With seven Commonwealth Games golds, three Olympic silvers and a lifetime of giving it everything she’s got, Raelene Boyle AM MBE is proud to be an Australian sporting legend.
Boyle has been a legend of Australian sport for some time, but she officially became the 39th Legend of Australian sport at the Sport Australia Hall of Fame the 33rd Induction and Awards Gala Dinner in Melbourne on Thursday.
Boyle becomes the eighth Australian track and field athlete to be elevated to legend status, joining Betty Cuthbert AM MBE (1994), Shirley Strickland (AO MBE (1995), Marjorie Jackson Nelson AC CVO MBE (1995), Herb Elliott AC MBE (1997), John Landy AC MBE (2005) Edwin Flack (2009) and Catherine Freeman OAM (2011).
“I’m very proud of being called a legend with this particular club because of the fact that it’s all sport in Australia,” Boyle said.
“We’re not talking about football or cricket or golf, we’re talking about all sports.
“That makes me really feel very honoured that the powers that be have decided that I sit up there with people like Marji Jackson, Herb Elliott and Betty Cuthbert.
“And then you’ve got all the other sports, I’m very touched by that.”
Whilst Olympic victory may have eluded her that elusive gold medal was not as important to her as wearing the green and gold.
Of course, three times she came desperately close, winning silver medals at the 1968 and 1972 Olympic Games, the former as a lightly trained 17-year-old who began her build-up just three months before Mexico City.
Outside the Olympics, Boyle dominated the competition, racking up 14 national titles and claiming seven Commonwealth Games crowns in a 15-year career that saw her selected for every national team during that period.
“I was lucky enough to win three medals at the Olympic Games at the highest possible event that the world sees and I was a happy athlete and I enjoyed my career.”
Boyle grew up in Coburg, born the youngest of her siblings in 1951 with three older brothers, but was given an equal say in the house and encouraged to pursue her sporting talents.
Later in her life that upbringing shone through as she was well known as an athlete more than happy to speak her mind on a number of issues and put her opinion on the record.
“My father had definite ideas about the fact that a young person’s body should be given the ability to grow to its full status before you start working the body hard,” Boyle said.
“So, even though he was encouraged to get me doing more training, he refused.
“And in fact, I only really started training for the Olympics three months before I went.”
She had the mindset of a champion from a young age, not intimidated by any particular competitor or environment – never expecting to win, rather having no reason why she would not.
“To be truthful I never really had the attitude that anyone was ever better than me, I didn’t really think about that,” Boyle explained.
“The purpose of competition and putting your fingers on the starting line is to win in my mind, and always was, so I never really believed that I could not make the final and I never really believed that I couldn’t win a medal.
Despite the long-held question marks on her East German opponent Renate Stecher, who won both sprint in Munich, Boyle holds the view she’s lucky she was Australian.
“On reflection I would have loved to have won a gold medal but I think when I look at the circumstances of the East Germans and many other countries of the world and the way they dealt with their athletes I was lucky that I was Australian,” Boyle reasoned.
“I didn’t have people pushing things on me that I didn’t want to take, and I can hold my head high and say that I never cheated once in my career. I worked hard, I fought my way through it and I never cheated once.”
The Australian athletics legend, who considers herself just a normal kid from Coburg, has a more rounded philosophical view on how her Olympic story played out.
“At this stage of my life, to be truthful, I’d love a gold medal, yes,” she admitted.
“But at this stage in my life I also feel more sorry for Renate Stecher, and the East German athletes, than I do think about receiving a gold medal.
“It’s just one of those things that, you know, given a choice, win a silver medal and be Australian or win a gold medal and be an East German, I pick Australia every time.
“I’d be disappointed in anyone who wouldn’t.”
The Montreal Olympics in 1976 didn’t go to plan for Boyle who had trained harder than ever before after moving to Perth to be trained by another Australia sporting legend, seven-time Olympic medallist Shirley Strickland.
Despite placing fourth in the 100m and two false starts in her favoured 200m, the Games featured a career highlight for Boyle who was the flag bearer, the first Australian women to do so at an Olympic opening ceremony.
The decisions Boyle made in her life off the track were as assertive as her running style on it, which was the case in 1980 when she withdrew from the Moscow Olympics for personal reasons.
“Once I’ve made my decision that was it,” Boyle confirmed.
“I think through things very carefully before I make a decision and I rarely, if ever, go back on that decision.
Boyle’s appearance at the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane in an unfavourable event was a worthy send-off to an icon of Australian sport.
Winning the 400m was a proud moment for her as she could salute a loving crowd that had cheered her on for over 15 years.
“I really felt that I owed my talent and I owed the public of Australia some sort of performance that would put a dot on all the I’s and cross the T’s and put a full stop at the end of my career and Brisbane served that perfectly,” Boyle said.
“All I had to do was get my old legs and body in the condition to win a race.
“My determination in that event was to not end up unable to run up the home straight and fortunately that all came together and I was able to cross the line and celebrate with a stadium full of great Australians and share it with my country via the media.”
Boyle dealt with retirement well thanks to advice from her long-time coach Ron Dewhurst who insisted she work casually while training and have other things in her life to go to after athletics.
One of her most special moments in track and field actually came well after her retirement and not long after her second cancer diagnosis, which hit Boyle hard and left her in a dark period for some time.
The prospect of walking into the Sydney Olympic stadium pushing the late Betty Cuthbert in her wheelchair, who was holding the torch, at the opening ceremony was the carrot she needed to carry on.
“I couldn’t tell anyone or talk about it except with my inner sanctum but I’m really glad I went ahead with it because it was amongst my proudest moments,” she said.
“As an Australian, but in sport, carrying the flag into the stadium in ‘76, and doing that, in my sporting world were the two highlights.
“Amongst the community of athletes that I was amongst out there, you know, pushing Betty Cuthbert in, what an honour.
“Passing it to Dawn Fraser, who passed it to Shirley Strickland to Shane Gould to Debbie Flintoff-King who gave it to Cathy.
“Cathy is one of the people I admire most in life.”
The work that Boyle has done as an ambassador for Breast Cancer Network Australia has been remarkable, a selfless act that has helped many women across the country, and herself.
“I think my diagnosis with breast cancer has enhanced my life,” Boyle admitted.
“I think that being able to use my past to help me through mine but also to help other people through theirs, it’s given purpose to my life.
“It’s hard to describe but it has given purpose to my life and I am just one of the breast cancer women diagnosed in 1996 and that’s it, I’m just one of the women, one of the girls.
Raelene Boyle is rightly considered a legend of Australian sport and now it’s official.
Established in 1985, The Sport Australia Hall of Fame aims to preserve and celebrate the history of Australian Sport and excite the next generation of Australians to achieve their potential both in sport and in life. The aim is to preserve Australia's rich sporting heritage by honouring these great athletes, and use the values and experience of Members to inspire future stars of Australian sport.
With thanks to Sport Australia Hall of Fame