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It was the most controversial sporting event in history, held in a country that was in a state of emergency. The Tokyo Olympics forged ahead and united a world torn apart by COVID.  

The performances of Australia’s athletes captured the hearts and minds of the Nation. Wilkinson Butler’s Sports Director Liam Cox was privileged to work for the Australian Olympic Committee’s Public Affairs team in Tokyo. Liam advised our athletes, coaches, and officials, and helped tell their stories to the world. Reflecting on three unforgettable weeks in Japan, Liam takes us behind the scenes of the Games of the XXXII Olympiad, explaining how our athletes inspired Australia during lockdown.  

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Tears stream down Skye Nicolson’s face. Her body shakes uncontrollably with disbelief. The 25-year-old Australian boxer struggles to comprehend that her Olympic dream is over. We’re standing in the bowels of Tokyo’s Kokugikan Arena moments after Skye’s controversial split points decision loss to Great Britain’s Karriss Artingstall in the quarterfinals. To understand the raw emotion, we need to look back at the journey. 

Boxing is a lonely sport. The path to the Olympics is painful. Road runs before dawn. Countless hours in the gym. Every day, every night spent honing the sweet science of the craft. For Skye, it was 15-years of blood, sweat and tears – chasing the dream of an Olympic Gold medal. It would have been Australia’s first boxing medal since Seoul in 1988.  

But this was more than re-writing the record books. It was something far greater than sport. Skye was fighting for girls across Australia to chase their dreams. Fighting for women to be empowered. Fighting to break stereotypes that women shouldn’t box. Fighting for her late brother Jamie, who tragically died in a car accident before she was born. 

Jamie boxed for Australia at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. 29-years later, Skye’s honouring his legacy in Tokyo. Back home in Queensland watching on the tele, Skye’s Mum Pat and her Dad Allan. The proudest parents in the world. Their daughter is the most successful female boxer in Australian Olympic history. As we stand before the world’s media, the accolade means nothing to Skye.  

The pain is more than any punch could inflict. Watching a woman cry is heartbreaking. It’s deeply confronting. I’m fighting back tears myself, trying to find the words to console Skye. Nothing I said could ease her pain. Skye had one goal – Olympic Gold. For Jamie, for young women across Australia.   

The bright lights flicker on. The camera lens zooms in close, peering into Skye’s soul. The microphone captures the sound of heartbreak. The interview is played across Australia, and around the world. It’s tough to watch. Skye could have knocked back the interview and dealt with her grief in the privacy of the dressing room. Everybody would have understood. But Skye doesn’t take easy options. Ever.  

Skye’s interview struck a raw nerve. We were all in her corner because we knew what she was fighting for. She took us on the journey – the entire journey. And by opening up and telling her story, how many people did Skye inspire? How many young girls now believe they too can now chase their dreams? How many now refuse to be told that they can’t do something because they’re a girl?  

Skye, like most of our Olympians is an amateur athlete. They don’t get paid to compete. Their pursuit of Olympic glory is so pure that you can’t help but admire them. And for as many stories as there is about gold medal winning performances, there’s a thousand more of heartbreak, loss, and results that don’t seem like much on a scoreboard. But if you look closely enough, you can see the gold in them too. 

Nathan Katz spent 56 days in hotel quarantine travelling the world just to qualify for his second Olympics in Judo. By the time he touched down in Tokyo his body was busted. Stress fractures and a bulging disc in his back, plus a broken rib. 10 cortisone injections later he was wearing green and gold. Not once did I hear Nathan complain.  

Liam Adams works full-time as an electrician and still finds the time and energy to run 200km’s a week in training. He battled through 32-degree heat and 85% humidity in Sapporo to finish 24th in the marathon. Not bad for a sparky he told me. Too right mate.  

The Nuns at Sinead Diver’s Irish school didn’t allow girls to participate in sport. She moved to Australia, ran her first marathon at 38 after having her first baby, and came 10th in Tokyo. Age is just a number. It’s never too late – don’t give up.

Harry Garside, the plumber from Lilydale. He grew up on the wrong side of tracks and boxed to gain the respect of his father. Harry earned a bronze medal in Tokyo. He also painted his nails and did ballet to show that it doesn’t matter where you come from – you can be whoever you want to be. Amen to that Harry.  

Australia’s athletes united and inspired the Nation because they were genuine. They were real. They were honest. We saw their sacrifice, dedication, humility, and spirit. We could see it on their faces, and we could hear in their voices. They inspired many of us to believe that we can achieve something greater in our own lives. And that right there is the magic of Australia’s 486 athletes that represented us at the Tokyo Olympic Games.

(Header image source: ABC News)

(Nathan Katz image source: Sydney Morning Herald)

Author Liam Cox

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