1997 – Radio National Transcripts: The Sports Factor

– Friday, October 17, 1997 Surf Lifesaving Amanda Smith: This week, the Surf Lifesaving Association of Australia celebrates the 90th anniversary of its foundation. And so The Sports Factor is plunging into the past and present of this unique facet of Australian culture. Surf beach atmos. Douglas Booth: Australians really militarised the beach. They were the first people, as far as I’m aware, to say, “here we are on the edge of the sea. It’s us against the sea. Australian surf lifesavers, we can conquer the sea. No matter what situation people find themselves in, we can rescue them from it”. And I think that is possibly a unique Australian trait. I don’t know of any other national group in the world which has that attitude towards the sea. This conqueringattitude towards the sea. Amanda Smith: And it was, in many ways, the surf lifesaver who took over from the drover and the digger as the image of the archetypal Australian hero. And today we’re joined by men and women who’ve dedicated themselves to the service and the sport of surf lifesaving. The special thing about surf lifesaving is that unlike pretty well any other sports association you can think of, it’s always had a very particular humanitarian focus. “No lives lost while patrols on duty!” being their maxim. Dudley Williams joined the Bondi Surf Lifesaving Club as a cadet in 1931 – in the days when the bronzed Aussie lifesaver was indeed the King of the Beach. Dudley’s now 80, and still proud of his club. Dudley Williams: One of the first things that greets you is a big sign here saying, New Members Welcome. Well, that’s something that’s been the ever present problem of the club: trying to get people that are interested enough to join a surf club and carry out the activities that you’re supposed to carry out when you become a member. That is, patrol duties. That’s the essence of the surf lifesaving movement. Our club boasts, I think, that over so many many years there’s never been a life lost while the patrols have been on duty, and we’ve got a very good record in that respect. Amanda Smith: A fair bit’s change in lifesaving techniques since Dudley Williams was a teenager in the 1930s, but one of the enduring images of the surf rescue is the reel and line, attached to the lifesaver, plunging into the waves. Dudley Williams: I did a lot of belt swimming. In 1932 I was just beaten by about a touch by the junior belt champion of this club, otherwise my name would have been on the honour board, there, but I don’t figure in any honour boards here. But, I remember personally, 1933 I think it was, during school holidays, I figured in a rescue up near Bondi Baths myself. There were about three people got into difficulties, not quite as far out as the Baths, but in that vicinity. I remember I donned the belt and I swam out. And I was helped by a very well known surf swimmer, a champion, Ivo Wyatt from the North Bondi Surf Club. He was at Bondi Baths and saw what was happening. He dived off the Baths and swam out and came out to me and helped me bring these in. And I remember (it’s the only time I’ve received any mention), but there was a newspaper in those days called the Labour Daily, and we made the front page of the Labour Daily – about a marvellous rescue taking place at the southern end of Bondi Beach.

Amanda Smith: And the most spectacular event of the surf lifesaving carnival is of course the surf boat race. Boats that were never very effective for rescues, according to Dudley Williams. Dudley Williams: You can notice in this surf club, there we’ve got attached to the ceiling, one of the old surf boats. They were supposed to be used for rescue purposes, but in my personal view they never served their purpose. Because, it was all right in the still water, but if the water was waves of any height at all, these boats were hard to control. I’ve never seen a surf boat involved in a rescue operation at all. Where they did play a part, in the old days they used to – on the weekends particularly for practice purposes and just to show the flag – they used to regularly use the surf boats out in the sea and they were used if they saw sharks. Each member of the crew would raise his oar pointing up to the sky, and once the beach inspector, or whoever was on patrol on the beach saw the surf boat crew raise their oars, that was a sign there was a shark in the vicinity. And there was a bell there, and ring-ding-ding-ding-ding, and everybody would come out of the water and wait till the all clear signal was give. And that’s when they were used quite frequently. Amanda Smith: Dudley Williams at the Bondi Surf Lifesaving Club, where he joined up back in 1931. On Radio National, this is the Sports Factor, I’m Amanda Smith. Well, some years later, on the other side of the continent, on the west coast, Fran Russell and Pat Kidner joined the North Cottesloe Surf Lifesaving Club. This was in the final years of the second world war. And with so many men away fighting for king and country, it was a time when, in some clubs, women had a chance to become more actively involved in the beach patrols. Not so for Pat and Fran, though. Fran Russell: We were there to do everything else. We were there to raise money. Look after them, feed them. Help to run functions, plus having our own competition when the right time came. And then the men came back from the war, and a lot of them weren’t very happy with us being there. They wanted to have it their own macho club again, and we stood our ground, and finally we were accepted. Amanda Smith: So there was opposition to you and other women being involved with the club? Fran Russell: Well in our club, the men when they came back, there was a lotof them, and they wanted it back all to themselves again without women. But before they went away there were women, but I think they were doing their own club section part of it and we wanted to be part of everything – have the men and women be the same. Amanda Smith: Now of course in those days women weren’t able to go for the Bronze Medallion that qualified you to do the rescue and resuscitation – did either of you want to be able to go for that bronze medallion? Pat Kidner: Ah well we did do our resuscitation certificate which was… Fran Russell: It was called ‘proficiency’ wasn’t it? Pat Kidner: No, it was a resuscitation certificate. We were the first women in Australia to do it. Actually I still have mine, I forget the date’s that on it. But we did that to more or less help us to be accepted, and they seemed to accept us. They liked us there to raise money, and feed them. Amanda Smith: Well did either of you believe that you weren’t strong enough or good enough swimmers to be involved in rescues? Pat Kidner: Oh no, no. Well in those days the rescue was on the reel and line. And we’d practice doing all that. We did ‘R & R’ as it was called, but we weren’t as strong as the men – no. Not for getting out there and bringing somebody in if they were in trouble. But we thought we weren’t, you know. These days they know they are and they can do the same as the men. But I think that’s how we thought – that the men were the strongest. Fran Russell: I think some of us thought we could do it, because that’s how we were trained. You know we’d trained for it. So, who knows? Amanda Smith: Did it annoy you that you weren’t able to officially do the rescue and resuscitation? Pat Kidner: No, not me anyhow. What about you, Fran? Fran Russell: No it didn’t worry me. I was happy for the men to do it and us do what we were supposed to do. Pat Kidner: And just have our competition. We loved the competition – the point races on Sundays, and then our ladies carnivals.
Amanda Smith: Fran, tell me about competing in the surf carnivals. Fran Russell: Well we, with all the other clubs, we had running events, swimming events, R & R, rescue and resuscitation. We didn’t have any boards and skis in those days. We had running relays and a surf dash, which is all swimming out together to the buoy. Or a surf relay, and that was competitions. We had a march past, we used to get dressed up in our nice… Pat Kidner: Nice bathers. Fran Russell: Full length bathers! And march. And that was very popular. I used to love being in that, and I still love watching the march past. Amanda Smith: Pat, were the women’s competitions separate from the men’s? Pat Kidner: Oh yes. Completely and utterly. We weren’t recognised for a long long time. And we used to have to beg the judges to come to our carnivals to do the marking etc etc. But they became used to us and accepted the fact that we were going to have carnivals. We weren’t actually accepted into the Association, until later on we formed our own, oh in about 1960, I think it was. Fran Russell: Yes, in the ’60s. Well, 1980: it was official in 1980 for women to take their Bronze and be recognised, and be really official and work alongside the men with competition, that was 1980. It took a long time, and we were out of it by then, we were mothers and grandmothers. Amanda Smith: When did each of you stop competing? Pat Kidney: Oh a long time ago. Fran Russell: Oh, yes, I suppose I stopped competing after my fourth…fifth child. Pat Kidney: Oh yes. So I would have stopped competing in the early ’60s. Fran Russell: I would have, too, because I mainly was on the committee of the Ladies Surf Association, so I wouldn’t have been competing then. Amanda Smith: Pat, how much of the traditional surf lifesaving competitions changed since you were competing? Pat Kidney: Oh lots. The rescue and resuscitation used to be the blue ribbon event of the carnival and now that’s very minor, isn’t it Fran?
Fran Russell: Oh, yes. Pat Kidner: The boats and boards seem to be the things. These are the most important things. So it has changed a lot. And of course they have these big strong girls swimming – going for iron men competitions etc. Fran Russell: Wonderful. And got their own boat crews. But they’ve still got the man who’s the sweep behind them. They don’t have a sweep of their own. Amanda Smith: Pat, what do you think of the ironman and ironwoman events? Have they shifted the focus away from team work towards a greater individualism? Pat Kidner: Oh I think so. I think so. I love seeing them, when I watch them, I think they’re wonderful. But they are definitely for the individual. Fran Russell: Yes. The boats are still a good team one, because there’s five in the boat, the sweep plus the four men. That’s a team effort. But everything else is more individual. Because a lot of our men over here, our clubs over here, don’t want to take part in the rescue and resuscitation event, and that was a very good team one. But it’s not needed now. I mean, imagine going and rescuing someone in these huge waves, over in the eastern states for instance, on a reel and a line. Whereas they can take the rubber ducky out – they can take a long board out, a short board out, a ski, – it’s not on anymore. That’s all we knew years ago. Amanda Smith: Fran Russell and Pat Kidner, both now 70, and still involved with the North Cottesloe Surf Lifesaving Club in Western Australia. But the very beginning of the Surf Lifesaving Association was back in October 1907 – just about 90 years ago to the day. This was when the Surf Bathing Association of New South Wales was formed. At a time when there was still considerable public consternation about the morality of displaying yourself in a bathing costume. Sports historian Douglas Booth picks up the story. Douglas Booth: Surf lifesaving clubs, as we know it, were initially beach bathing clubs. They were initially groups of mostly young men who coalesced into groups of friends, and they enjoyed beach bathing, they enjoyed surfing the waves… Amanda Smith: Body surfing? Douglas Booth: Body surfing, yep. Surf shooting they called it in those days. And it was a very ad hoc, informal, spontaneous type of arrangement.
Amanda Smith: Right so when was the real move from surf bathing to surf lifesaving? Douglas Booth: Well, that’s the interesting thing. Because that really didn’t take place until after the first world war, and indeed in the early 1920s when they changed the name to the Surf Lifesaving Association of New South Wales, and then two years later, in 1923, the Surf Lifesaving Association of Australia. So the move from surf bathing to surf lifesaving, as I say it took place over more than ten years. Now after the first world war there was an attempt to, what could be called, militarise the whole association. That is, they introduced sporting competitions, they introduced rigid lifesaving drills into these clubs. And this was a part of a move to give the whole association credibility. Because it’s important to acknowledge that for the first decade or more of the association, it had very little credibility at all amongst the public. The only way these clubs could get credibility – and the organisation, or the umbrella organisation could get credibility – was to show that the members were disciplined. And later on, in the 1920s, to show that the members were performing an important voluntary service, i.e. patrolling the beaches and supposedly saving lives. Amanda Smith: The motto of the Surf Lifesaving Association has been ‘vigilance and service’, which obviously emphasises that community service side. So how has the association and the individuals involved with it balanced that rescue and resuscitation function with the competitive sports side of lifesaving? Douglas Booth: Well my argument is that they haven’t, they simply haven’t been able to balance that. And that has been the problem for the lifesaving association, particularly since the 1960s. They were able to control the central administration, the Surf Life Saving Association Australian national council was able to control the clubs, but by the late 1960s in particular, it’s becoming increasingly hard to prove the bona fides of the clubs. Amanda Smith: Because those who were lifesavers were getting more interested in competing, presumably? Douglas Booth: That was their prime interest: competing, undertaking these sporting competitions. Inter-club, regional, state and national. I mean we have to look at the national championships of Australia for example – the National Surf Lifesaving championships of Australia. This is a massivemassive sporting event. It equals in size the Commonwealth Games in terms of the number of competitors. It is a very very big event.
Amanda Smith: Well, how did the lifesaver, the sun bronzed Aussie, become a kind of national archetype, Doug, along with the drover and the digger? Douglas Booth: I think the turning point was between the first world war and the second world war. We’ve got to look back at the beach in those years. On the fine days, on the big Sundays, on the public holidays, there was 20, 30, 40-thousand people on the beach. And the beach was a major site for public recreation, and for just general congregation. And at that site, obviously the lifesaver stands out as a very fit individual, as a sporting individual. Carnivals attracted a lot of public attention. There was obviously a bit of mystique about someone who saves lives. So it was all built up through those processes. Amanda Smith: Well it wasn’t until 1980 that women were allowed to go for their Surf Lifesaving Bronze Medallion – that’s the qualification that means you can do beach patrols and rescues. Was it an essentially conservative nature to the association that precluded women from that side of surf lifesaving – which as you’ve been saying is officially its most important role – until so late in the piece? Douglas Booth: I think there are two things that are happening here. First of all there’s the official conservatism which is saying, “okay we want the clubs for men only, this is our tradition. This is our tradition which goes back to before the second world war, back to the first world war”. So there is a long standing tradition that it is a man’s occupation, it is a man’s job, that only men are strong enough to perform rescues and to save the drowning. So there’s that side of it. But also there’s a very very strong male sub-culture within the clubs which doesn’t want the intrusion of women. And from the perspective of many clubs, they had to be literally dragged, screaming and kicking, into the 21st century to allow women into the clubs. And even today some clubs are still reluctant participants in that exercise. It’s only because, I would suggest that’s it only because the clubs have so much trouble recruiting people that that was the turning point for women. Amanda Smith: When did the ironman event become part of surf lifesaving competitions in Australia, Doug? Douglas Booth: The first variations on that began in the mid 1960s. But the real takeoff point was in the 1980s, that’s when it became a really big event and they introduced the endurance ironman competitions. They were the events which really gave the association a tremendous profile. But in giving the association that sporting profile, it only exacerbated the contradiction between the sports person and the volunteer lifesaver.
Amanda Smith: And also a contradiction between the team work that’s essential to the lifesaver and the individualism of something like the ironman? Douglas Booth: That’s a very good point. And that was one of the reasons why the association was so reluctant and resistant towards promoting the event They said that we can’t have volunteers earning 50, 60-thousand, 70-thousand dollars a year. It’s going to create jealousies and animosities within the clubs. We can’t have individuals seen to be better than the rest of the club, and I think that teamwork element is a very important part of it. Amanda Smith: Is surf lifesaving a uniquely Australian thing, Doug? Douglas Booth: There is an international body, and we do have international competitions. New Zealand, South Africa, the United States, including Hawaii, all have lifesaving type competitions, all have lifesaving associations. But it is the most well developed in Australia. And Australia is certainly the centre of the whole organisation. And it’s been Australia which has set the rules, determined the equipment, and establishes the processes and bureaucracy for the administration of the sport. Amanda Smith: Sports historian Douglas Booth – and he was speaking to me there from Dunedin in New Zealand where he teaches in the School of Physical Education, at the University of Otago. And this is the Sports Factor, here on Radio National, I’m Amanda Smith. Now, Dean Mercer is an ironman. Last month he won a world series and he also has an Order of Australia for his services to surf lifesaving. Dean’s club is the Thirroul Surf Lifesaving Club, on the New South Wales coast. But with what’s become virtually a year round commitment on the ironman circuit, is there still time to do beach patrols at the club? Dean Mercer: Well, I mean because we’re only such a little club in comparison to the larger clubs in Sydney – we’re based down at Wollongong on the south coast. It’s only quite a small little club and a tight knit little community down there, so I spend quite a large amount of my time down on the beach patrolling the beaches of a weekend. And all competitors are obligated to fulfil 24 hours of patrols per year to be able to compete at an elite level. So I mean no matter what standard your competition is, you’re still obligated to do the patrols and look after the beach so they’re safe for the people to come down of a weekend. Amanda Smith: What’s the biggest buzz for you – is it winning a big competition like the Ocean Man series, or plucking someone out of the surf in a rescue?
Dean Mercer: I think they’re both very rewarding, but two completely different things. I mean, to win an award, or win a title – an Ocean Man title, or an Australian title – is something that you just strive for all year. But I mean, it’s certainly a different feeling you get for when you, as you were saying, pluck someone out of the water that’s in difficulty. It’s quite rewarding to think that the fact that you’re down there to look after the beach, and you know in your own special way, to be able to pull someone out of the water and prevent them from drowning, or anything too dramatic happening. Amanda Smith: Well aside from your success on the ironman circuit, you were Australian surf lifesaving men’s champion in 1995. Are you still competing in the surf lifesaving championships? Dean Mercer: Yes that’s right. I mean, surf lifesaving has a strong competition base, and they run the state and Australian titles every year, and I mean that’s one of the largest sporting organisations or sporting participation events that Australia runs. So, that’s a huge event and all the surf lifesavers aspire to that one competition. Amanda Smith: Has the ironman circuit really taken over though from the more traditional surf lifesaving carnivals these days? Dean Mercer: Well it takes quite a high profile. Obviously everybody that competes in them – all their grass roots are back with the surf lifesaving association. Yes, it is, as I said it’s quite a high profile and it does sort of overshadow the surf lifesaving movement. But it all reflects back in the way that they are all part of the movement, that’s where they all originated from. I mean, once their competition days are over, or once they’re not competing, they’re all still associated. And as I was saying, they’re obligated to do their patrols and look after the community. Amanda Smith: Now tell me about the Ocean Man competition, Dean. Why is it ‘ocean’ man, not ‘iron’ man? Dean Mercer: Well it is traditionally known in Australia as the ironman competition, but as we presented this event to the world – in America, going over to America and presenting ironman competition to them, well they associate it with the Hawaiian triathalon or the triathalon, which is running, swimming and bike riding. So they sort of couldn’t understand how we could ride a bike on the beach, so we had to come up with a name that sort of represented the beach and sort of was ironman associated – so hence the name: we came up with ‘ocean’ man.
Amanda Smith: Now, your older brother is of course Darren Mercer who won the first five of the ironman circuits, I think. Has surf lifesaving always been a family affair for you? Dean Mercer: Yes, absolutely. Darren and I both joined the surf club. I was five and Darren was seven. And with Mum and Dad, we spent our weekends down the beach during the summer. So the only natural thing to do was to join the surf club and get up a basic awareness of the beach and the surf. So if there ever was a time that we got in difficulty, we could get ourselves out of trouble. And fortunately enough now we’re in that position, and we’re sitting on the beaches – as we were speaking before – and looking after people having a weekend their with their families. Amanda Smith: Now I imagine you’ve seen the film ‘The Coolangatta Gold’? Dean Mercer: Yes, that’s right, yes. Amanda Smith: Well that’s about, of course, two brothers competing against each other in the ironman event – does that bear any similarities to you and Darren? Dean Mercer: Funny you should say that, actually. A couple of years ago when it originally did come out, yes. Fellow competitors we used to compete against used to give Darren and I a bit of a hard time. I mean, it was all just with a light hearted feel about it. The guys used to give us a bit of a hard time about that particular movie: that it reflected both Darren and myself, and our father actually. So, it was a bit of a joke there for a while. And still a few of them bring it up occasionally, but it’s a bit of a laugh. Amanda Smith: Life imitating the movies – for Dean Mercer, champion ironman, oceanman – and generally speaking a seriously fit person. And another who fits that category is Simone Cotter. Simone started hanging around the North Cronulla Surf Lifesaving Club in New South Wales when she was five; although she couldn’t officially join the Nippers till she was six. And now, at twenty, Simone is one of Australia’s top ironwomen, as well as having won lots of surf lifesaving titles. All of which she also juggles with the safety service. Simone Cotter: Competition is my main thing in surf lifesaving, but rescue and resuscitation plays a very big part. We have to have our proficiency which we have to go through and pass every year, so rescue and resuscitation you can’t rule out if you want to compete. And also we have to do our patrols once a month too.
Amanda Smith: But do you regard yourself as a lifesaver or as an athlete? Simone Cotter: Mostly as an athlete. But also as a lifesaver. If I’m talking to people I call myself an ‘ironwoman’ not so much a lifesaver. Amanda Smith: And the real reward and satisfaction for you is in the competition? Simone Cotter: Yes, that right. Amanda Smith: Well with the surf lifesaving championships, are you competing in events solely against other women, or are there mixed events that you’re competing in? Simone Cotter: When I was a lot younger we had to compete against the boys. When I was from 11 to 14, they didn’t introduce girls racing until then, but now at this stage, all the girls have their own racing. And when we compete at Australian titles there’s, like, anything up to a thousand girls in a race. Amanda Smith: Well are women and girls essential to keeping up the numbers at surf lifesaving clubs? Simone Cotter: Yes, I definitely think so. And they’re looking for more events for girls now. They’ve just introduced a ski – I think they’re going to introduce a double ski – the girls’ boat, so, they’re definitely keeping the numbers up and trying to keep the female competitors into it. And I think it’s become well balanced between men and women now. Amanda Smith: With the surf lifesaving role – that sort of community service voluntary role, is that important to you? Simone Cotter: Yes, it is very important. I give a lot of time to the surf club. I love my surf club – if it wasn’t for the surf club I wouldn’t be where I was now. So I give a lot of time back to the surf club and help with fund raisers and also I’m very open to their social events. And I don’t mind going down doing patrol, because a lot of my friends are down there too, which is a real good social thing. And you might go up to the club and have a few beers after and things like that. It’s a really laid back scene, the surf club, which is really good. Amanda Smith: The ironman and ironwomen events, that grew out of the surf lifesaving championships, have really become the glamour events these days with big prize money involved. Have they taken over from the more traditional lifesaving – both competitions and beach patrolling?
Simone Cotter: Yes I think so. But I think it’s also a good thing because at the Australian titles you build up to the main event which is the ironman and ironwomen event. But also one of the major events is the march past which has been around for many years and is a very exciting event, and keeps the old people in the surf club going, too. Amanda Smith: Is there anyone competing on the ironman/ironwomen circuit who hasn’t come through a surf lifesaving background? Simone Cotter: No, I really don’t think so. It’s not essential, you know, it’s not a rule, but most of the people I know have started – if they didn’t start in Nippers, or they started as a cadet in surf club, then in senior club. If you start just from scratch, like if you come from a running background, it’s very hard because you haven’t got the surf skills there. Amanda Smith: Simone, how do you relate to the beach rescue image that’s promoted through the American TV series, Baywatch? Simone Cotter: Baywatch! Well I’ve got real boobs, I haven’t got fake boobs and I don’t wear a skimpy red cossie. I don’t really think much of Baywatch. I guess it grabs the public eye and especially the boys’ eyes. So, it’s pretty good in that it promotes our sport. But it’s not what we really do and it’s not really what happens on the beach. So it’s a bit funny to see how they do it and then think how it actually really is done. And it’s a bit scary to think that someone might actually rescue someone like that, where it’s not the way to do it in the first place. Amanda Smith: Describe to me the differences between what you see on Baywatch in terms of a rescue and what the reality is for you? Simone Cotter: Well, when you see them swimming out in that shallow water and diving and things like that, you’d probably grab a paddle board and paddle out and grab them, instead of swimming out, which would be a lot quicker. And just the way they rescue them in the recovery position and mouth to mouth, and all things like that. And the first aid they use – it’s a lot more serious here in Australia. They might do it there in America, but I think we do it the right way, and a lot better! Amanda Smith: Simone Cotter, who’s gearing up now for the next ironwomen series that gets underway on Sunday week. And that brings us to the end of the Sports Factor.

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