On March 23, Australia was officially acknowledged as the top-ranked men’s road cycling nation, overtaking traditional powerhouses Spain and Italy. Six days later, Australia claimed first place at the track cycling world championships in Poland. Within the week, former track star Jobie Dajka was found dead in his Adelaide home. He was 27.
The extremes of the sport’s triumph and the disaster of an ostracised competitor seemed to suggest cycling’s success had come at a cost. Media coverage of the Dajka tragedy unearthed stories of cycling’s brutality, ongoing disputes and lack of safeguards for those who fall away. Feuds and controversies were revisited. Names such as Gary Neiwand, Sean Eadie, Mark French and Ben Kersten were again raised in a context other than their achievements.
Cycling Australia’s (CA) response to Dajka’s death was, at best, peculiar. Officials offered that "our thoughts and wishes are with his family and friends at this sad time", adding Dajka never recovered from his axing from the Athens Olympic team, a result of the AIS "shooting gallery" drama, which went as far as the Senate and sparked legal actions that still continue. On the CA website, under the headline "Vale Jobie Dajka", just two paragraphs formed a "tribute" to a young man the authority admits was "one of Australia’s best sprint cyclists of the past decade".
The cool response became clearer when Dajka’s parents declared CA officials unwelcome at their son’s funeral. Then, at the funeral, Dajka’s father, Stan, removed any doubt about whom he thought was responsible for Jobie’s death, saying: "My heart will never forgive them for taking your life’s dreams away from you. They tore out your heart, put you in a heap and closed the door. I hope the guilt torments them forever, as it has done to us."
Perhaps the family’s sentiments were best summarised by respected commentator Phil Liggett, who said by email last week that, "clearly the extent of his illness, which I think was what it was, should have been realised and perhaps more understanding made and help given".
Just days before Dajka’s death, CA president Mike Victor was discussing cycling’s new era, telling The Sun-Herald : "It’s pretty good not to get negative reports in the media at the moment. It seems every sport has its turn."
Victor was referring to the remarkable resilience of a sport that, despite its murky history, had somehow emerged on top of the world. The good press was short-lived.
Cycling’s Australian history stretches back over a century. In the early 20th century, as in Europe, bicycles were a major form of transport. People could respect and relate to it as a sport. Australia’s first superstar, airforce officer, politician and diplomat Hubert Opperman was idolised in the 1920s and ’30s.
Cycling drew big money and thousands of people to regular events in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. There were bike tracks around ovals nationwide. However, problems with gambling and the emergence of the car reduced the sport’s appeal. Cycling re-emerged leading up to the 1956 Melbourne Games but faded again in the 1960s.
Yet, even in the so-called "innocent days" cycling was tinged with tragedy. In 1958, "The Geelong Flyer", Russell Mockridge – who became Australia’s first dual cycling gold medallist at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics – died after he collided with a bus during the Tour of Gippsland, leaving a widow and three-year-old daughter. More than 20 years after that tragedy, cycling’s new era began, when Phil Anderson became the first non-European to wear the Tour de France yellow leader’s jersey in 1981. He announced modern Australian cycling to the world.
"I was handed the yellow jersey on the podium and went to a press conference down the mountain afterwards," he remembers. "They’d never had an Australian up on stage before, and they thought I was pretty unusual, so they began asking me questions like how long I’d been racing. Then they asked me where I was from, but when I told them there were quite a few confused faces around. So somebody brought out a world map and asked me to point to where Melbourne was, which I did. Of course, Australia was pretty small because it was a French map …"
Anderson’s legacy became rich. These days triple Tour de France green jersey winner Robbie McEwen can invite the Prime Minister of Belgium to his house for a barbie, Cadel Evans is preparing to better his second placings in the past two Tours de France, Anna Meares, Oenone Wood, Ryan Bayley, Michael Rogers, Sara Carrigan and Brad McGee are among a long list of recent world champions. There are 26 Australian riders involved with pro tour teams this season, and our track stars are world-beaters.
Anderson’s five top-10 Tour de France finishes were the foundations for the current success. But another result consolidated his achievements.
"I wouldn’t say cycling was a backwater sport in Australia before 1984, but it was certainly not recognised as mainstream," says Mike Turtur, who, with Dean Woods, Kevin Nichols and Michael Grenda, won the 4000 metres team pursuit gold at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, a victory etched in lore because their muscle and grit defeated superior technology.
"We got to LA and the Italians, Swiss, Germans and Americans all had disc wheels and aerodynamically designed bikes," he says.
"We were riding standard pursuit bikes with normal wheels."
Their win caught the nation’s attention and led to cycling’s inclusion in the recently established Australian Institute of Sport in 1987. Full-time coaches and federal funding would propel the sport to a higher level.
The momentum continued after LA when Anderson claimed fifth at the 1985 Tour de France. The trailblazing 1980s opened the door for Australians such as Neil Stephens, Allan Peiper and Stuart O’Grady to become professional. Anderson showed Europeans that Australians were versatile, tough and talented, and Turtur’s team drove home the fact.
Liggett admires those attributes in the Australian road riders, who leave young and survive in a cut-throat environment far from home. Evans calls it his "Tyranny of Distance" – from age 17 he has travelled five months every year. As in any professional modern sport, those who fail can find it hard to readjust, while those who succeed enjoy great spoils. McEwen, who married a Belgian, speaks fluent Flemish and is one of Belgium’s most popular sportsmen, earns an estimated $2.5 million a season.
But with success comes challenges. Australian cyclists are now hot property and Victor, the CA president, says a club versus country-type struggle is brewing.
"Our best young riders are being chased all the time, and they now have bosses to answer to who run pro teams in Europe," he says. "It’s something we’ll have to overcome."
Funding is another issue. Victor claims an updated track program is necessary if Australia is to stay on top, but the finances aren’t available.
The toughest challenge could be to overcome the issues that have resurfaced since Dajka’s death.
"It goes without saying that there is still resentment and grudges within the sport," says Turtur, who is the Oceania Cycling Confederation’s president.
"In some people’s eyes, the issues haven’t been dealt with correctly or appropriately. In other people’s eyes, they have been. There will always be conjecture over who’s right or wrong.
"It’s a rocky road. But it’s not only cycling. Swimming’s had some major issues, rugby league, rugby … we can go on.
"The reality is that the majority of athletes do the right thing but it’s the controversial issues that make the headlines and, unfortunately, cycling’s been tarnished by negative attention. If you take a step back, though, you would see that the sport is strong, we’ve got vibrant athletes who’ve done well and are continuing on to the next Olympics.
"We’ve got record participation, the federation is very strong at the moment and we had a great result on the track in Poland. The timing is perfect for us to move to the next phase."