First Olympian almost a hero

Australia’s first Olympian in the inaugural modern Olympic Games in 1896 was from Melbourne the accountant Edwin Flack. However, it could have been someone very different who became a hero in the true sense of the word. I told a version of this story on West Bremer Radio.

Flack raced into Australian sporting folklore by winning both the 800 metres and 1500 metres running events at the Athens Games.

Today he has parks, sports grounds, athletics tracks, courts, complexes, streets and awards named after him. He even has a bronze statue, been on a postage stamp, and is in the Australian Sports Hall of Fame.

Edwin Flack in Athens 1896

Flack joined the London Athletic Club with the specific intent of attending those first Olympics 125 years ago.

At the same time a young man from Kilcoy in south-east Queensland was running against – and beating – the best that the London Athletic Club had to offer.

His name was Arthur Graham Butler and he was in England having completed his schooling at Queensland’s Ipswich Grammar School.

In 1896, the year of those first Olympic Games, Butler beat both the British middle distance champions William King and Edgar Bredin.

In fact, Bredin today is still considered one of England’s greatest athletes having dominated middle-distance races in the first half of the 1890s.

The only reason that Butler didn’t compete and probably win the British championships that year was because of a sprained ankle.

In any case, by the end of the season, Butler was considered probably the best runner that Britain had to offer. He was running sub-two-minute half miles. His times were better than those run by Flack to win in Athens by some magnitude.

But while Edwin Flack wrote himself into history at the Olympic Games, Arthur Butler chose to focus on his medical studies at Cambridge University. Even while dominating the track in 1896, he still came first in surgery and in pathology.

You see, while Flack was to become a sporting hero, Ipswich’s Butler was destined to become a hero in the true sense of the word.

He came home and set up a private medical practice in Kilcoy, Gladstone and then Brisbane.

When the First World War broke out in 1914, he immediately enlisted in the Australian Army medical corps and was one of the first ashore at Gallipoli with Queensland’s fighting 9th Battalion.

Butler was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his actions commencing on that day of the landing, for “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in attending wounded under heavy fire.” The DSO is second only to the Victoria Cross. He was the only medical officer to be awarded the medal at Gallipoli.

Colonel Arthur Graham Butler DSO

He went on to serve in France and Belgium in the battles of Bapaume, Bullecourt and Ypres, where he was Mentioned in dispatches.

Once back in Australia he was responsible for a number of publications, but he’s best known for his work in the compilation of the Official History of the Australian Imperial Force in the First World War.

Butler was chief medical officer in the then Federal Capital Territory at Canberra where he passed away in 1949.

Look through all of Butler’s obituaries and biographies and there’s barely a mention of his athletic exploits. He was the best middle distance runner in the British Empire and possibly the world.

That’s because everything else was overshadowed by his heroism in the First World War, post-war contribution to veterans, and his medical work in Australia.

He might not be in the Australian Sports Hall of Fame, but his portrait hangs in the Australian War Memorial.

And if you don’t believe that Arthur Butler could have been a better athlete than Edwin Flack – just months before the 1896 Olympics, Butler beat Flack in a four-mile race at Roehampton in England in which Flack couldn’t even finish.

Australia’s first Olympian could have been Arthur Graham Butler.


Photo credits:
Ipswich Grammar School Athletics team c1917 – Flickr
Edwin Flack in Athens in 1896 – Wikipedia public domain
Colonel Arthur Graham Butler DSO in 1916 – Australian War Memorial H18932

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