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Herb Elliott is back with the Olympic family

Herb Elliott is back with the Olympic family

July 1998

Elliott, the epitome of ruthless competition in a golden era of Australian sport, captivates the high-powered audience with talk of winning in sport and life by giving not 98, not 99, but 100 per cent.

But then the Olympic legend is upstaged by one of his own young Communicators - a babe-in-the woods in 200metre breaststroke swimmer Nadine Neumann. She steps into the spotlight and woos the crowd with a 10-minute rendition of her trials and tribulations in reaching Atlanta. It's as inspiring as it is dramatic.

"How can you possibly resist an Olympic Games, in your own country, in your own city at the turn of the century. I certainly can't," she enthuses.

Her words are music to Herb Elliott's ears. He returns to the stage, momentarily stunned by her speech: "Wow that was fantastic."

The circle of life has turned for Elliott, the 1960 Olympic 1500m champion. He's taken on the job of Director of Athlete and Corporate Relations for the Australian Olympic Committee, a role that's been tailor-made to tap into his spirit of Olympism, his killer instinct and business acumen.

Clearly Nadine Neumann, is one athlete who needs little motivation, but there are hundreds of Olympians around Australia who will turn to the former Olympic great for enlightenment and guidance.

Such is the measure of Elliott, now 59, that it seems he commands respect from all who encounter him. Nearly four decades after his Rome gold medal, Elliott still stands as a great in the Pantheon of not just Australian but international Olympic champions.

He had, and still has, what they call the Right Stuff. Remember this: Herb Elliott only began serious training as an 18-year-old during the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and less than two years later set a world mile record. He was never beaten over the mile or 1500m and won his Olympic gold by almost 15 metres, aged 22 and in a world record time. It was one of the most authoritative victories over that distance in Olympic history and his winning time of 3 minutes 35.6 seconds has rarely been bettered in Olympic finals since. And all this on a cinders track; widely regarded as being five to six seconds slower than modern synthetic rubber surfaces.

Elliott has returned to Australia after almost three years overseas as North American chief executive of sportsgoods company Puma.

He believes his AOC role is the perfect job. "Yeah, I think it's the best way I could possibly think of going out of the work force. I've got a four-year arrangement with the AOC which will take me through to 2001, which puts me nicely into my sixties and it will be time to start thinking about taking it a bit easier then. It's just great to be part of it. Wouldn't miss it for quids."

AOC President John Coates first had discussions with Elliott about the Olympic champion's involvement in Atlanta last year. Elliott always wanted to be involved in Sydney 2000 and repeated that ambition at Atlanta, where Elliott was a member of the AOC's Athlete Services team.

The new AOC job, which covers everything from overseeing government funding for our athletes, to ensuring Australian Olympic team sponsors get value for their dollar, was created for him and Coates is clearly thrilled to have him on board. "He's a great Australian. He has great rapport with the athletes. He's very effective," he says.

There are several who'll vouch for that. Rower Peter Antonie won gold in the men's double scull at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and was shattered when he finished eighth four years later at Atlanta. He was wallowing in self-doubt when Elliott came and sat next to him on the team bus after the event.

"I was trying to come to terms with going so shithouse, and he helped me by convincing me that success all comes down to an athlete's attitude," says Antonie. "Many other people talk crap, but with Herb, it's no-nonsense. I've always, in my mind, held him up as probably our greatest Olympian."

World championship marathon medallist Steve Moneghetti says Elliott is one of the greatest listeners he has ever encountered. "Some people of his stature talk at you and give advice, but Herb has this great ability to give you 100 per cent of his attention while you are talking to him and is genuinely deeply concerned with what you are saying," Moneghetti says.

Make no mistake, come September 2000, the Australian public's appetite for medals will be insatiable. We won nine gold in Atlanta and the AOC has promised at least 60 gold, silver and bronze medals in Sydney.

In a bid to give our athletes their best shot at reaching that target, the AOC has given more clout to a body called the Athletes Commission. Its aim is to smooth the passage to the Olympic dais for Australian athletes and Elliott's job on the Commission is to act as go-between with the AOC.

Oarsome Foursome team member, and Athletes Commission chair, Mike McKay says Elliott gives the advisory committee credibility.

"Herb is not there as a puppet," he says. "He brings credibility from his business background. Because he has an understanding of both business and sport, he can look at the forces from both sides, and ensure there is going to be a win-win situation for everyone. It gives confidence to athletes knowing that someone of his experience and standing is looking after the interest of athletes. He has such a positive attitude and can-do approach to everything."

Not that winning gold medals is everything to Elliott. Surprisingly, for someone who was so driven and focused on grinding his opponents into the track, he has a holistic approach to sport. For him sport hasn't just been the pursuit of glory and records, it's as much about developing the wholeness of the athlete. "Sport is a great way of bringing yourself into focus and helping to develop that internal strength and self-mastery that you need to be a successful athlete," he says.

Oddly for a man who was often seen by his competitors as aloof, Elliott has little tolerance of egos in sport. This subject prompts a typical tell-it-like-it-is Elliott response. "If you use your sporting success as a means of being a big-head, then you will just remain a big-head and that means you still remain pretty shallow about everything," he says.

Elliott's running days - even his jogging days - are way behind him. Self-discipline with his diet and a regular bike ride has left him still mentally and physically fit, lean and sharp-eyed. His life has been crammed with achievement and milestones - a life which changed direction forever as he sat in the crowd of the 1956 Melbourne Olympics when, as an aimless, mixed-up, heavy-smoking 18-year-old, he marvelled at the skill and dedication on display and vowed to use his own sporting prowess to the fullest.

Now, as one of the patriarchs of Australia's Olympic family, he hopes the 2000 Games in Sydney will also inspire and motivate young people around Australia to great deeds.

This page last updated: Saturday 20 March 2010

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