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Sport's unlikeliest hero

Charles Happell

Charles Happell

Written on Wednesday, 22 May 2013 15:17

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IT'S somehow appropriate that as the integrity of Australian sport is being questioned like never before, when peptides, steroids and Stilnox are sprinkled through sports stories and even the world's greatest cyclist is revealed to be a hormone-fuelled fraud, along comes ol' Cliffy Young shuffling into the picture.

Young was the anti-Lance Armstrong, a potato farmer who excelled at his chosen sport - ultra-marathon running - with a performance-enhancing diet of Weet-Bix, boiled potatoes, pumpkin, cold tinned spaghetti and egg flips.

And in place of a fluoro, brand-covered Lycra uniform, he wore a long-sleeved shirt to cover up his sun spots and full-length pants to hide varicose veins that "hung down like grapes", as he so memorably put it.

Young famously ran in gumboots, which is how he developed his peculiar, minimalist shuffling gait, and trained by chasing dairy cows around the paddock at his Beech Forest property outside Colac in rural Victoria.

He hated running with his false teeth in because they clattered about in his head, he still lived at home with his mother and, as we are informed by Julietta Jameson in Cliffy: The Cliff Young Story, "was a virgin in his sixties". It's unlikely Lance Armstrong can lay claim to any of those particular feats either.

But it was Young's performance in winning the 1983 Sydney-to-Melbourne race, as a 61-year-old, that first brought him to the attention of the Australian public and this forms the basis of Jameson's homage to one of Australia's unlikeliest folk heroes.

Many Australians over the age of 45 will recall that race and how Cliff lined up at a Westfield shopping centre in Parramatta - wearing the first pair of proper running shoes he'd owned - as a kind of curio, a freak show almost, alongside 10 professional marathoners including Tony Rafferty, George Perdon and Siggy Bauer, who had set the 1000-mile (1609km) world record in South Africa.

At a pre-race press conference, he was asked where his gumboots were. "Gumboots? Bah," Cliff said. "These running shoes are great. They're so good it takes me 200m to slow down and stop." Brilliant! The media lapped it up; the promoters loved him. If the silly old bugger wasn't going to win the race he'd sure as hell create some interest in it.

Jameson deftly re-creates the drama of the race and the comical colliding of two worlds - Cliffy's Beech Forest team and Sydney's A-list crowd - at the starting line on April 27, 1983. Among the luminaries in attendance that morning were Westfield boss Frank Lowy, NSW premier Neville Wran and television host Mike Willesee.

Lining up for the race was Young, his long pants with holes cut into them for ventilation, and his motley support crew drawn from around Colac. The support vehicle was a rusty panel pan driven by a bloke known as Wobbles because he'd suffered from polio as a kid.

It took less than 24 hours before people realised ol' Cliffy was no joke as he hit the lead and, getting by on a few hours' sleep each night, began to forge further ahead.

Jameson charts the growing interest in the race as our wrinkly hero showed no sign of slowing up. From Gundagai onwards, where he led by almost 40km, Young was greeted in each country town with rapturous applause. In Albury, huge numbers turned out as the Cliffy phenomenon had well and truly taken hold. By the time he got to Melbourne's outskirts, the race had descended into pandemonium and Young required a police escort.

In breasting the tape at Doncaster, in Melbourne's east, the sexagenarian had covered 875km in five days, 14 hours and 35 minutes - the equivalent of almost four marathons a day - shattering the previous race record by more than two days.

Young was feted in the weeks and months afterwards - Jameson explaining that his appeal lay in his hokey homespun humour, naivety and a kind of Forrest Gump-like innocence - but then came the time, inevitably, when the celebrity mill and TV talk shows grew tired of him and he disappeared back to Beech Forest. Young died in 2003.

The Cliff Young Story is a compelling tale entertainingly told. For those under 40, it may come as something of a shock: a 61-year-old winning an 875km professional race? Who knew? And not one mention of peptides or growth hormones in 218 pages.

Cliffy: The Cliff Young Story. By Julietta Jameson. Text Publishing, $29.99

(This review first appeared in The Australian newspaper on March 23.)

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