Opinion piece – Cecil Set Us a Gold Example

The Hon Matt Thistlethwaite MP
Assistant Minister for Defence
Assistant Minister for Veterans' Affairs
Assistant Minister for the Republic

Second Lieutenant Cecil Healy lost his life on the Western Front in 1918. 

Six years prior, he was representing Australia at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, in the men's 100m freestyle. Cecil was a favourite for the gold, but it was shaping up to be a hotly contested final against the American champion and surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku.

But during the semi-final, Duke was disqualified for failing to turn up for the race. There had been a miscommunication concerning the start time. Olympic officials ruled the race would go ahead without Duke. With his rival eliminated, Cecil was a shoe-in for the gold.

But the Australian refused to swim. Unless Duke was reinstated, he would not race. A short stand-off ensued, but Duke was allowed to swim.

In the subsequent final Duke won the gold, Cecil took silver.

Cecil relinquished an almost certain victory to ensure fair play. For Cecil, it wasn't a question of glory or medals, it was about doing the right thing.

These principles guided Cecil throughout his life. When the war broke out just two years later, despite his reservations about the justification for the war, he enlisted.

What he and his mates met on the Western Front can hardly be imagined: the new technologies of the industrial age were turned to wholesale slaughter.

Cecil was given a job as a quartermaster, but taking a safe job didn't sit well with him, knowing what others were enduring. Guided once more by his principles, Cecil insisted on joining his mates on the front.

After undertaking officer training to become a platoon commander Cecil Healy was shot and killed on 29 August 1918 leading his troops attacking a German trench.

Cecil was one of 414,000 Australians who enlisted during the First World War, and one of 62,000 who never made it home.

He remains the only Australian Olympic gold medallist to die on the battlefield.

As we pause to remember, we should reflect on the values Cecil and his fellow Australians have carried into war: courage, selflessness, endurance, and loyalty. These qualities speak to our better nature and are values we should aspire to.

From a grateful nation, we say thank you.

Lest we forget.


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