Pssst all summer

"I ended up being the entree to the main course. The crowd had a practice session of standing up and clap-ping." -New Zealand's Jimmy Neesham, who scored a world record 137 for a No.8 on debut – but all the focus was on skipper Brendon McCullum's triple century.

Breaking the ice

Paul Daffey looks back at some of the moments that shaped Australian sport.

What Twenty years since Australia won its first medal in the Winter Olympics.

Where Lillehammer, Norway.

The legacy Opening the door for Australian success at the Winter Olympics.

The Australian team now goes to the Winter Olympics expecting medals, even gold medals. Before these Games in Sochi the Australian team was expected to win four or five medals and finish in the top 15 on the medals tally. But not so long ago Australia had never won a medal at the Winter Olympics. The sight of the Australian Winter Olympic team marching during the opening ceremony had always filled opponents with curiosity rather than dread. Wasn't Australia a land of desert?

In 1991 expectations rocketed after the Australian team won the men's short-track speed-skating relay over 5000 metres at the world championships in Sydney. The Australian team was young and hungry. The oldest skater, Andrew Murtha, was 25. The youngest, Steven Bradbury, was 17. The next year, the Australians went into the 1992 Winter Olympics at Albertville in Canada as favourites. Unfortunately, Richard Nizielski, the West Australian member of the team, fell during the semi-final and Australia was bundled out.

The setback steeled the Australians. They finished third at the subsequent world championships, at Beijing in 1993, to finish among the eight qualifiers for the next Olympics. (After 1992, the next Winter Olympics was held in 1994 so subsequent winter Games would not be held in the same year as the summer Games; they would be held two years apart.) The 1994 Winter Olympics were to be held at Lillehammer in Norway.

The Australian team was Murtha, Bradbury, Nizielski, Kieran Hansen and John Kah. Murtha and Hansen lived in Sydney. Bradbury lived in Brisbane, as did Nizielski after moving across from Perth. Kah, who would be the emergency in Lillehammer, lived in Adelaide. The Sydney and Brisbane pairs trained together sometimes, but the team trained together as a unit only four or five times a year, during long weekends. In those days – this is only 20 years ago – many Olympic athletes had to combine work lives with their sporting lives. Hansen had a scholarship with Westpac that enabled him to work a shorter day. Bradbury lived with his parents and read electricity meters part-time. Nizielski and Kah had small businesses, with Nizielski making custom skating boots. Murtha was the only full-time employed worker; he was a health and building surveyor with Sydney's Canterbury council. He trained at dawn and again at dusk, mixing sessions on the ice with running, swimming and weights. "I had to make the most of every minute I was training," Murtha told The Sunday Age.

The Australians were not world beaters as individual skaters. But as a unit they were formidable. They had the advantage of being roughly the same height and weight. At the changeover between legs, the skater who is finishing his leg pushes the teammate who is taking over in order to catapult him into the next leg. If the skater who is finishing his leg is lighter, he finds it hard to push the heavier teammate and momentum is lost. Murtha, at 178 centimetres and 78 kilograms, was typical of the Australians. Their uniformity in dimensions was augmented by the consistency of speed across the group. The Canadians, on the other hand, had a weak link. This would prove crucial in the Olympic final.

The Australians were aiming to win their country's first Winter Olympics medal when they reached Lillehammer. Their aim, however, was nearly derailed in the semi-final when Murtha and Bradbury had a messy changeover in which the Japanese got entangled. The Australians were in grave danger of being disqualified, but the judges let them off and they won through to the final. Their opponents were Italy, the US and Canada.

Short-track speed-skating events are held on ice-hockey rinks, which are 60 metres by 30 metres. The circumference of the short-track course is only 112 metres. The 5000 metres event is 45 laps. Each of the four members of relay team skates for one-and-a-half laps and then has a rest while his three teammates skate. The only requirement is that the final two laps must be skated by one member of the team.

The Australians' main tactic was to race out in front so as to avoid a possible fall, which is always the wild card in short-track racing. The other main tactic was to put Murtha in the same leg as the weak link in the Canadian team. Murtha's role was to push the pace fast enough to make the Canadian wobble, which he did in the 24th lap. The Canadian's fall put his team out of the race. The Australians remained in front until Mirko Vuillermin, Italy's world champion, made a killer move in the 33rd lap, zooming to the lead. "I saw him go by and then thought, 'Holy shit!"' Hansen told The Age after the race.

The Australians looked to have the silver medal in their keeping, only for the Americans to catch them with two laps to go. Nizielski had the final leg for the Australians. At the last changeover his American opponent took the initiative. "The American guy did this crazy overtake on the inside," Murtha said last week. Nizielski was tiring. With his fall at Albertville in 1992 in mind, he took the safe option and skated out the final two laps with the aim of simply staying on his feet. He skated in third, securing Australia's first medal at the Winter Olympics and sparking huge celebrations in the centre of the rink. "Our aim was to win a medal," Bradbury said last week, acknowledging that the tactic over the final two laps might have been conservative. "It wasn't the best race we ever skated; in some ways it was disappointing not to win silver. But it was an incredible thing for Australia to win a medal and it put short-track speed-skating on the map in Australia – for a few weeks!"

Bradbury of course went on to win gold in the 1000 metres individual short-track event in Salt Lake City in 2002. He knew he would be unable to keep pace with his opponents so, adroitly, he settled at the back so as to avoid trouble and it paid off handsomely – and lucratively. When The Sunday Age spoke to him during the week he was on a day off from special comments duties with Channel Ten during the Sochi coverage; he planned to use the day by going snowboarding. Murtha works as a building surveyor with the Randwick council in Sydney. Nizielski runs a golf fitness business in Brisbane and Hansen works in banking in Singapore. They stay in touch, linked forever by success. They're Australia's first medallists at the Winter Olympics.


13 out of 38 athletes competing in the men's boarder cross in Sochi were disqualified or didn't finish through crashes, including all three Australians. Among the injuries was a broken wrist to Australian Cameron Bolton, while Canada's Kevin Hill ended up with his face bloodied and his ski goggles shattered.

$930,000 was put up by millionaire Bath owner Bruce Craig to bankroll South Sydney's Sam Burgess' big-money move to rugby union in England at the end of the NRL season. Bath plans to build its game plan around the star signing.

16 years, Canada's winning streak in the women's ice hockey at the Winter Olympics, after it won the gold medal in Sochi, beating the US 3-2 in overtime. Canada, which has now won four consecutive gold medals in the event, has not lost an Olympic women's ice hockey game since 1998 in Nagano, Japan.

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This story Pssst all summer first appeared on Brisbane Times.