Rio Olympic and Paralympic Games

Legislative Council
Wednesday 19 October 2016





Adjourned debate on motion of Hon. T. T. Ngo:

That this council wishes all Australian athletes every success in competing in the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Rio and, in particular, the South Australian athletes.

(Continued from 27 July 2016.)

The Hon. T.A. FRANKS ( 19:59 :36 ): I rise to speak to the Hon. Tung Ngo's motion commending those South Australians in particular, and, of course Australians, who were off to the Olympics. As we know, the Olympics have come and gone. While I rise in support, I do not do so simply commending those South Australians and Australians who participated in the Olympics but, indeed, I wish to commend all athletes who have participated in these and every Olympics. I do so noting the spirit of the Olympics and, indeed, the modern Olympics, which are that time every four years when individuals strive, on behalf of their countries, for human greatness in the human form at this event.

It is a time that blends sport and culture. Of course, we know that it is hosted by a different country each four years, and that the opening and closing ceremonies are times where those countries show off and showcase their particular cultures, and that those athletes come together in a way that, I think, transcends the boundaries of nation-states. I rise to commend all Olympians and to observe the lives of two particular Olympians who were medallists in the year of my birth, 1968—the Mexico City Olympics.

They are Olympians possibly not well known to us as Australians in terms of the popular culture. One was a Czechoslovakian gymnast who was a many-time medallist, Věra Čáslavská. She attended those Olympics shortly after she had signed the Two Thousand Words Manifesto in Czechoslovakia and shortly before the Russians invaded her country. As a result, a few weeks prior to competing in those Olympics in Mexico City, she fled to the countryside in Moravia where she actually had to train with a fallen tree in the forest as her balance beam, lifting sacks of coal and sacks of potatoes to keep her strength up, and swinging from tree branches, using the forest floor as a vault.

She was known to me when I was growing up as a former elite champion gymnast with a blonde bouffant hairstyle, a very engaging manner, a large smile, and a woman who enchanted Mexico City with her floor routine that featured the Mexican hat dance. She was actually a medallist and she shared the gold medal platform with a Russian gymnast, at which point she turned her head to the right and away when they played the Russian national anthem because her country had just been invaded, she was facing persecution on returning to Czechoslovakia and she had taken a political stand.

Indeed, she paid a high price for that political stand that she took on the podium of the Olympics that day. As she said, 'After ascending the summit of Olympus, the journey downward did not exactly follow the well-trodden path. It consisted of rocks, gorges and a bottomless pit.' Along with other Czech athletes, she was investigated by the new government for being an unhealthy influence. She was barred from competing and, when she refused to recant her political views, she was denied employment as a coach.

After 1975, she was allowed to advise coaches of the national gymnastics team, but was never allowed to travel abroad to competitions. Between 1970 and 1981, she coached the Mexican national team. I think they had a great deal of affection for her, particularly after that particular floor routine with the Mexican hat dance. After the Velvet Revolution of 1989, which ended decades of communist rule, she was appointed as an advisor to President Vaclav Havel on sports and social issues, and, in the 1990s, she was a chairwoman of the Czechoslovakian Olympic committee, after the division of Czechoslovakia, of the Czech Olympic committee and she indeed, returned to be a member of the International Olympic Committee between 1995 and 2001.

But in the 1990s she divorced her husband. Her son wounded him on the dance floor of the nightclub and he died. For 10 years, following that, she suffered depression and became somewhat of a recluse and was rarely seen in public. This was a woman who had engaged the world, who had been a medallist, who was an Olympic athlete, and the story of her life behind that wonderful vision of her becoming a medallist at the Mexico City Olympics is one that I think was sad and devastating and was brought about partly by her stand politically but, of course, also her own personal circumstances.

I also want to talk about an Australian: an Australian who stood in one of the most famous scenes of the Mexico Olympics when he shared the podium with two black athletes. Those athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, had finished first and third in the 200-metres final. Peter Norman, of course, had finished second. Many of us would be very well aware of the symbolism of those two black athletes raising their fists, wearing black leather gloves, as a gesture of protest against racism in their home nation.

Peter Norman, again, on return to his home country—our country—faced persecution, exclusion and battled with depression. He was excluded in many ways, and I must commend the federal parliament in recent years for correcting some of that by moving a motion in support of him and recognising and apologising to him in federal parliament.

I raise these issues because the Olympics is a time when, every four years, we celebrate the greatest, the fastest, the most powerful, the highest, the strongest, the most graceful, the elite and the dedication that these people put into winning medals and representing their nations. However, it is also an event where those people pay high prices in many cases for that Olympic achievement, and they have rich and complicated and sometimes sad lives. Those athletes who put their all on the line for us should not just be remembered for those achievements but recognised for the great battles that they have personally undergone, particularly where they take a political stance. Vera and Peter, to me, are the Olympians that I would like to commend to the chamber tonight.

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