Kieren Perkins Interview May 2001

Australian Centenary of Federation - Deakin Lectures - Melbourne

As part of the centenary of Australian federation celebrations, a series of talks were given by various prominent people on various topics. Kieren's was about, of course, sport.

After his speech the audience could ask him questions. Here are some of his answers. Some of them are extremely interesting.

Audio (Realplayer) is here.

Amanda Smith, the radio presenter: Well Kieren, not to labour this too much, but I do have to talk to you about this: after those 1996 Olympic trials for the Australian swim team, I heard you say that youíd always wished you had a fast forward button on your swimming career that you could push and it would be all over. And at the time I was so struck by that comment, both for its honesty and for the pain it spoke of , I guess. Can you just talk a little bit more personally about the effect of carrying the burden of our expectations, but also of knowing that if you won weíd all feel good about ourselves, and vice versa.

Kieren Perkins: I guess that the basis for that comment probably came not so much from public expectation, but more personal. To be honest, throughout my swimming career, what I expected of myself was probably always at least, if not even, a lot higher than what the public might have expected. And going into those Atlanta Games I placed so much pressure on myself to win there, so that I could prove that the first time wasnít just a fluke. Because I think at that point in time in swimming, especially in Australia, partly in the world but more so in Australia, there was not a lot of athletes who were coming back to a second Olympics and doing it again. In fact you found the vast majority would only swim in one and disappear. And I wanted to prove that I could go beyond that and I could achieve a second time round.

But the reality of the situation is that to train for an Olympic Games as a swimmer and invariably for most sports at the Olympics, it requires a life dedication. Itís not just a matter of turning up to the pool for training, and doing it right then, you have to get the right rest, you have to eat the right food. You have to make sure that on a weekend youíre not doing something thatís too physically straining, that makes you tired on Monday when itís time to get back down to work again. And really, youíre in involved in devoting so much of your time and effort to one moment in time. Before Barcelona I trained for six years, without more than a week off in a year, for that moment, to stand up behind the blocks and to get in there and to swim a race. The pressure that that creates and the strain that it puts not only on yourself but the people around you, is enormous, and it can be intolerable. And in fact one quote that for as long as I live Iíll never forget, came from Stephen Holland who said that before the Olympic Games, which from memory I think was í74, where he Ė

Amanda Smith: í72

Kieren Perkins: It was before I was born anyway [laughs]. He said that he didnít want to be there. He wanted to find a corner where he could just curl up and hide and make it all go away. Now as a young athlete I heard this (I hadnít competed in an Olympic Games) and I was stunned, I was shocked. I could not believe that a swimmer who had the opportunity to be involved in the ultimate event - the one thing that every swimmer in the world that competes at an international level, the only thing they want to achieve is an Olympic Gold Medal. World records are wonderful; world championships are fine, but itís the Olympics that you want - and to be in a position where you could do that and not want to be there was just foreign, it was something that I couldnít understand.

Until I was there. And I stood behind the blocks and I thought to myself, ĎMy God, what am I doing here? This is just frighteningí. And that was the demon that I had to deal with, going into Atlanta, the demon of getting up on the blocks and knowing that when the time came, would I freak out and not be able to handle the situation, or would I be able to pull it together and do the job? And to be honest, I think that at an Olympic Games the person who wins the event is the person who mentally handles it the best. And about an hour before the race, I remember laying there, getting a massage, and my heart felt like it was going to burst out of my chest, it was just racing at a million miles an hour, and my palms were sweaty and I was frightened about what it was that I was about to embark on. And I got angry with myself, because I thought, 'This is ridiculous; what are the consequences of failure? What is going to happen to me?'

Amanda Smith: Only the entire nationís disappointment.

Lane 8 in AtlantaKieren Perkins: I tried to block that out, I was being positive at the time. You can convince yourself of many things when you need to. But I just came to the realisation that this is sport, this is not life and death, Iím not going to come away from this without a family or without a future; it was a situation that I was in. I had the opportunity to shine, to get the best out of myself, and if not, life goes on. And it was at that moment really that I believe I won the gold medal. Because I came away from that relaxed, calm, happy with the position that I was in, knowing that I couldnít do anything to make myself perform better, I could only perform worse, than what I had within myself. And I got up there and I pulled it out. And certainly your comment about recognising that it made the nation feel good, or how that affected me: to be honest at the time I didnít understand that, and even today, I still have difficulty associating myself with that kind of feeling of euphoria.

As I mentioned, like every other Australian, I remember winning the America's Cup, and I remember these great sporting moments that we as a nation stop for, but putting myself in that same category is not something that I can reconcile. Itís not something that really I can come to terms with, because I was there doing it, I wasnít viewing it, I was in the middle of it.

Amanda Smith: Kieren, Shane Gould in her autobiography that came out a year or two ago, in that she talked about the swimmerís feeling for water. And talked about the kind of sensuous pleasure that water on her skin gave her, and how she felt at her most alive when she was in water. Do you feel that, did you feel that?

Kieren Perkins: [laughs] Donít know about sensuous pleasure, but I can identify with her statements. Yes, there is certainly something magical about being at your best and being in the water, and knowing that youíre cutting through it faster than you ever have before. In fact itís funny that you mention it because I was in Brisbane on this last weekend, and the Australian swim team was there competing, and I went out to the pool to have a look. And while I certainly have no regrets about retiring and have absolutely no wants to head back into the pool, I reminisced for a moment about what it felt like to be fit. And what it felt like to be able to grip the water, because you literally do when youíre swimming well. You grip the water, you get a hold of it and you rip it hard and it propels you forward. And thereís nothing else quite like it.

Having said that, Iím sure that it would be very similar to an AFL player at the peak of his career launching a 70-metre bomb that goes through the goal. Or a jockey who manages to have a horse under complete control. I imagine. I did say imagine! And something that Iíve certainly learnt throughout my time in Australian sport is that it doesnít matter what sport youíre involved in, at the end of the day the feeling of joy that you get is the same, and the ingredients for success are the same. We just do it in different ways.

Man: This is a question for Kieren: how have you managed to adapt to the change from experiencing the stress and euphoria of being a super-athlete and Australian hero to that of Kieren Perkins the retired athlete and Australian sporting legend?

Kieren Perkins: Probably you need to ask my wife that question! Look, itís been an interesting transition thereís no doubt about that. I think at this stage I probably canít give you a definitive answer because I donít know. Iíve been very busy since the Games and havenít really had the opportunity to sit still on too many times and ponder life and where Iím going and where Iíve been. I think it would be fair to say that Iím not comfortable with where I am in life at the moment. Thatís not necessarily because I donít specifically like what Iím doing or where I am, itís just that itís so different to what Iím used to. All of a sudden I donít have a routine in life. I donít have to be at the pool at 5 oíclock every morning, and I donít have to eat this amount of breakfast at this time, and I donít have to go to the physiotherapist and one of a thousand other things that you have to do every day to make sure that youíre on top of yourself. I wake up in the morning and I have a look at the clock and wonder about 'Well, will I have breakfast now, or will I not? Maybe Iíll walk the dog, maybe I wonít'. And all of these things just sort of make it a little bit odd and wondrous. And thatís where my feeling of not being comfortable with where I am comes from. But I have to say Iím enjoying life immensely.

Amanda Smith: Does Australian sport still, perhaps more so now than ever before, exclude and ostracises the mavericks, the difficult personalities who donít bow to official expectations, but who are, nonetheless, inspired and inspiring athletes and coaches? ...
Well Kieren, it seems to me along those lines, that in fact swimming is the most obvious sport where those kind of characters still exist. Is that true?

Kieren Perkins: Who, for instance?

Amanda Smith: Well, I wonít name names.

Kieren Perkins: Head coach, for example [laughs]. Oh look, certainly I think that along the lines of what Martinís saying, and I think that in a sport like AFL, which I donít know from a history point of view very well, but certainly Iíve had some involvement in the last few years, thereís an amount of professionalism which is coming into it, which I think is taking away a lot from the personality of the sport, or the players. Thereís a recognition within the sport that if weíre going to win the flag, if weíre going to be like Essendon and get through a season almost undefeated, each athlete needs to devote themselves to a much higher standard than they may have before. And I think that that professionalism is probably something that is invading all sports now.

Certainly in the sport of swimming, there are your fair share of personalities, but you donít have the people that in more recent memory - I mean one for me is an individual like Neil Brooks: somebody, part of the Mean Machine, which was one of our most famous and successful relay teams Ė

Amanda Smith: The team of which Norman May did say ĎGold, gold to Australia! Gold!í

Kieren Perkins: Iím sure that was one of many. But he was an individual who was very hard living, he was different to certainly the athletes that are in the sport today. I would venture to say that somebody like Neil wouldnít have survived in the sport today, and thatís certainly just because of the amount of professionalism thatís required. If you donít do it right every minute of every day, you wonít be competitive when the time comes.

Martin Flanagan [the other speaker]: Can I just pick up from that? My appreciation of your gold medal in Atlanta largely came from Neil Brooks. I donít have an expert knowledge of your sport, so it required a commentator who did, who picked up what was happening minutes before anyone else. And didnít fake emotion, which I think is the principal crime for sports commentators. Yet he didnít make it to the Sydney Olympics because Channel Seven deemed him an unsuitable character.

Kieren Perkins: And we lost our best swimming commentator because of it.

Man: You touched on Dawn Fraser. I just wonder if youíd be kind enough to tell us who do you consider are the four greatest female swimmers Australiaís produced over the years please?

Kieren Perkins: Four greatest female swimmers that weíve ever produced?

Amanda Smith: Swimmers, or athletes in general?

Man: Swimmers.

Kieren Perkins: OK. Well Dawn is certainly Number 1. Then, I think that Iíd probably have to rate Susie OíNeill, personally Iíd rate her before Shane Gould. Not because I donít think that winning however many gold medals it was at the one Olympic Games is not an outstanding achievement, I just personally feel that coming back and doing it again is a lot harder. Itís something which I rate as being more of an achievement, so Iíd put Susie in front of Shane.

And fourth and lastly - actually Iíll step away from convention a little bit here and upset more than few people Iím sure. Iíd probably put Lisa Curry next. Lisa never actually won an Olympic medal and probably never actually made an Olympic final, however she affected the sport of swimming and changed the face of the sport more than I believe any other female athlete has ever done. She turned it into an industry, she created a life for herself from her sport. She was the first individual that didnít step away from the sport to nothing, and just fade away quietly. She really made it something that she was able to use to her advantage in creating a life for herself. And I think that that changed the culture of our sport a lot. I think that it opened up avenues for myself and others to create a living from our sport, and brought it really into a new era of professionalism. She certainly made us more aware of what it was that we had and what we could do with it, which was something that the governing body at the time was doing everything they could to try and quash, because it just meant that they lost a little bit of their control every time an athlete had an opinion.

Woman: Iíve just recently returned from Beijing; was absolutely bombarded by Beijing 2008, the Olympic bid, so Iím really fascinated as to your comments about them having it, and some of the human rights or political issues associated with that, and the Olympic Games.

Kieren Perkins: Thatís an issue that we could probably sit and talk about for another three or four hours. I believe that the Olympics in Beijing would be a good thing. I believe that one of the great things that the Olympics is able to do is open up a culture to scrutiny for the rest of the world. Certainly the focus of the 16 days of the sport and the Games is about the performances, but when you have 10,000 or more media accredited at an event, plus probably three times as many as that trying to turn up dirt and tarnish the event, it really breaks down a lot of barriers. It really exposes a culture greatly to the rest of the world. And I think that given the opportunity to do that would certainly change a lot of peopleís views about China, and quite possibly change Chinaís view about the rest of the world and maybe get them to look a little bit more closely at what it is that theyíre doing. I think that to a certain extent a lot of Chinese feel that the rest of the world is attacking them all of the time, and making judgement on what they do and what they feel.

The drugs in sport issue is something which is obviously very controversial in China, and while Iím the first person to stand up and say that drugs in sport is an evil, and we need to chase after it and try and quell it as much as we possibly can, I also think that itís a little naïve and insane to front up to a nation of a billion people and tell them that theyíre wrong. Certainly we have our views and we have our rights and wrongs in society, and thereís certainly a lot of things about what we do that weíre not proud of, but to just bluntly enforce our will on other cultures is wrong. Just as we need to be given the opportunity to explain ourselves, they need to be given the opportunity to also do the same. And the Olympics is a great way to do that.

Here is a very edited version of his speech. You can hear a better version of most of it in audio (Realplayer.) Fast forward to 4:40...

(edited version by ABC Radio)

Sport: The Touchstone of Australian Life

by Kieren Perkins
Melbourne Town Hall
Wednessday, May 16, 2001, 6pm

For as long as I can remember sport has played a part in my life. I grew up in an average middle class family, dad worked 80 hours a week in his own consulting firm and mum also worked in the firm when she wasnít ferrying the kids around in the car. My memory of our quality time together was sitting down in front of the TV on a Sunday night to watch the game of the round In the Queensland rugby league with the obligatory fish and chips. I probably remember it so well because I am allergic to fish.

My days playing with friends involved riding your push bike to a park or the mate with the biggest yard and playing cricket until someone was so sure they werenít bowled out they took their bat and ball and went home in a huff, only to go through the same process again the next day all summer long.

In my formative years I was involved in soccer, gymnastics, AFL, and cross country running to name a few however I showed no talent in any of these and it wasnít until I fell into swimming that I found my sport. Fell being the operative word because I fell, or more rightly ran, through a plate glass window at my house and severed my left calf muscle. After 80 odd stiches in and around my leg the rehabilitation prescribed was kicking in the water, the local heated pool at the time was the John Carew Swim School, and after the cast came off I had enjoyed my time there so much I kept going back. For 18 years!

In the time since then I have travelled all over the world and represented my country at three Olympics, two world championships, three commonwealth games, and countless pan pacific and European meets. I have been fortunate enough to meet world leaders, in politics, sport and religion, and rightly or wrongly the people that have the greatest effect on me are the athletes. This is not because of the similarities of our lives or achievements, or the lack of understanding of the importance of the non-sporting people, after all a person with the title President of the United States, carries a certain amount of awe. The simple fact is I am Australian, and I am a sports fan.

Growing up in this country it is quite clear who the people are that we hold in the highest of esteem. It certainly isnít our politicians, even our journalists are held in disdain, although I personally donít understand why, but without a doubt the athlete rains supreme.

Having achieved my greatest moments outside Australian shores I often found it hard to understand the level of excitement my swims created. My gold medal swim in Atlanta, up until the Sydney Olympics, was the most watched event in Australian television history. It eclipsed Prince Charles and Lady Diís wedding in the ratings however the most amazing aspect for me was the number of people who crowded around TVs in shopping malls, restaurants, in fact anywhere a set could be found. Even today more that four years later I have stories recounted of where people were when I swam. Football games were stoped, golfers missed tee off times, captains on Qantas flights relayed updates of my progress, in fact it seams to me that the nation stoped. One gentleman recently went as far as suggesting the value of the dollar fell for fifteen minutes that September day as the nation ground to a halt.

I find the notion that my achievements may have had this affect as insane. On some reflection though I seem to recall where I was the day we won the Americaís cup. Or seeing Greg Norman win the British open. The time Wayne Gardner fell off his bike in the rain, twice, and still remounted to finish the race. All of a sudden it makes sense.

Australians are obsessed with our sporting heroes. The question why is one that I have confronted and thought about on may occasions over the years when wondering around in public trying to be invisible only to be stopped for an autograph or photo time and again. The answer though has never been clear-cut or simple. The first reason I think is tradition. Right from the inception of our country we have had athletes representing us all over the world. Edwin Flack won two old medals at the first modern Olympics. Australian cricket teams have been playing for well over a century, I do think though that our ties to sport are much deeper and less clear.

When the first convicts arrived from England on our shores nothing was easy. A European community was created out of untouched lands. In fact it is difficult to comprehend now how they created agriculture and farming to support the population without the use of the heavy machinery that is employed today. Cities were built and through all of this the determination and ingenuity of the Australian people came through. I think it would be fair to say that Ned Kellyís armour wasnít something he just bought at the local armoury. And the fact that an outlaw bushranger was so revered I think is testament to our love of an underdog who shows the established how it is done.

I also think the Anzacís were a great source of the spirit we show in competition. Our soldiers have proven their worth on many occasions, and the traits of determination and ingenuity again come to the fore. The legend of the ANZAC is based on the ability of an out numbered and less well provisioned force, fighting on when other lesser armies would have surrendered. The almost stubborn inability to give up is something that we see time and again in our sporting heroes. The mateship displayed by our soldiers is another example. When we see one of our own struggling the team will form up around him and take the slack. Another important part or our ANZAC spirit, which is an important part or our society today, is the respect that is shown to all people. Arrogant disregard of others, whether they are competitors or those on our own side, is something intrinsic in our nature. There are larrikins aplenty in our history, but the spirit of that never harms another.

These champions in our history I think created the base point for our sporting icons. Australians will never give up, will find new ways to do things better, never let a team mate flounder, all the while with a smile and a friendly joke.

Our athletes I think possess these basic traits. Don Bradman achieved a batting average almost twice that of his nearest contemporary. In a time when life was very tough in this country he created a legend. A legend who, other than his ability with a cricket bat, was no different that the rest of us, he was a good bloke. He worked hard for his achievements, and deserved his success but never once did that make him act in an arrogant or disrespectful manner. Up until his death he spent time every week signing autographs for his fans. A man who was so frail in the end that he couldnít travel far from his home still felt obliged to take the time to fulfil the requests of many who were not even born when he played, and others who he even new to be unscrupulous enough to take advantage of his humility.

Dawn Fraser is an example of the larrikin in us all. She won three consecutive gold medals in the 100 freestyle at the Olympics. An achievement only equalled in swimming to this day by one other person. Yet at the time she was still able to gain the wrath of the governing body of her sport and receive a life ban for appropriating a flag that she maybe shouldnít have. She is revered for that act, and even with the threat of such a severe reprimand those who follow her have been known to try for such a souvenir.

Our history has provided us with many sporting greats and the qualities that they are admired for are the same. Determination, ingenuity and humbleness. I think that the example these people left us with is the reason why sport is so much apart of our lives today and our athletes are the role models they are. In recent years this has however brought some new challenges to our athletes. The speed with which information is communicated around the globe and the strength of our media means the microscope under which we operate is much larger. Every move we make and development in not only our sporting lives but also our private ones is recorded and reported to the world. The pressure this creates to not only perform well but also conduct yourself in an appropriate manner makes sport a very different arena. The responsibility of being a role model is the responsibility of all successful athletes and one that needs to be taken seriously. Many athletes find it hard being thrust in the spotlight when they find success in their sport, they train for years to get the opportunity to compete at a high level and when the moment arrives and they reach their goal a microphone gets thrust in their face and they are asked how they feel. Quite daunting for a young athlete but also a reality of sport today. The success an athlete attains is often proportional to the ability they have in dealing with the pressure or the media and public expectation.

Greg Norman is I think a great example. In recent memory no Australian sportsman has had to explain his performance on so many occasions. He was the worldís number one ranked golfer for longer than most of us are even involved with a sport, he has created an industry for himself and made his sport one of the highest profile in the world, and yet he still gets criticised for not retiring on top. And even through all of this pressure his still holds passion for his sport and is still competitive at a world level. Some men would have cracked and taken the easy road to retirement with a more than healthy bank balance, but he continues to play on his own terms and in a manner that makes him a role model for us all.

In fact one of the more memorable moments of my sporting life was meeting Greg for the first time in Atlanta after my heat swim. This man who could have demanded and probably gotten vip treatment was sitting in the stands with his family like everyone else trying to enjoy the swimming. The autograph hunters were not leaving him alone and one of our coaches saw this and convinced security to let him come into the athletes area for some peace, Iím sure though the coach just wanted to meet him. Things didnít go to planned for me in the heat and I just scraped into the final in lane 8, I came into the warm down area to try and regroup when he was introduced to me and I have to admit I was awe struck, wow Greg Norman wanted to meet me! The real revelation came when we spoke and he proved to be a nice person who offered me the best of luck and told me he knew I could do it. Others may have tried to preach or offer advice but he was not so presumptuous as to think he knew better than me.

He is I think a dying breed. More and more we are reading in the headlines about athletes falling from grace and bringing themselves and their sport into disrepute. I think their offences are more damaging than that. In a time when our children need good people to look up to they are continuously faced with the misdemeanours of athletes. May people try to offer excuses about the pressure that is faced to perform for the public, or even sponsors, but that is of little comfort to parents who are trying to teach their kids right from wrong. Being an athlete and a role model holds with it a responsibility to the fans that support us and it is one that cannot be explained away with ďthe pressure just got to meĒ. This country is built on the foundations of our sporting icons and that is being eroded by the inability of a few to respect the role they play in Australian life.

I, more than most, understand the pressure of expectation. In the four years after Atlanta I was continually harassed about my lack of performance. The pressure that put not only on myself but also those around me was at times unbearable, but the responsibility I had as a role model to children like my own never allowed me to take the easy road. As time goes on and the role models are harder to find the more our youth will turn away from sport. And that has great consequences not only for our sporting future but also for the nation at large.

Sport offers children many life lessons that are hard to teach without the benefit of personal experience. Sport teaches us about self-discipline, motivation to succeed, working in a team environment and appreciating what an individual has to offer those around them. All children need to be given the opportunity to grow through sport and the less parents feel like sport can help their children grow into well rounded responsible human beings the less children we will have in sport.

Money in sport is also an area that the purists see as diminishing the morals of our athletes. My experience is that money does not enable a person to be great, the love of their field does that, money just enables athletes to stay longer and not have to succumb to the pressure of needing to make a living to support their families. There are some athletes who do however abuse the opportunity and donít appreciate what they have, it comes all to easily, and as a result the future is never as long as it could have been. The tragedy is that most of them will have forsaken their education with the belief that sport will make them a success forever. Sport doesnít last forever and injuries have cut short the lives of many great athletes. This lack of formal education could also lead to the inability of an athlete to be the role model that they should.

In closing I would like to share a moment that summed up to me how much sport is the touchstone of Australian life. Last week I attended the centenary of federation commemorative meeting of parliament, this was a truly historic event that brought together Australians of all walks of life. Politicians set aside partisanship, people of all backgrounds were recognised only as Australian, and every speaker thanked the traditional owners of the site that the exhibition centre stands, the Wurundjeri, for their welcome. During the event Australian achievers were recognised as a cross section of the people who had helped shaped the fabric of our society. Names like Sir Robert Menzies, Dr Victor Chang, Dame Nellie Melba, Sir Samuel Griffith, Albert Namatjira, Banjo Paterson and Sir Charles Kingsford Smith, just to name a few. The greatest reception however was reserved for our sporting icons. The Don brought a tear to more than a few eyes when his passing was reflected. And when Betty Cuthbert was wheeled on to the stage by Nova Peris-Kneebone the noise created made the building shake to its core. Of the events that I have been to in recent memory there has been no greater indication of the effect that sport has on our nation. The men and women who created and fought for the democracy that we enjoy, were remembered with humble appreciation, our sporting heroes however captured our hearts.

Speaker: Kieren Perkins OAM
Kieren Perkins is regarded as not only a successful Olympic athlete but a national icon. A member of the Australian swimming team for eleven years before his recent retirement, Mr Perkins has enjoyed a hugely successful swimming career, notching up two Olympic gold medals, two silver medals, two world titles and eleven world records. He took part in the 1992, 1996 and 2000 Olympics, and is the first swimmer in the world to hold Olympic, World, Commonwealth and Pan Pacific titles simultaneously.

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