Out of the Cabinet

By Ian Warden

Get a different take on Cabinet records! This year, Canberra journalist Ian Warden has immersed himself in the policy decisions made by the 1980–81 Fraser government. In this Out of the Cabinet series, Ian highlights particular documents that captured his imagination, and provides humorous and insightful comments.

Stinging criticism and hurled hotdogs

Australian sprinter Raelene Boyle running over the finish line of a race in second place
Boyle wins silver (A6180, 28/11/73/8)

In 1980, two hitherto beloved Australian athletes, sprinter Raelene Boyle and swimmer Tracey Wickham, suddenly became despised and hounded by many angry Australians.

Boyle recalled that she and Wickham, along with some other athletes, were 'hunted like sinners' and that 'stinging criticism from total strangers nearly drove me insane'. Both received hate mail including death threats. Wickham, only 17, was even pelted with rubbish.

How had Boyle and Wickham 'sinned' in the eyes of the enraged? Some of the background to their ordeal emerges from the confidential Cabinet records of 1980, recently made available to the public by the National Archives of Australia.

Boyle's and Wickham's perceived wickedness was that even though they had been selected for that year's Olympic Games, they had agreed to stay away from Moscow in support of the Fraser government's boycott of the Games.

Russia had invaded Afghanistan late in 1979. An outraged US President Carter asked his country's allies to join in a boycott of the July/August Moscow Games. Prime Minister Fraser desperately wanted Australia to oblige. He urged Australian athletes not to go to Moscow, applying pressure to individual athletes and the Australian Olympic Federation.

Portion of text from 1980 Cabinet submission No. 3915: Olympic boycott - compensation questions
An undesirable precedent? (A1209, 3915)

That 'pressure' included offers of financial compensation for athletes who agreed to stay away from Moscow. Boyle and Wickham were two of six individual athletes who made the difficult decision to do their prime minister's bidding.

The 'sin' of the six in the eyes of many was that they had allowed grubby politics to contaminate pure, clean sport. Then by staying home they had made the sin more heinous by putting compensation ahead of the glory their Moscow medal-winning would have brought the nation.

The 1980 Cabinet records provide background to the government's decision to try to oblige the United States by boycotting the Games, and to the agonised-over decision to pay compensation to some individual athletes and sporting bodies.

Some of the agonising, by Minister for Home Affairs Robert Ellicott and the inter-departmental committee that advised him, concerned the risk that these compensations could easily be construed as the government's bullying and bribing 'inducements'. And indeed, that was exactly how some saw the compensation payments, which included the 'pittance' (Boyle's word) of $6000 paid on Christmas Eve 1980 to each of the six individual athletes who had supported the boycott.

In March, with the Games looming (the opening ceremony was to be on 19 July), Minister Ellicott had an inter-departmental committee worry over whether, and especially how, there might be compensation of Australian athletes who chose to oblige the government by denying their personal dreams for the national foreign policy good.

Portion of text from 1980 Cabinet submission No. 3915: Olympic boycott - compensation questions
A financial inducement (A12909, 3915)

Records show that around 1 April 1980, Minister Ellicott submitted to Cabinet that it really was for him a matter 'of principal' that the government should compensate the boycotting athletes. His tone sounds warmer than that of the inter-departmental committee report he had just read. The unfeeling, niggardly language of the report (which found the whole concept of government compensation of athletes affected by foreign policy decisions quite nightmarish, and dreaded what awful precedents the 1980 payments might create), makes a poignant contrast with the anguished language of the memoirs of Boyle and Wickham, both affected by the compensation/boycott imbroglio.

The inter-departmental committee, insensitive to the peculiar sacrifices, drives and dreams of great athletes, urged Minister Ellicott and Cabinet only to reimburse athletes' stringently demonstrated financial losses. No one, it insisted, should get a cent's compensation for such waffly, emotional notions as 'pain and suffering'.

But Boyle's and Wickham's pain and suffering were extreme. Neither had joined the boycott in search of payment. In her 2010 autobiography we find Wickham still agitated by 1980's furore. At a greyhound meeting just after the 1980 Olympics, she was booed and bombarded with rubbish. 'Finally I was hit by a half-eaten hotdog. The officials had to form a ring to protect me and help me off the track. I was humiliated, furious, upset and hurt.'

In her 1983 autobiography Boyle seethed that the $6000 was just 'a Federal Government pay-off…while politicians scored points off defenceless athletes…Even $100,000 would not have been adequate compensation for the anguish I suffered'.

In 2003 Boyle told the touching story of how in 1980, feeling emotions apparently not dreamt of in the philosophy of the aforementioned inter-departmental committee, she sat at home in Melbourne watching the opening ceremony of the Moscow Olympic Games on television. She tried to get too drunk to go on feeling the pain she felt at not being there in Moscow, but that just didn't work and so 'instead I wept. I cried like a baby'.

Each year on 1 January the Archives releases the Cabinet records that document the decisions which have shaped the social, cultural and political life of Australia. Following changes to the Archives Act 1983, the closed period for Cabinet records is gradually being reduced from 30 to 20 years.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019