Beyond the Liesel Jones fat spat


Kent Mayo, curator of the McCrossin's Mill Museum in Uralla, NSWThe brutal media critique of swimmer Liesel Jones on the eve of her record fourth Olympics was a typical example of society's tendency to chew up and spit out its heroes once it deems them to be no longer useful.

Using as its evidence grossly unflattering photographs of Jones in her swimmers, the media suggested she wasn't fit to compete in the games, and that she was taking a taxpayer-funded holiday to London before retiring from competition.

When a public outcry over this treatment of Jones ensued, the outlets ran with the story's momentum, analysing it from new angles, polling readers on their opinions of Jones' physique, and losing no opportunity to republish the offensive pictures.

Jones chose to ignore the attack — officially, at least — but if it dented her confidence she may well have taken strength from Australia's first ever international sports champion, a man who found himself down and out and all but forgotten once his form began to fade.

Edward Trickett went from being the most popular person in Australia — people would stop to acknowledge his portrait, which had been affixed to lamp posts in Sydney — to contemplating suicide as he lay in a gutter.

Years earlier, on 27 June 1876, he had been crowned World Champion Sculler when he beat Englishman James H. Sadler on the Thames, rowing the Putney to Mortlake course in 24 minutes and 36 seconds, and becoming the first Australian to win a world championship in any sport.

'No-one had ever beaten an Englishman in rowing,' says Kent Mayo, curator of the McCrossin's Mill Museum in Uralla in NSW, which has in its collection Trickett memorabilia. 'Edward Trickett, the corn stalk from New South Wales, beat the world champion to become Australia's first ever international sporting champion.'

When Trickett arrived back in Sydney, 25,000 fans turned out to greet him.

He successfully defended his title for five years, not even faltering when his hand was crushed by a keg of beer, causing him to lose several fingers. He was eventually beaten by the Canadian sculler, Ned Hanlan, and retired from rowing to become a hotelier and publican in Rockhampton.

But the Great Depression of the 1890s was setting in, and Trickett's star had begun to fade. 'He moved back to Sydney ... but all his mates were bankrupt and he had nobody to turn to,' Mayo says. 'He became terribly depressed and on a Friday night, near where Martin Place is now, he contemplated suicide in the gutter.'

Nearby, a group of Salvation Army officers were preaching beneath a lamppost and playing joyful music. Trickett pulled himself up and walked towards the light. 'One of the Salvos said, "Hey, aren't you Edward Trickett, the great scully? You're not looking too bright."'

It was an encounter that probably saved Trickett's life: he cleaned himself up, became a Salvation Army officer and turned his life around.

In 1916 he settled in Uralla, where his son lived; while helping him excavate a gold mine, a shaft collapsed on Trickett, and he died from his injuries. He lies buried in the isolated Salvation Army section of Uralla's cemetery, 'away from everything else, except the morning sunlight and the frosts, in the rarely visited north east corner near a ragged stand of gum trees,' Mayo writes on his website.

In 1982, Trickett's beautiful marble obelisk tombstone was desecrated, and Mayo obtained permission to move it to his museum, where it stands today, polished and proud.

But there's an even more important artefact in Mayo's possession, 'the most significant item in the whole of Australian sporting history', and its presence in this little town, so far from the bright stadium lights and the halls of fame, is a poignant reminder of our ability to so easily forget.

Swaddled in layers of bubble wrap and locked inside a bright red toolbox is the silver-plated trophy Trickett won when he beat James H. Sadler on the Thames in 1876.

Holding up the trophy so that it catches the sunlight, Mayo says, 'This is a really good example of what a 'why not?' attitude can bring you.'

Back in London, 136 years after Trickett's initial success, another 410 Australians are getting ready to give it their best. But while Trickett faded into sad, almost tragic obscurity, today's athletes — as Jones has found to her detriment — can't hope to escape the suffocating and often puerile attention that is focused on them.

Fuelled by a relentless news cycle, the social media frenzy and the anonymity afforded online commentators, our natural curiosity has morphed into rabid voyeurism. Journalists, knowing they cater to an increasingly desensitised readership, have responded by doling out the kind of insensitive reporting that has seen one of our champion swimmers reduced to the sum of her 'fat' content.

The Olympics are about fairness and sportsmanship rather than the fit of one's swimmers. As Jones prepares to make history herself, becoming the first Australian swimmer to qualify for four Olympics, I hope she will know that her supporters far outweigh the people who have chosen to denigrate her. 

Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a journalist and travel writer. Edward Trickett's trophy will feature in an exhibition to be staged at McCrossin's Mill Museum.  

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, Liesel Jones, Edward Trickett, Olympics



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Existing comments

Liesel Jones, I wish I could walk up to you and shake your hand and thank you for shaking things up before and trying again. I want to encourage you to continue to shake up an insensitive people who are quick to make negative judgements so self-righteously. Live long< Liesel Jones.

kathleen anderson | 27 July 2012  

Commentary is the cheapest form of news to pad out our TV shows, blogs, etc ... so obviously when people see a small roll of fat, they're going to mention it, and photographers are going to angle the shot to accentuate it. But then the commentary turns to criticising the commentators and discussing whether we should be discussing it. I'm sure no-one wants the whole world talking about their love handles, but hopefully Liesel will shrug it off and use it to fire her up the pool and prove them wrong.

AURELIUS | 27 July 2012  

Ah, the cliches of journalism - victim or villain! It's difficult to think of a worse way to treat someone's life than to strip it down to one of those cliches for the sake of news and/or entertainment. I wish Leisel Jones every success in the pool and in life. And there's another Trickett (go Libby) competing at the London Olympics - so Edward Trickett's story lives on.

Pam | 27 July 2012  

Two well chosen words in thie piece sum up the standards of considerable slabs of the Australian media--"puerile" and "insensitive". Very enjoyable account of our first international champion's life.

john frawley | 27 July 2012  

Thanks for the story on Edward Trickett. The treatment of Liesel Jones by the Australian media was predictable because the media coverage of sport is generally trivial and celebrity nonsense. Most media people and the Australian public have little understanding of playing sport at the elite level. The Liesel Jones photograph in the Age newspaper proves that this newspaper prefers the gutter standards of journalism that the Murdoch newspapers have practiced for years. Australian people generally behave as hero worshipping buffoons when a sportsperson wins, but when a person does not win they think they are losers and chokers.

Mark Doyle | 27 July 2012  

I'm not defending criticisms of someone's weight at all, but we don't criticise elite athletes for capitalising on their bodies when they manage to achieve washboard abdominal muscles and toned limbs and pectorals to appear in lucrative sponsorship ads. It seems marketing the perfect body image can be just as damaging for impressionable minds as pointing out a bit of frumpiness.

AURELIUS | 31 July 2012  

The tripe handed out to Liesel Jones was gutter jounalism of the worst kind.Sadly the media have a lot to answer for in their reporting and commentary on the London Games and in particular the preceived poor results of the Team. I simply switch off now, so disilluisoned am I with the news from London. Our participants have done the best they could so let us stop rubbishing them.

Gavin | 05 August 2012  

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