The Spirit of Sport

Tokyo 1964: Great Britain's Ann Packer (left) silver medallist acknowledges defeat at the hands of Australia's Betty Cuthbert (centre), winner of the 400m. Bronze medallist Judith Amooreis on the right.


Two events this week in the world of athletics have sent me off thinking about the essence of sport. By coincidence, a friend, Daniel O’Leary has been thinking about spirituality in sport too.

Daniel and I share a fascination with one of the events of the week, Usain Bolt’s 100m final at the World Athletics Championships. I watched it on TV live when I was in England. Daniel was there trackside.

The second event of the week for me was news of Betty Cuthbert‘s death.

Daniel has given me permission to share his thoughts on his experience of being present at the 100m final in London. He and I have been discussing sport for the last thirty-five years since we were first introduced by my wife Sue at St Mary’s College in Strawberry Hill.

This is what he wrote.

Gold of the Spirit

A picture of Daniel O'LearySeated near the finish we held our breath. The intense hush was shattered by a gun. Bolt blasted from the blocks. The noise was deafening from a packed stadium. It was pure spectacle. Inside ten seconds it was over. Our hero, after all, was mortal.

But in the drama of the day, was he more than that? At the bitter point of his defeat, did he not prove himself to be a golden hero of the soul? While thousands vented their gall on the new and quickly humiliated champion Justin Gatlin, we watched the warm exchange of words and hugs between victor and vanquished. There was a grace in the way Usain Bolt acknowledged his shared humanity with his conqueror, showed his respect and appreciation for another great athlete. ‘’He has done his time,’ he said later,’ he is a good person, he has worked hard, he is my friend and an excellent person’. And then there was an iconic moment, carrying traces of the Prodigal Son, when Gatlin bent his knee before Usain Bolt.

Usain Bolt and Justin Gatlin embrace

At a pinnacle of a celebration of worldwide sporting achievement it was a sad and shameful day for the furious and booing fanatics described by champion Welsh hurdler Dai Greene as ‘savage’. ‘The media and the masses have turned Justin Gatlin into a villain,’ tweeted James Ellington, former British international 100m sprint champion. It is one thing to be deeply disappointed that your hero lost; it is quite another to spit out bile on the one who ended his dream. If anyone lost in disgrace it was the ‘fans’. They clouded a happy summer’s evening that was full of beauty, blessing and delight for families into an ugly mist of personal pique. The weather changed then and many sensitive souls felt a chill. In a world riven by dark forces another golden opportunity for a brief but unique experience of universal harmony was shattered.

There is a deep and invisible power at the heart of the sporting life. Australian Herb Elliott, who took the 1500 metres gold medal in Rome (1960), wrote of the ‘spirituality’ of athletic competition. So did North American Ed Moses, another world champion (400m), when he spoke of the influence and force of sport to unite the world. And so did Nelson Mandela when he said that sport ‘can create hope and peace where there was previously only despair’. Golf hero Paul McGinley who witnessed some really demeaning behaviour at a Ryder Cup competition wrote, ‘intense competitiveness that also touches the soul is the essence of great sport.’ There is more to sport than the medals.

There is an invincible, un-extinguishable light of the spirit that lasts longer than the shining of a gold medal. We were not blessed with such an enlightenment on Saturday night, 5 August. But we do have sublime examples of it.

One such moment happened in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. World Champion Jesse Owens was watching his dream slipping away. He had fouled his first two attempts at the long jump. His blond German competitor Ludwig ‘Lutz’ Long explained to him how he could avoid a final foul by using a simple strategy. Owens took his advice and went on to win the gold medal with a final leap of 8.06 metres. And Hitler stormed out of the stadium. Moved by the spontaneous graciousness of his closest rival, Jess Owens later said, ‘It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler. You can melt down all the medals and cups I have won and they would not provide the gold- plating for the twenty-four carat friendship that I felt for Lutz Long at that moment’.


Daniel and I have not discussed Betty. Daniel was involved in athletics when Betty was running in Melbourne and Tokyo.

I was just four at the time of the Melbourne Olympics when Betty ran into history

This was Betty in 2012

Betty’s personal best times were:

  • 100 metres 11.4s
  • 200 metres 23.2s
  • 400 metres 52.01s

Her personal best for the 200 metres would have positioned her just 0.8s behind the winners of both semi-finals in London 61 years later. Her 100 metres time would have put her 0.55s behind the winner in London. Her 400 metre time would have put her in contention for a 7th place in the London final and 2.12s off the winner Phyllis Francis.

Spirit as the New Edge

Daniel and I came to Usain Bolt from different epistemological traditions. I think we share a profound humanistic commitment to the spirit of sport. Betty epitomises everything I hold dear about sport. I love the idea that an 18 year-old can arrive in Melbourne and win three gold medals.

Betty Cuthbert flying at the Melbourne 1956 Games is a feature of Chapter 15 of the book From Athens With Pride, written by Harry Gordon and launched in Sydney on 9 May 2014.

However, the picture at the top of this post is my enduring memory of Betty. I saw her race in Tokyo in 1964 on a black and white television in my home in North Wales. The commentary that day focused on Ann Packer who won the silver medal for Great Britain. But I do remember the commentator, David Coleman, making specific mention of the spirit that connected all three athletes at the end of the race.

I am not making an argument for a golden age but do want to champion a different kind of sport, at all levels.

I hope that we can stop talking about podiums and talk more about a common humanity that is expressed through athletic effort. This effort is ethically driven and focused on process rather than outcome.

Photo Credits

1964 Final (AOC Media Centre)

Daniel O’Leary (Begin with the Heart)

Justin Gatlin and Usain Bolt (Daily Star)

1956 (AOC Media Centre)

What comes after disruption?

I have spent the morning reflecting on Wayne Goldsmith’s Facebook post about the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS).

The introduction to his post includes this observation:

It’s breaking my heart – and I am outside the Australian system these days – I can’t imagine what it must be like to actually work there.

I empathise with Wayne’s sentiments.

I was fortunate to be at the AIS for five years. I came to Australia in 2002 to be part of a vibrant culture that had so impressed me at the Olympic Games in Sydney 2000.

I do think the Sydney Games disrupted world sport and in doing so placed the Australian high performance system at peril. The triumph for Great Britain at the London Games in 2012 is one example of the disruption being amplified beyond Australia. I think too that the flourishing of Japan and New Zealand among other Olympic nations is part of this process.

Australia’s high water mark in 2000 set a level for other nations. It demonstrated that a commitment to a daily training environment guided by coaches and supported by passionate service providers was scaleable in any country committed to an ethical high performance system (and to those who were not).

Australia had to deal with internal forces of disruption too. Applied sport scientists became targets for increasingly well-funded football codes (particularly rugby league and Australian rules football). Each professional club became a micro institute of sport emboldened by the AIS model.

I believe it was profoundly difficult to address the disruption caused by Sydney 2000 in a federal political structure without a commitment to long term funding for sport. The entrepreneurial spirit that had characterised the AIS in the 1990s appeared to be more constrained by the political climate in the decade after the Games. 

The constraints upon the AIS coincided with professional sport in Australia exploring innovation. These codes were able to manage risk (and face the consequences) rather than avoid it.

Wayne has a ten point action plan for a relevant and resurgent AIS. His point 6 relates to coaching and the role a national coaching institute might play. I see this as a bottom up approach vital to Australia having a values-based sport system.

I do think this is a time of a whole of sport response to why we lay claim to sport being a central life interest for Australians. Our future is more about people than it is about facilities.

I do believe that we have an immense task ahead of us to re-embed daily physical activity in our culture. Teachers and coaches in the community are for me the synapse that allows us to think globally and act locally.

The next decade is a time when a humble Australian sport system might re-invent itself. We might learn from, rather than copy, others whom we have disrupted.

More than ever, we need to persuade young people that sport can be a life interest nourished by a process of learning rather than an economic investment in medal outcomes that loses the soul of personal engagement.

Wayne’s post and my experience at a local school yesterday prompt me to think we can do better by being ourselves.

At the school, it was the last day of term. The whole school (130 pupils) was out in the playground … skipping. It was a torrent of activity and laughter. Year 6s cared for Kindergarten children, boys and girls played together effortlessly. I was delighted that my granddaughter, Ivy, was right amongst it.

I am naive enough to think that care is at the core of the renewal of Australian sport. Our point of difference could be our cultural diversity.

A values based sport system lets go of outcomes, I believe. The outcomes will take care of themselves because in not aspiring to be the best sport system in the world, we can be through our efforts.

I am profoundly grateful to Wayne for enabling me to reflect on my experiences. I love the idea that we can flourish by de-emphasisng facilities and emphasising our people.

Photo Credits

Mongarlowe (Keith Lyons, CC BY 4.0)

St Bede’s (School web site)

Learning across walls with Amy and Ruth


Amy Ludlow and Ruth Armstrong were at the University of Canberra today (I have an introductory post here). Lorana Bartels was their host for the day.

They came to discuss connections between universities and prisons (public institutions doing public good).

Amy and Ruth co-presented. They provided an epistemological background to their Learning Together work. I enjoyed their focus on students working with each other inspired by dialogical insights from Paulo Freire.

Their framework is informed by sociological, criminology and educational perspectives on socially emergent personhood. They located their practice in the communities of learning literature too.


In their conversations about growth, identity and stigma they drew attention to Victor Frankel on presupposing potential as well as discussions of aspirational hope.

They moved on to discuss Richard Sennett‘s work on interactive edges in communities. This helped explore some of the tensions that exist within universities and prisons around innovations in learning. This eased us into conversations about ethical communities of learning that are inclusive and enabling.

At the interactive edges there are opportunities for education to be a subversive good.

Amy and Ruth used some quotes to provide thick description to their presentation. I liked this from Andy:

This course helped me to come back from the corners of society. ‘Them’ and ‘us’ became ‘we’.

I appreciated the journey one student had made when he said at graduation:

This is the first time my family have seen me receive something other than a custodial sentence.

During questions at the end of their co-presentation, Amy and Ruth noted that the evaluation of the program had to be extremely sensitive to avoid any suggestion that this was an experiment. They talked about their use of participatory narrative inquiry to collect participants’ stories.


Participants use a story form to share their stories. These are collected as a formative evaluation of the project. The stories are shared openly within the learning community. These stories are stored digitally and can be analysed for use in meta-commentary of learning experiences.

The session ended with a delightful quote from David Hume:

Tis impossible to separate the chance of good from the risk of ill

… and Lorana’s news of the University of Canberra’s plans for Learning Together projects with partners in Queensland and hopefully in the ACT.

A wonderful way to spend a morning.