BURIED somewhere beneath the turf of Tompkins Park in Alfred Cove could lie a forgotten link to Melville’s most celebrated athlete.
Back in 1948 Shirley de la Hunty burst onto the national athletics scene as the promising young sprinter and hurdler Shirley Strickland, taking out the national title in the 80-metre hurdles and earning herself a spot in the Australian team for the 1948 London Olympics.
WA’s sporting hierarchy was thrilled but faced a problem; there were no cinder running tracks in the state for the promising 23-year-old to train.
So they had one constructed at Tompkins Park, and Ms de la Hunty’s son Matthew believes some parts might remain.
Ms de la Hunty went on to become the equal-most decorated women’s Olympian in history, although a photo of the finish of the finals of the 200 metre sprint at London was uncovered in 1975 which showed she’d been dudded out of the bronze and should hold the title in her own right.
But it’s her “subversive” life that Mr de la Hunty says has provided the real focus for a movie he’s making about her.
It was triggered by his interest in an unusual trophy amongst the many crammed into their Applecross home.
“In 1955 she won the Helms Award, and while I knew about her Olympic and Empire Games career, I didn’t know what that was about, so I asked her ‘what is that thing in our house’,” Mr de la Hunty told the Herald.
“She said that she’d gone to Poland and broke the world record for the 100 metres, and I said ‘why isn’t that better known’.”
Mr de la Hunty said his mother, who he became extremely close to in her last years as chauffeur and confidante, opened up about a battle she’d had with Australia’s athletics authorities who hadn’t wanted her to go.
With the Cold War at its height, there was great suspicion about Poland, and although Ms de la Hunty resisted the pressure to stay home, she was refused the right to run under the Australian colours.
Mr de la Hunty said he expected her to have worn a neutral white shirt instead, but was stunned to discover a photo which showed the sprinter repaying the faith of those who’d built her the cinder track at Tompkins Park by running in a shirt with a black swan.
“I searched Trove, but it hardly hit the press here,” Mr de la Hunty said.
But thousands of Poles lined the streets during a parade celebrating her world-record.
As Mr de la Hunty and the production team he’s recruited to make the film searched deeper, they discovered Australia’s spy agency was keeping a close tab on his mum.
A 180-page ASIO dossier, showed there was suspicion Ms de la Hunty was a communist sympathiser, partly because she’d coached at the communist-linked Eureka League in Perth before the London Olympics.
Mr de la Hunty says his mother’s subversive activity included passing on messages for Hungarian athletes at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, as the uprising at home was in full swing and some wanted to defect. But eventually ASIO gave up, declaring there was no evidence the runner was a communist, though she was on record talking up socialism.
Mr de la Hunty’s production team includes musician, novelist and screen writer Dave Warner (INXS – Never Tear Us Apart), and Matt Norman (Salute about his Olympian uncle Peter Norman).
They’re fundraising to get the script written. To donate head to http://www.australianculturalfund.org.au/projects/shirley-strickland-feature-film/
by STEVE GRANT
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