Australian Heroes, Young and Old

The recent news from Australia was not the uneventful visit to Washington by the new Prime Minister, Robert Hawke. The real news came out of the performances of Cliff Young, age 61, and Ben Loveland, age 42 months. To use the word “amazing” would be to engage in understatement. Let’s see if you agree.

Cliff Young is a potato farmer who won the classic 542 mile race from Sydney to Melbourne. He cut nearly two days off the previous record. He slept only 15 hours over the six days it took for him to finish ahead of the nine men remaining in the race. He averaged about 93 miles a day. (The runner-up was George Perdon, a mere 58 years old).

Running conditions were described as “absolutely shocking” by the observers. A blinding rain added to dangerous road environments, especially at night when the runners shared space with trucks and cars. Early in the race, Young fell, painfully dislocating his shoulder. He was undeterred, mumbling that the only thing that was going to stop him was that “tape out at Doncaster. That’ll pull me up and no way known will this box stop,” he added.

Because of Young’s shoulder injury and his terribly blistered feet, the race director, John Toleman, asked him on the road to Albury whether he wanted a painkilling injection. “I’m, not letting nobody stick no needles in me,” he replied. When he crossed the finish line, there were brass bands, fireworks and marchers cheering his victory. Prime Minister Hawke sent the traditional message: “Good on ya mate.” Nine thousand people acclaimed his simple response: “It’s a wonderful experience to see you all here today.” He gave half of his $10,000 prize money to the other runners.

The non-smoking vegetarian told reporters he will be getting back to his farm, west of Melbourne, the next day. “I’ll be doing the same old job. I’ll be picking up potatoes and rounding up bullocks in my gumboots and getting back to the bush to relax,” he said.

At the shorter end of the age spectrum comes Baby Ben Loveland who is Australia’s junior boomerang champion. He won that title when he was 29 months old in April 1982 against youths up to age fifteen. Since then he has won contests in other countries. Standing confidently at 3-foot-3, he throws his 38 pounds into his 20 yard boomerang throw to wind-up, release and follow-through. He can catch a boomerang between his little toes.

Baby Ben’s grandfather, Bunny Read, is Australia’s longtime boomerang champion. He describes his grandson as “a dedicated little fellow. If he wants to do something, he’ll stick with it till he gets it.” Before the prodigal tot could even walk, he would crawl with a boomerang in his hand instead of a rattle. He even took them to bed with him. While touring the U.S. this month, Baby Ben was exposed to the adulation of 50,000 fans in California’s Oakland County Coliseum. One nine year old boy asked him for his autograph in Portland. “I can’t write,” said Baby Ben.

What is one to make of the marathon miracle man and the little boomerang whiz? That it is risky to place arbitrary limits on the endurance of older people and the coordinating skills of the very young. These limits are often culturally determined and when one demonstrates how they can be broken by steadfastness, others are encouraged to do the same or at least are less likely to be “what they are supposed to be” at their stage of life.

But there is something more to be learned from such feats of physical stamina and grace. What would our world be like if such traits were displayed in broader scope by more people within the area of social betterment? There are vastly more humans in this world who want their Earth to be a better place to live than there are people who have contrary designs. But the ethic of determination, of refusing to give up, of persisting is far more present on the athletic field than on the civic field.

Has anyone ever heard of any athlete saying to a coach at half time: “We’re so far behind coach, I think I’ll just take off. See you at Monday practice.” Yet there is so often that overburdened sense of resignation or surrender detected among sincere people who are considering or trying their hand at some community or national reform.

As a child, I was always fascinated by that great Yankee First Baseman, Lou Gehrig who probably set the most unbeatable record in sports. He played 2130 consecutive games. No injury, no flu, no bout of lumbago broke his iron stamina. More than his long home runs and his superb batting average, Gehrig’s determination was the message that transcended his sport. And similarly transcending are the achievements of Cliff Young and Baby Ben.

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