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From humble farm girl to triple Olympian and ASIO profile - The story of Shirley Strickland

18 December 2018

AOC: Smuggling letters to potential Hungarian defectors while evading the watchful eyes of Russian agents in Melbourne, tracked by Australia’s spy watchdog ASIO for suspect activities in the 1950s, rejecting calls to retire to home duties because she was married, past 30 and had a baby.

What strange tale is this?

It’s the story of one of Australia’s best-known Olympians and our most successful track and field athlete, who strived for success and courted controversy in equal measure. 

And did I mention she had a degree in nuclear physics?

Shirley Strickland competed in three Olympic Games. London in 1948 (3 medals), Helsinki in 1952 where she won her first gold in the 80 metres hurdles (world record) and finally in Melbourne where she won another hurdles gold (world record) and a gold in the 4 x 100 metres (yet another world record) to end her career.

Her medal tally was unsurpassed by any woman athlete in track and field for half a century.  She was the first woman to ever successfully defend an Olympic track and field title.

But behind all this success is an inspirational story of controversy, disappointments, and the challenges faced by a free-thinking, determined woman in a pre-feminist era, at the height of the Cold War.

She became her own coach, applying her scientific knowledge and intuition into all aspects of her training and preparation.

Shirley de la Hunty (her married name) died in 2004 but the full expanse of her extraordinary past has been painstakingly assembled, piece by surprising piece by her son Matthew de la Hunty, who has his eyes on a feature length film documenting his mother’s unusual journey.

The tale of farm-girl makes-good is full of surprising twists and turns. The woman who rejected the doubters, revelling in the hard work, and possessed a singular determination to achieve the Olympic ideals of old, fitness of body and mind.

Matthew chaperoned Shirley to her various commitments in her later years and prised many stories and insights from her, many with that familiar Olympic ring.

After his mother passed away, Matthew embarked on a journey of discovery, a search that has unearthed a remarkable Australian story with far more intrigue than even Matthew expected.

The involvement of ASIO came as a hunch during Matthew’s research.

“It occurred to me during this process that she would likely have an ASIO profile as a person of interest. Thanks to my sister Barbara's efforts I can now confirm that was the case from 1948 to 1971. Who would have thought it? “

Matthew says his mother’s socialist leanings as expressed in an interview in 1948, and her appointed role as a physical instructor for the Eureka Youth League (affiliated with the Communist Party) lead to her becoming a person of interest with ASIO. 

Most controversial was her decision to travel Warsaw in 1955, behind the Iron Curtain where she broke the world record in the 100 metres sprint, an achievement that was all but ignored back home because of the Cold War tensions. Shirley Strickland

“To go to Warsaw in 1955, befriend all those people, smash the world record for the 100m and come back to yet more controversy, well she became very cynical. She wasn't allowed to wear Australian colours in Warsaw. Discovering she had run for WA instead, and finding the footage in the Russian archives was a total revelation.”

“She was 30 years old and everyone said "don't go, it is a commie plot, you are out of season, no, no". I think she used that to great effect, "I'll show you!" She used the negatives to fuel her determination.”

“She saw herself as a global person, she was famous all over the east and west, because she saw us all as equals. She saw her sporting life as a way to bring people together in difficult times. She passed notes to the Hungarian athletes who wanted to defect in Melbourne, whilst earning 2 gold medals.”

At the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, Shirley was honoured in that wonderful group of Australian women athletes who carried the torch into the Opening Ceremony, culminating with Cathy Freeman lighting the Olympic flame.

Matthew says his mother was thrilled that Cathy went on to succeed, and was equally delighted herself to be recognised in that way.

 “She was a pioneer and a rebel! But those things are circumstantial. She didn't set out to be either, but her singular determination to do things her own way, the best way she could do them in her own mind, created those impressions among others. In relation to her ultimate success in Melbourne, she had endured all sorts of abuse and controversy to get there.”

“I have seen various documentaries and read all the sporting facts about Shirley but somehow it all seems so matter-of-fact. I thought a film could explore more of her true character and it occurred to me that I was in the best place to tell it.”

“Shirley was a woman who achieved greatness through challenging times. I wanted people to realise that she wasn't born into greatness and it doesn't come easily. It is pretty inspirational, what she did on so many levels and the film will hopefully inspire women of today, well anyone really, to understand that triumph and success rides a very rocky road.”

Matthew has engaged screenwriter David Warner to complete the script that will capture this incredible story. The fellow Western Australians met through the music industry. Matthew with his own band Tall Tales and True - and David earlier in the piece, scoring the hit “Suburban Boy” with his band, Dave Warner’s from the Suburbs, before going on to write crime novels, screenplays and other written work.

The story of Shirley Strickland is anything but a tall tale and she was no 1950s suburban girl. As a mother aged 31, she was pressured to step aside for younger talent ahead of Melbourne 1956, but she persisted, winning double gold.

A fund has been set up to enable the project to proceed, specifically, to get the script completed, with the ultimate goal being to have the film ready for 2020, and the Tokyo Olympics. Tax deductible donations can be made HERE until 31 December.

Strath Gordon

olympics.com.au

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