Wednesday, 30 October 2013

An Olympian In All But Name

There’s only 100 days to go before the start of the Sochi Olympic Winter Games. The games have rarely been out of the lgbt media since President Putin began introducing his anti-gay legislation. Should I write about Sochi? In the end I decided no - I want to celebrate with an uplifting gay Olympic story.

Regular readers will know of my fascination for unusual angles to Olympic stories (from a gay Lord Mayor and the torch relay to a gay deaf performer suspended from wires). Some people get noticed at the Olympics while others are just glanced at and forgotten. This is the story of one who deserves a place among the Olympians but hasn’t. He was seen by millions at the Sydney 2000 Olympics in a position of huge honour. But, unless you know him, you’ll have forgotten he was even there.

His name is Wade Bennett.

To the outside world Wade seemed to be the archetypical Aussie teenager – a blond, athletic, surfer-dude-type with a passion for sport. But behind this outward image was something he kept hidden – he was gay. In sporting circles in the 1980s being gay was that last thing an Australian sportsman would admit to being in public.

Wade had been water-skiing from the age of 4 and entered his first competitive race aged 9 (he came 3rd). Before he was 20 Wade had become state champion and long-distance record holder.

In 1992 Wade moved to Sydney, even then a much more gay-friendly place. He didn’t really come out. He shared an apartment near Bondi Beach with a gay drag queen and, sort of, “drifted” out of the closet on the waves of gay life that surrounded him. It lost him some homophobic sporting friends, which hurt, but it didn’t deter him from sport because – hey – he was an Australian and sport is part of his culture.

In 1995 he entered the ¼ Mile Ski Drag Race at the Mildura 100 ski meeting. The Mildura committee had decided that ski drag races were too dangerous and this was to be their last appearance in the competition. This was also to be one of Wade’s last races because he had dreams in another sporting direction. When Sydney was awarded the 2000 Olympic Games Wade became determined to become an Olympian. As water-skiing isn’t an Olympic sport Wade chose to train as a triathlete. He hoped he would become good enough to be chosen for Team Australia in time for the Olympics.

The crowd at the Mildura 100 were excited and eager for the final drag race. Wade sped round the course reaching 110 miles (180 km) an hour and reached the finish line. As he did so he lost control and fell, hitting the water with the force of a high-speed crash into a brick wall. He was knocked unconscious as he spinned out of control.

Medics rushed to his rescue. Beyond everyone’s fears Wade was still alive but he had suffered truly horrific injuries. His pelvis was broken in 2 places, his arm was fractured and dislocated, and he had a torn artery and sciatic nerve in one leg. Medics began to unzip his wetsuit, and then saw something more serious. The impact had torn Wade’s skin across his abdomen and his internal organs were in danger of spilling out into the water. Only his wetsuit kept his body in one piece. Wade was in a coma for 17 days. Many operations lasting several hours each made sure his internal organs were back where they should be and all broken bones were reconstructed.

After months and months of therapy and many operations Ware regained the ability to walk, and straight away hoped to get back into sport. It was a long, hard, and painful challenge, but he made it back onto the water ski circuit as a disabled skier in 1996 – still breaking records.

But Wade’s hopes of a place on Team Australia at the Sydney Olympics were over. Even the Paralympics don’t have water-skiing on their schedule. However, Wade’s miraculous recovery and courage earned him a place on the Sydney 2000 Olympic torch relay. Having lost his chance to compete as an athlete Wade applied to become an Olympic volunteer.

Enter Doug Jack, a gay Olympic icon, a “veteran” choreographer of 12 Olympic ceremonies over 14 years. For the Sydney games Doug was Director of Choreography. One of his tasks was to choose the marshals who line up to guide the parade of athletes into the stadium, a role he created at the 1992 Barcelona games.

A bulky file landed on Doug’s desk. It was all about Wade and his recovery from near death. Doug was so impressed and moved by the story that he made a decision. He invited Wade to the first rehearsal of all 600 marshals and 200 others who were to carry the placards bearing the competing nations’ name, a task that most of us don’t give second thought to, but to the volunteers it’s a personal honour to represent the host city and lead a visiting nation’s team into the stadium.

After his welcome speech Doug launched into a run-down of Wade’s life, his accident, his recovery, and his dream of being an Olympian. He concluded by saying “He has trained harder for LIFE than any Olympian has trained for their sport or country. So, it is my honour to make his dream come true”. The Olympic ceremony producer’s had accepted Doug’s suggestion that Wade should be given the honour of carrying the Australia name placard at the head of the Australian athletes at both the opening and closing ceremonies. The assembled 800 volunteers gave Wade a standing ovation as he went up to be the first to receive his placard.

Wade was treated like a celebrity by the Australian athletes and officials – giving him tours of the athlete’s village and the media centre and meeting the Australian Prime Minister. To all intents and purposes the athletes considered Wade to be a member of Team Australia. Wade’s dream of walking with them at the Olympic games had come true. You can see on films of the opening ceremony his joy and pride at leading the team into the stadium.

A postscript to this story is that Wade continued to train in sport and entered 3 short-track races at the 2002 Sydney Gay Games, winning gold each time as a disabled athlete. He returned to water-skiing after 12 years in 2009, breaking the record he set in 1998. After 54 operations, and having to learn to walk again 3 times, he became Disability Services Officer with Ski Racing Australia in 2010, and is currently Publicity Officer with Ski Racing New South Wales.

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