went to England to gain further training and study in accountancy. In 1895, Edwin's father, Joseph arranged with his former employer, Edwin Waterhouse, for Edwin to join Price Waterhouse in London, visiting the Buenos Aires office of the company en route to London.

No record of his accountancy progress is available, but he took a keen interest in athletics, joining three clubs: London Athletic club (which nominated him for the Games); the Hampton Court Hare and Hounds Club; and the Thames Hare and Hounds Club. In November, 1895, Flack won the Thames Hare and Hounds Challenge Cup over 4.75 miles. He gained valuable preparation for the Olympic Games in Athens by winning three of eight other races for the same club.

He was well aware of the plans for the 1896 Olympic Games in Athens and saved up leave in a plan to be in Athens as either a competitor or spectator, provided his employer (a man referred to in Flack's diary as JGF) would grant him time off.

Flack received a letter from a family friend and Victorian athletics administrator, Basil Parkinson, suggesting Flack's father was very willing for Edwin to go subject to him not spending more than £30 ($60). He booked a seat on a boat the day his employer granted him a month's leave, and he spent six days travelling to Greece by train and ship, arriving on April 1, 1896, five days before the Games were due to start.

These days athletes could fly between the two countries in about two hours.

Edwin suffered from sea-sickness during the journey and was very weak when he arrived. He hadn't bathed for days and found the trip totally unbearable.

He shared a house with two English friends, one was George Robertson who later finished 4th in the shot put and 5th in discus at the Games. They sometimes ate out at restaurants and the nearby Minerva Hotel. There was no Olympic Village for competitors in 1896!

Flack's four days of glory

Day One, Opening Ceremony - Easter Monday, 6 April, 1896

Edwin won the first heat of the 800 metres in 2:10, beating Hungarian Nandor Dani. There were 14 competitors in the two heats. The second was won in 2:16.6 by Albin Lermusiaux of France. This runner withdrew from the final to save his energy for the coveted marathon event. It was the only event the Americans didn't contest.

Day Two - Easter Tuesday, 7 April, 1896

This was a great day for Australia. There were eight contestants in the 1500-metres event including two Greeks, but the favoured runner for the race was American, Arthur Blake. Although Frenchman Lermusiaux led early, in a diary entry by Flack following the race he stated:

"I made the pace all the way with the Yankee Blake waiting on me. As soon as I got into the final straight I went for all I was worth. He almost caught me in the first 30 yards, and we raced together for about the same distance, when to my relief, I felt that he was falling back and that I had him beaten. I finished up strong and fresh but he was quite done up."

Flack finished in 4:33.2, five metres ahead of Blake. Flack's victory was the first by a non- American in any track and field event at the Games.

Day Three - Wednesday, 8 April, 1896

Edwin Flack competed in the lawn tennis competitions and was among 15 other competitors assembled at the Temple of Olympeion. He lost in the first round of the singles to Akratopoulos of Greece after borrowing a racquet. He partnered his English friend and roommate, George Robertson (later Sir George Robertson, QC) to play doubles tennis even though he was to compete in the 800 metre final. They lost in the first round to a Greek pair who eventually reached but lost the final.

Better fortune awaited him in the 800-metre event against two other runners. Due to Lermusiaux's withdrawals, Flack, the "incomparable runner", won easily in 2:11.5 against a Hungarian and Greek runner.

At this stage two matters should be resolved. When Flack won his events the Union Jack flag was raised, and the British anthem, "God Save the Queen" was played. He had been nominated by the London Athletic Club and until 1936, the results listed Flack as a winner for Britain.

Day Four - Thursday, 9 April, 1896

Despite not having competed over a distance beyond 16 kilometres (10 miles) before, Flack was determined to try and win a third event.

The field was very strong with 25 runners, all but four were Greeks. The foreign runners were the placegetters: Flack, Blake, Lermusiaux and the Hungarian, Kellner.

The Greek nation was very keen to see one of their competitors win and large inducements were made. George Averoff offered a million dracmas and the hand of his daughter in marriage for any Greek runner who could win the marathon.

The race started at 2pm under difficult conditions, which meant that runners faced a gruelling test, running under a 'blazing sun'. The marathon field was led early by Lermusiaux with Flack second after 10 km. Flack gained the lead after 30 km, but was passed at the 34 km mark by the eventual winner, collapsing at the 37km mark.

The Greek victor, Spiridon Louis, was given a wonderful reception by the Greek people at the stadium. He was showered with jewellery and flowers as he headed for the finish line.

After collapsing, Flack was transported by carriage to the stadium and was visited by Prince Nicholas who ordered a drink of brandy eggnog to assist his recovery. It was of great coincidence that the aid provided by George Robertson to assist Flack in the marathon was V.W. Delves-Broughton - amazingly, a former student of Melbourne Grammar School.

Flack's consideration for the occasion is shown in a letter written to his family after the marathon:

"They tell me I have become the 'Lion of Athens'. I could not go down the street without having a small crowd of people following me on all sides. I could hear people talk Greek and have my name mentioned."

What the newspapers said about Edwin Flack

"Olympic Honours for our Runner"

Saturday, 11 April, 1896 -   Victorian athlete Edwin Flack has beaten the world's best athletes to win both the 800 and 1500-metre finals at the Olympic Games in Athens. The 23-year-old Victorian was awarded two silver medals, two crowns of wild olive branches, and two diplomas when he won the races at the first modern Olympics held in Greece earlier this month.

But Olympic officials were stumped as to which flag to raise for Mr Flack's award ceremony. After inadvertently raising the Austrian flag, it was finally replaced by the Union Jack.

He won the 800 metres in 2:11 and completed the 1500 metres in 4:33.2. Mr Flack's athletic prowess emerged when he was a student at Melbourne Grammar School. He has gone on to win many races in Victoria, New South Wales and New Zealand.

The six-foot tall (183cm) sprinter is regarded in athletic circles as having a huge stride and exceptional stamina. The son of Mr Joseph Flack of South Yarra, the young athlete left Melbourne to study in London in autumn last year.

After the Games, back to London, the stockbook and the journal

It is reported that Flack led the procession of competitors to mark the closing of the Games on 15 April, 1896. Each winner received a diploma, a silver medal and a crown of wild olives branches. The runners-up received only olive branches. No prizes were given for third place.

Interestingly, it was reported that when Herb Elliott won the 1500 metres at the Rome Olympic Games in 1960, a reporter told him he was Australia's first track and field gold medallist in that event. Elliott replied: "I am not the first. A fellow called Stack or something was the first."

The name Flack was used to denote "determination, courage and sportsmanship". Edwin Flack was feted by people including King George I and Princes Nicholas and George of Greece, who took him as their guest to churches and theatres and the like, with immense crowds applauding him in public.

Contemporaries called him Flack, the "Lion of Athens". When he departed Athens he received a farewell befitting Alexander the Great.

Edwin Flack left Athens on April 18, 1896, three days after the Olympic Games closing ceremony, and arrived in England a week later. He returned to work at Price, Waterhouse and Company on April 27, precisely one month after he began his leave.

What a month for a young person - going from arriving sick and weak in Athens after suffering sea-sickness on the voyage from London, then having wonderful victories in two events, followed by defeat in the marathon.

It is recorded that Flack received an excellent reception from the staff at Price, Waterhouse and Company. What tales and stories must have been passed on!

25 things you probably didn't know about Edwin Flack

Here's some interesting facts about our local Olympic champion:

  1. He joined his family's accounting firm in Australia in 1898, disembarking in Western Australia to open offices in Perth and Kalgoorlie.
  2. He joined the Australian Olympic Committee and was part of the first Australian delegation to attend an IOC Congress.
  3. He held a senior position with Old Melburnians from 1899 to 1924.
  4. Flack was a member of the Committee of Management of the Alfred Hospital, Melbourne from 1918 to 1934.  
  5. Flack was a keen photographer. Price, Waterhouse and Company held several photographic albums but not a word has been written to describe the photographs. By place names and scenery it can be seen that Flack travelled throughout Japan and New Zealand.
  6. It is believed Flack did not compete upon his return to Australia but became a keen golfer.
  7. His family business, Flack & Flack was a highly regarded accountancy firm, which was absorbed by Price, Waterhouse and Company.
  8. He purchased a farm at Berwick, "Burnbank", establishing a Friesian stud farm and showing his cattle at the Royal Melbourne Show. He travelled from Melbourne at the weekends to stay in Berwick.
  9. During the week he lived in an apartment at Cliveden Mansions, a large building in East Melbourne on the current site of the Hilton Hotel.
  10. He drove two kilometres to work in Melbourne and always double-parked outside his office. It was the duty of a staff member to find "proper parking".
  11. He was a director of several large Australian companies, including Australia Iron and Steel; Howard Smith Ltd; and Robert Harper and Company.
  12. A very suitable bronze statue of Edwin Flack, which cost $22,000 was placed on the median strip of High Street, Berwick by the Edwin Flack Memorial Committee on 26 October, 1998. Our first Gold Medallist is truly a great "Bronze Aussie".
  13. He died on January 10, 1935, in a private hospital after an operation. The funeral service was held at the Fawkner Crematorium on January 12, 1935. His ashes are now interred at the Berwick Cemetery and are marked by a headstone.
  14. His name is perpetuated by the E.H. Flack Scholarship at Melbourne Grammar. This scholarship is for an all-round student from rural Australia who would not otherwise be able to attend Melbourne Grammar. It is worth about $22,000 a year.
  15. An Australian 45¢ postage stamp was printed to honour Flack in 1996, the Centenary of the Olympic Games.
  16. His Will made provision for the establishment of a charitable fund that distributed large sums to charity.
  17. Berwick Recreational Reserve was renamed in his honour as the Edwin Flack Reserve on 16 June, 1996.
  18. Participants in The Olympic Dream Fun Run on November 18, 1990, received the Edwin Flack Medal for participating.
  19. Edwin Flack Avenue is the street adjacent to Sydney's Olympic Stadium in Homebush Bay.
  20. Edwin Flack has been inducted into the Australian Sports and Athletics Australia's Hall of Fame.
  21. His statue was unveiled by another Australian running legend John Landy. Landy was also a 1500m Olympic runner competing in Melbourne in 1956 and Rome in 1960.
  22. A poem, Two Sprigs of Olive from Mount Olympus, was written in his honour.
  23. Edwin Flack was the founder and inaugural treasurer of the Henley on the Yarra Regatta.
  24. He was a member of the Melbourne Club, the Australia Club and a life member of Old Melbournians.
  25. The name of his stud farm "Burnbank" was used by a Mr R.A. Strachan of Hamilton, Victoria, for another Friesian stud.

Acknowledgments:
Gordon, H., (1994) Australia and the Olympic Games: An Official History, Queensland University Press, St Lucia.

Further information about the Olympic Games

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