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Chapter Fifteen


Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear - not absence of fear. Except a creature be part coward, it is not a compliment to say it is brave.

Mark Twain

Pudd’nhead Wilson


When American sprint icon Carl Lewis was an unknown but promising teenage athlete in New Jersey, he found inspiration in a quiet, shy Australian woman, Olympics star Betty Cuthbert. In 1994, before a Melbourne dinner in her honour, he lauded her “courage and conviction”, which had empowered her to do far more than anyone would have dreamed possible. He said she was one of the champions who had created his interest in the Olympics.


The Betty Cuthbert story is often told. At her Sydney secondary school she discovered a talent for sprinting, and she developed into a world-class athlete. But Australia had several top-class women sprinters, and so, in 1955, Betty - then aged 17 - spent most of her savings on tickets to the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, never expecting that she might be selected to compete.


She was chosen, and became known as Australia’s “Golden Girl” after winning gold medals in the 100-metres sprint - the first gold medal ever won by an Australian on Australian soil - the 200-metres and the 4x100-metres relay.


She went to the 1960 Rome Olympics, but injuries meant she failed to win any medals, and she announced her retirement. It was at this point that her journey into courage really began. While working at her parents’ plant nursery she heard a voice telling her to run again. The voice became insistent, and after months of indecision she resumed training. She did not find it easy: she was often in pain as she worked to restore strength and speed.


Then, shortly before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, she developed a painful foot injury that left her unable even to walk properly, let alone sprint. A series of experts could find no remedy. It was only a chance meeting with a Sydney chiropodist that led to the right diagnosis - a dislocated bone that had not shown up on x-rays. Secret treatment meant she was at full strength when she started in the Olympics 400-metres final, and in an explosive race she won her fourth gold medal.



In Chapter 1, we saw examples of the kind of courage that wins bravery awards: dramatic rescues from burning aircraft, from raging seas or from mining disasters. Naturally, our hearts stop when we read of these and similar acts of heroism, like the mother who rushes into the burning house to save her screaming child. But is this really courage? Perhaps it is desperation. Or just instinct.


There is another version of courage: a quiet, steely determination that succeeds in the face of adversity. Indeed, the kind that involves flamboyant gestures may sometimes be classified as foolhardiness. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle noted this when he wrote that, “the brave man is the man who faces or fears the right thing for the right purpose in the right manner at the right moment”


He saw the fearless person as “mad”, and the person who is over-bold as rash. In fact, he believed that the rash man was, really, feeble. “They swagger a good deal when things look bright, but make themselves scarce in the presence of actual danger.”


But courage retains its aura as the virtue we most admire. Writer Robert Louis Stevenson described it as “the footstool of the virtues, upon which they stand”, and Samuel Johnson saw it as “a quality so necessary for maintaining virtue that it is always respected, even when it is associated with vice”.


Teaching courage to a child means exposing him or her to stories of bravery, as well as encouraging the child to extend himself or herself through taking some risks - reasonable risks - by fighting for beliefs, standing by friends who may be teased for being different, admitting mistakes, and putting aside one’s own views in favour of those of others. British wartime leader Sir Winston Churchill said that it takes courage not only to stand up and speak but also to sit down and listen.


Unless we raise youth who possess moral courage we end up with citizens who may appear to be tolerant, but who in fact lack commitment to anything much at all. British writer Dorothy Sayers expressed it like this:


In the world it is called tolerance, but in hell it is called despair….The sin that believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and remains alive because there is nothing for which it will die.


Betty Cuthbert is deeply religious. She did not make much of her faith in her autobiography, Golden Girl, which was published in 1966. But recently she has been more open.


Indeed, she believes it was God telling her to run again, before the 1964 Olympics. In 1992, she told Olympic historian Harry Gordon, author of Australia and the Olympic Games, that: “I knew it was God, and even though I tried to resist I finally just had to give in. It was quite clear.” At the end of her dramatic gold-medal-winning race she felt a great peace. She prayed, and asked God, “Have I done enough?”


The British runner Ann Packer, winner of the Tokyo 800-metres gold medal, came second to Cuthbert in the 400-metres. Much later, Packer was interviewed by author David Hemery, also a former Olympic gold medallist, for his book The Pursuit of Sporting Excellence, and she recalled the contest:


When I spoke to her [Cuthbert] years afterwards, I realised that I wouldn’t know if I could ever have won that race. She is a mystical girl with very strong religious beliefs. I call her mystical because she has an inner understanding of herself which would be very difficult for anyone else to touch and I just felt that she had a stronger belief in herself than I had. She had a very strong character and many, many setbacks have motivated her tremendously. Her depths of reserve enable her to keep coming back - that sort of spirit would be very hard to beat.


In 1997, the Bible Society published a version of the New Testament of the Bible which it titled Towards the Goal, aimed at sporting people. It contained profiles of top Australian athletes, all of whom knew, it said, that “their success doesn’t depend on their sporting ability alone, but on their relationship with God”. They included figure skaters Danielle McGrath and Stephen Carr, jockey Darren Beadman, rugby league player Brad Mackay, tennis champion Margaret Court and AFL man Steve Lawrence.


Betty Cuthbert was included, too. She said that just before she ran in the Melbourne Olympics her grandmother passed to her a verse from the writings of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah: “But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength. They will be strong like eagles soaring upward on wings; they will walk and run without getting tired.”


There is irony in this prophecy, because in 1969 Betty Cuthbert learned that she was suffering from multiple sclerosis. She must now move about in a motorised wheelchair.


I recall my Auntie Sheila in London, who over a couple of decades became progressively incapacitated from multiple sclerosis - though, as happens so often with this cruel disease, she was blessed with enough periods of remission to lure her into the false hope that she was on the mend.


Determined to continue her career with a market-research firm, she used to drive to the office in a specially adapted Morris 1100, struggling into it each morning, usually unaided, from her wheelchair. It took courage, yet every morning there was real fear in her eyes as she set off in heavy traffic on the short drive from Hendon to Camden.


As the quote from author Mark Twain at the head of this chapter suggests, fear is often an ingredient of courage; it may even be a necessary ingredient. Martin Luther King talked about the necessity of building “dykes of courage to hold back the flood of fear”, while Ernest Hemmingway simply said: “Courage is grace under pressure.”


I do not know to what degree, if any, fear has played a part in Betty Cuthbert’s life. She has said that after the initial diagnosis she spent 10 years travelling to other countries in search of a cure, before coming to an acceptance of it.


Now she works to help MS sufferers and others. In 1981, Australians were shocked to learn that she was surviving on an invalid pension. (She had gained fame at a time when athletes were true amateurs, and she didn’t make money from her successes.) As a result, there have been a number of fund-raisers held for her. And she insists that a portion of the money raised must go to help the needy.


As a nation, we may feel discomfort discussing notions of character and heroism, yet we still recognise it when we see it. That is one reason Betty Cuthbert remains so widely admired, even when other great athletes of the past are barely recalled.


Through her faith and courage she serves as an inspiration. She says she now accepts her disease, and does not ask why it should have happened to her. Indeed, she told the Sydney Morning Herald in 1997 that she believed God wants her to use her fame to generate publicity to help other sufferers.


I suspect that God is using her for a much wider purpose: to teach us all-important lessons about the fragility of worldly fame, about courage and service, about the importance of life and about suffering.


In a cold age when many voices are calling for euthanasia for the terminally ill and when, in the words of American commentator Father Richard John Neuhaus, we have “a culture that is increasingly given to inflating the horrors of disability, sickness and dying in order to make the case for relieving people of the burden of living”, it is witness such as Betty Cuthbert’s that teaches us there can be meaning in suffering. She teaches us what it means to be alive.




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