Waltzing with the Underdog
It is a quiet morning in a pub in Wodonga as Steven Bradbury OAM enters the room, his still youthful face is framed by his signature spiky do, but the spikes are brown now to match his intense dark brown eyes. There is no pretence to Bradbury’s demeanour, he is smartly but casually dressed and offers a shy smile as he shakes my hand. He gives a nervous chuckle as I introduce myself – ‘the oldest university student in history,’ if he agrees he is too polite to say so.
Bradbury’s claim to fame is his performance at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City where he won the 1000 metre short track speed skating event when all of his opponents famously hit the deck on the last corner, and he sailed past them to snare Australia’s first ever Winter Olympic Gold.
‘Are you the ultimate underdog of Australian sporting legend?’ My question is greeted by an infectious laugh, ‘Possibly? I’m one of the few people who can say they have a saying named after them,’ (Doing a Bradbury is defined in the online slang dictionary as achieving something by accident, or winning against extreme odds). ‘For me that makes me feel proud,’ says Bradbury, ‘it’s nice to be remembered.’
And remember him we do. As I look to discover what it is that drives Australia’s penchant to support the underdog, be it an athlete or an anti-hero, and their love of a win against the odds. I chat to Bradbury and others about famous unlikely sporting feats and about folk heroes such as Ned Kelly and the swagman of Banjo Paterson’s Waltzing Matilda.
When Paterson penned his legendary ballad in 1895, he could not possibly have predicted it would become the unofficial anthem of a nation which champions the underdog.
Various historians conclude that Waltzing Matilda’s lyrics were inspired by the Great Shearers Strike in Queensland throughout the early 1890s. The song is most likely an interpretation of a story told to Paterson whilst he was staying at The Dagworth Homestead near Winton in Queensland’s outback. In September 1894, a shearer named Samuel Hoffmeister (also known as ‘Frenchy’) was involved in a chase with three policemen after allegedly setting fire to the woolshed on the Dagworth Homestead. Rather than surrender to the authorities, Hoffmeister is said to have shot and killed himself at the Combo Waterhole.
Waltzing Matilda tells the story of a swagman, with an appetite for other people’s livestock, who drowns himself in a billabong rather than be captured, and then later returns to haunt the billabong. It is the swagman’s laconic attitude that seems to echo the Australian lifestyle:
‘Once a jolly swagman, camped by a Billabong
Under the shade of a Coolabah tree
And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled
Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?’
In 2003 the International Rugby Board dared to ban the singing of Waltzing Matilda at the Rugby World Cup to be staged in Sydney, claiming it was not ‘culturally significant’ to Australians, much to the chagrin of John Howard, Australia’s Prime Minister of the time. ‘Waltzing Matilda is deeply evocative of Australian culture and how can you justify trying to ban the singing of it?’ asked Howard. ‘But in any event I pose the question, how are they going to stop it being sung? You try and stop 82,000 Australians singing Waltzing Matilda; you’ll only make their night.’
Bradbury agrees. ‘Ridiculous!’ is his response to the Rugby Board’s decision, suggesting perhaps that the IRB had been living under a rock the size of Uluru. In his book ‘Last Man Standing’ Bradbury writes that the song was sung in gusto at a bar full of Aussies in Salt Lake City celebrating his momentous win. ‘I don’t think it would disappoint a lot of people if our national anthem was Waltzing Matilda, it’s the most iconic song that anybody can think of.’
For generations the song has captivated Australians who embraced the swaggie’s fighting spirit and larrikin cheek, and nowhere is it sung with as much feeling as in our sporting arenas.
On an unusual muggy September evening at Melbourne Park in 2003, The Fanatics, Australia’s unofficial cheer squad, were out in force at a Davis Cup semi-final which was looking grim.
Lleyton Hewitt, gasping for air in the back corner of the court, was two sets to love, and 3-5 down in the third set. Hewitt lifted his weary eyes to the crowd. ‘I’ve seen the little fella do it so many times before, I had a funny feeling he could still do it,’ says Warren Livingstone, founder of The Fanatics.
A desperate rendition of Waltzing Matilda from the stands, led by Livingstone and his faithful, resonated through Rod Laver Arena. It seemed to spark the patriotic young Australian.
‘The thing with Rusty is, you always hold out hope till the last point,’ Livingstone said. ‘He is amazing that way.’ Though Hewitt’s on court antics had polarised the media and pockets of the public throughout his career, his never say die attitude was something that eventually earned him the respect of the nation. Relishing the opportunity of clawing his way back to a five set home soil victory, Hewitt glared ominously in the direction of Roger Federer, his formidable opponent. Later he would describe the win as ‘beats the hell out of winning Wimbledon or the U.S. Open.’
Hewitt’s Davis Cup heroics on clay in Brazil in 2001 against home town hero Gustavo Kuerten also made a huge impression on Livingstone: ‘Eight thousand people were singing something like “go home faggot” in Spanish. It was flabbergasting, but he used that to fire himself up, and against all the odds, he crushed Gugga.’ Steve Frazer, former head of sports management firm Octagon was quoted in The Australian Magazine in 2003: ‘not since Jimmy Connors has there been a player who so badly wants to stick it up your arse.’
Is that the charm of underdog victories? Is it about sticking it to the opponent? Or is it about daring to dream, no matter how slim the possibilities? Steven Bradbury feels that the tall poppy syndrome has a lot to do with it. ‘Aussies like more than most to see the underdog get up, most other countries when they’ve got a champion like to see that person win forever, but in Australia we like to see people do well, for a while, but maybe not too well. I think there’s something to be learned from that American mindset though.’ Bradbury explains that even though his win was 12 years ago he still receives letters from parents who have used his inspirational story as an example to their kids of never giving up, no matter the obstacles. ‘I think children need their tyres pumped up sometimes, I think in Australia we sometimes say kids aren’t good enough, or they shouldn’t worry about that sport, that sort of thing.’ Salt Lake City was Bradbury’s fourth Olympic appearance, he had endured two horrendous injuries in the prime of his career, including an incident in 1994 where he came perilously close to bleeding out on the ice when a collision with another skater’s blade sliced open his leg and saw him lose two thirds of his blood. Another devastating blow followed in 2000 when he broke his neck in a training accident and spent six weeks with a halo brace screwed into his skull. Though the headlines in 2002 were as though he’d come from nowhere to win a gold medal, Bradbury was in truth no accidental hero, he had fought with trademark guts and determination to put himself in a position to compete in another Olympic final.
If determination is the appeal, arguably the favourite of Australia’s underdog success stories belongs to the 61 year old potato farmer from Colac, ironically named ‘Young’ who won the gruelling 875 kilometre Westfield Sydney to Melbourne Ultramarathon in 1983.
Australians fell in love with the late Cliff Young; whose now famous unorthodox shuffle was legacy of long hours spent training in gumboots on his property in Beech’s Forrest. In her book ‘Forever Young: The Cliff Young story’ Julietta Jameson writes of the growing adulation experienced by Young as he shuffled along the Hume Highway: ‘He was original but loveably familiar, a combination of listening to Dad ’n’ Dave on the wireless and watching an underdog team win the Grand Final.’ She then explains Young’s unassuming character as he was greeted by so many well-wishers along his journey. ‘He was humble, someone who shared his success with those who admired it. When it comes to star-making, there are few talents more powerful than making other people feel included.’ Perhaps Young captured the essence of Australia’s identification with the underdog best, someone who could relate to the ups and downs of everyday Australians. It is the power of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. It is the power of hope.
Another author of the Cliff Young story is ultra-running historian Phil Essam. Having competed against Young on a number of occasions, Essam is now the Director of Helping Ultras Ltd, based in Canberra. ‘I wouldn’t say that Cliff was really the underdog in that race,’ says the quietly spoken Essam, as we sit in the comfort of a cosy bar in Manuka, ‘but I would say he was undervalued.’ He explains that Young did have quite a few runs on the board in ultra-running prior to the inaugural Sydney to Melbourne event. ‘I would place him about half way in that field, it was only two months prior to that day when Cliff won a 100 mile race at Manly.’ Though most were unaware of Young’s running history, it was his withered, toothless appearance that seemed to appeal to the nation (it was reported he raced without his false teeth, because they clattered about too much). Jameson writes: ‘on the second evening of the Westfield Ultra, when Channel Ten news ran a story on the race, particularly its scrawny, aesthetically challenged oldest participant, oddballs might just have been flavour of the month.’ Essam is pensive as he absorbs this description: ‘1983 was a funny era in Australia,’ he says, ‘I think we were looking for something new, the economy was a bit tougher, 1983 was the year for that sort of thing, it was the same we year we won the America’s Cup.’ When asked what Young’s reaction may have been had someone predicted the euphoric response to his victory, Essam chuckles: ‘Oh it would have been something like “Bugger off mate!” if you had of told him he’d be on the Don Lane Show? Well, he would never have expected the fuss that eventuated.’
We loved it when John Bertrand and his boys stole the America’s Cup with a sneaky winged keel, our Prime Minister Bob Hawke famously declaring that ‘any boss who sacks anyone for not turning up today is a bum!’ We ran every mile with the 61 year old farmer who captured our hearts. We laughed with joy as the blonde tipped, spiky haired dude from Brisbane watched the stars collide and collected the Gold. ‘What is your favourite underdog victory (apart from your own)?’ I ask Bradbury: ‘My favourite would have to be Kieran Perkins, when he won from lane eight, in the 1500 in Atlanta. He won every 1500 metre race forever, and then Grant Hackett eventually came along, and I was ecstatic that someone had finally knocked him off, but things hadn’t gone well for Perkins leading up to Atlanta and he only made that final by two one hundredths of a second, by then everyone had written him off. I’ve thought about that race, it was a learning experience, it taught me that I shouldn’t have been happy to see him beat by Hackett at the next Olympics, a lot of Australians have that attitude with that tall poppy syndrome, to see Perkins win that gold medal from lane eight, that’s up there in our most highly rated underdog victories of all time.’
Although not a sporting hero and arguably not a ‘hero’ at all, another underdog who undoubtedly benefited from the emphathy of the Australian public was bushranger Ned Kelly.
As the winter sunshine glistens through the gums on the lush green valleys of North East Victoria, I head out to the historic town of Beechworth for the annual Ned Kelly Festival. It is not hard to fathom Australia’s romance with bushranger folktales driving through this countryside of rolling hills, craggy rocks and beautiful waterfalls.
Former Indigo Shire Mayor Vic Issell is preparing to read ‘The Jerilderie Letter,’ dictated by Ned Kelly to gang member Joe Byrne, who scribed the letter in 1879. It contains a detailed account of Kelly’s struggles with the authorities, describing many cases of alleged police corruption and justifying many of his actions as self-defence. It was intended for Jerilderie’s newspaper Editor Sam Gill; however it ended up being delivered instead to the Bank of New South Wales, where unfortunately it remained hidden for 90 years.
The small room is filled with around 35 people, there are the long grey haired fellows in R.M. Williams Drizabones, a smartly dressed urban couple, a local comedian, two women in their 40s taking selfies on their iPhone (I wonder what Kelly would have made of that?), two young men dressed in trendy black leather jackets, a number of middle aged couples, and one or two young families. The Kelly story it would appear interests a vast cross section of the community.
The general consensus at the end of Issell’s impressive reading is: ‘Well said Ned.’ Most reflect on the eloquence of the speech for its time, and the command of the English language displayed by a man who had not been to school since he was 10. Clearly Ned was no dill.
As I roam the cobbled streets of Beechworth I ask a gentleman decked out in trooper regalia ‘Ned Kelly, legend or loser?’ He gives a hearty laugh as he thinks only for a second before his reply. ‘Oh, Ned was absolutely a loser, that’s why he is such a legend!’ It is this anti-establishment undercurrent and support for the oppressed that seems to fuel most of the positive remarks made about Ned Kelly. No-one is able to say in one absolute statement that he was a ‘legend’ as they must justify this statement with a balanced viewpoint; he was an underdog undoubtedly, but a hero not-so-much.
An 11 year old little girl grins shyly as she responds earnestly to my question: ‘Was Ned Kelly a bad man, or a good man?’ Her answer is possibly the best I’ve been given all morning. ‘No, my Mum said my Dad is a good man, she said Ned tried hard to be good, but he did bad things.’ In one short sentence she has pointed out that everyday people do good things in their community, and some really battle to do so, but when the going gets tough nothing justifies murder or theft.
Pondering the common thread of all of my underdog discussions, one philosophy is clearly evident in each.
Whether it be Paterson’s swagman returning to haunt the billabong, Ned Kelly’s defiant last stand and ‘such is life’ statement at the gallows, 82,000 people breaking the rules to sing Waltzing Matilda at the Rugby World Cup, or another audacious Australian sporting victory, Steven Bradbury’s signature sign off represents the underlying attitude present in all of Australia’s underdog legends:
Never give up.