News

Australia’s lost Olympian won four medals

27 February 2009

Australia has a newly discovered Olympic hero, and the nation’s tally of Olympic medals has suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, been boosted by four --- three silver and one bronze.

For well over a century Francis (Frank) Gailey, a swimmer from Brisbane, has mistakenly been listed in official records as an American.

He sailed to the United States in February 1904, competed in the Olympic Games in St Louis the following August, and later returned to Australia.

At those Games Gailey contested four events, finishing second in the 220 yards, 440 yards and 880 yards finals, and third in the one mile freestyle.

These were the only Olympics in which distances were measured in yards, and the only ones at which the men’s 880 yards (or 800 metres) freestyle was contested.

That performance gives him the greatest haul of individual medals at a single Olympics of any male Australian.

Shane Gould won five in Munich in 1972, including three gold. Ian Thorpe won five individual medals at two Games --- two in Sydney 2000 and three in Athens 2004 --- as well as four in relays in 2000 and 2004. Daniel Kowalski won three in Atlanta in 1996.

Gailey had been a student at Brisbane Grammar School, and was 22 when he swam in the St Louis Olympics. Because he had joined the San Francisco Olympic club, he was wrongly identified as an American at the time … and the error has been perpetuated in official records ever since.

Gailey returned in 1906 to America, this time as an immigrant, sailing to San Francisco in the SS Sonoma. He worked as a banker in California, lived for a time in Ontario, Canada, where he married Mary Adams, and finally settled in 1918 in southern California, managing orange-grove plantations.

He became a naturalised US citizen, and died in July 1972. Although he made no apparent effort to set the record of his 1904 Olympic nationality straight, he enjoyed quiet fame as “the man who introduced the Australian crawl to America.”

Confirmation of Gailey’s identity has come from a group of international Olympic historians and statisticians who have been investigating the nationalities of athletes at the 1900 (Paris) and 1904 (St Louis) Olympics.

As a result of their research, 23 nationalities of athletes attending those Games have now been amended --- 14 from the Paris Games and nine from St Louis. Several of these were medal winners.

Both those Games were dreadfully organised attachments to international trade exhibitions, or world’s fairs.

The popular melody “Meet me in St Louis” was intended to be something of a siren song for the 1904 World’s Fair --- but it didn’t attract athletes to what was essentially an Olympic sideshow. They were very local Games.

The overwhelming majority of competitors were based in America, and the US was credited with 80 of the 99 gold medals contested. All American athletes wore the uniforms of their club rather than their country.

The revelation of amended nationalities means that a number of accepted histories should be revised, including AOC Historian Harry Gordon's Australia and the Olympic Games.

The belief until now has been that only one Australian took part in the St Louis Games --- the unplaced hurdler Corrie Gardner, who was also a well-known League footballer, a member of a Melbourne Football Club premiership team. Leslie M. Macpherson, also a hurdler, travelled from Melbourne to St Louis, but withdrew from the Games.

The change in Australia’s medal tally means that we now have 449 from summer Olympics --- 135 gold, 144 silver and 170 bronze.

One of the research group is Dr Bill Mallon of the US, the highly respected former president of the International Society of Olympic Historians and author of what has been seen as the definitive history of the St Louis Olympics.

His book lists Gailey as an American, but Mallon now concedes that he was Australian.

Mallon and the other researchers have established an Olympic Sports-Reference website. It has recently changed Gailey’s listing from USA to AUS, and --- thanks to those four medals --- credited Australia with fifth place on the St Louis medals tally, behind the US, Germany, Canada and Hungary.

As a member of ISOH, Gordon was alerted to the investigation by international Olympic scholars several weeks ago by one of the group, the Welsh historian Hilary Evans.

Since then Gordon has been liaising and searching for more on Gailey’s background.

The swimmer’s father, the Irish-born Richard Gailey, was an eminent architect in colonial Brisbane, designer of such landmark buildings as Brisbane Girls Grammar School and the Regatta Hotel at Toowong, Brisbane.

Frank’s brother, Richard junior, also had a successful career as an architect. Gailey was a contemporary of the legendary swimmers Freddie Lane and Dick Cavill. The trio were team-mates at the Australasian championships held in Wanganui, New Zealand, in 1902.

When Cavill set a world record for 440 yards, Gailey finished third, with Lane fourth. When he arrived in San Francisco in early 1904, Gailey was following the trail of four of the famous Cavill brothers --- Charles, Percy, Arthur and Sydney. He joined the San Francisco Olympic club, where Syd Cavill was the resident head coach.

After Gailey won over 100 yards, 220 yards and a quarter-mile at a carnival on June 23 1904, setting US records in the two longer distances, the San Francisco Chronicle called him one of the finest swimmers in the world. This praise was proudly published in the Brisbane Grammar school magazine.

In November 1904, after the Games, he earned another place in history: in setting a world record for the quarter-mile in San Francisco, lowering the mark of Olympic gold-medallist Charles Daniels, he became the first man to break six minutes for the distance.

He later retired from competitive swimming. His birthplace was mistakenly recorded as Austria in the 1910 US federal census, and the error was repeated in the 1930 census.

Such confusion about Australia’s name has not been uncommon … the skier Zali Steggall was once greeted, after a world title win, with the Armenian national anthem.

Contacted in Pullman, Washington, his grandson John Rich said he was delighted that Gailey’s Australian connection had finally been acknowledged.

“Grandpa always talked about Australia and going back, but he never did,” he said.

Mr Rich said that some years ago, he did some research on the Games and discovered his father had been listed as an American. He wrote to the authorities, but was told: “This is the official record.”

He added: “I was always surprised, when the Olympics were on in Australia in 2000, that nobody ever contacted us about Grandpa. Grandpa was quite a man … a very gracious and generous person. Sadly, after he died, we learned that his medals had been stolen.

“He used to say that the reason he settled in southern California was that it reminded him of Australia. For the same reason he planted eucalypts around his property.

“Whenever the family’s background came up for discussion, he would point out emphatically that the family had come from Ireland as free settlers, not convicts.”

In the Brisbane suburb of Taronga, where Richard Gailey senior owned a tract of land, his architectural achievements are remembered in a signpost: Gaileys Road. The name now involves an extra dimension of pride.

Harry Gordon
AOC Official Historian