Dawn Fraser is back where she seems happiest: in the spotlight. Not that she'd been out of it for long. Nearly four decades after her swimming career ended, Fraser was ubiquitous during the Sydney Olympics-running with the Olympic torch, chatting with the big shots. As she tells it, she feared her fellow Australians might think she was a god. So she penned her autobiography to set them straight. "I've tried to show people," she explained, "that Dawn Fraser is a human being like the other great icons of this country of ours." For the right to publish Dawn: One Hell of a Life, Hodder Headline Australia paid her more than $400,000.
Nancy Wake is in the spotlight, too, although-values being what they are-hers is not as bright as Fraser's. Only a dozen years before a teenaged Fraser received her first gold medal at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, Wake's death-defying efforts in occupied France in World War II were nearing a triumphant climax. Born in Wellington, raised in Sydney, married to a Frenchman and known to the Gestapo as the "White Mouse," the elusive Wake was a courier of messages and equipment for the French Resistance, once cycling 400 km through German checkpoints in 72 hours. She was also involved in raids on German strongholds; she killed one soldier with a karate chop and tossed grenades into Gestapo headquarters at Montlueon. Wake, 88, lives today in a rented apartment on the New South Wales north coast. When Sydney journalist Peter FitzSimons last year persuaded HarperCollins to publish Nancy Wake-A Biography of Our Greatest War Heroine, he and Wake split a $15,000 advance.
The cliche that sport is a substitute for war no longer cuts it. A substitute is something we settle for despite knowing it to be inferior. In Australia, sports people are the greatest warriors. Spectators are mixed up, brainwashed by relentless sports advertising that trades on the jargon of war. The upcoming series of cricket Tests in England is, they're told, "The Battle for the Ashes." And in case the spiritual link between Steve Waugh's men and killed-in-action Australian soldiers was still a little fuzzy, the cricketers stopped off at Gallipoli en route to the Old Dart to don slouch hats and re-create a famous (some thought sacred) World War I photograph.
FitzSimons is a former Test rugby player who says his proudest moment was when a New Zealand national coach declared the Australian had "waged a one-man war against the All Blacks." In his career, he adds, "I of course came up against a lot of very tough men, but it goes without saying that nothing any of us have faced on a mere sporting field took anything remotely approaching the courage that genuine warriors like Wake displayed on a daily basis."
Strangely, for many people, that doesn't go without saying. These are comfortable, complacent times. Australians have never seen their great landmarks reduced to rubble; few have ever been in battle. Consequently, the terrors of war are, for most, unimaginable. It is simpler to grasp the lesser bravery of the batsman who stands firm against the demon quickie, or the footballer who puts his shoulder in front of the bigger man. Even swimmers can be heroic, according to a breathless media-Fraser is still described as such whenever she overcomes life's setbacks. Youthful athletes are hyped by agents; past greats are propelled by nostalgia. There seems little room in Australians' attention or affection for an old lady who long ago fought for freedom on foreign soil.
Wake's public appearance in Sydney last week was a jarring reminder that people who leave normal lives to face and inflict death are never the same again. "I rejoice in the fact I killed them (Germans)," she said at the book's launch, "and I'm sorry I didn't kill more."
A hard man like Steve Waugh would never say such a thing about his sporting enemies-but his enemies are not armed. Wake's enemies beat Jews in front of her eyes; they shot at her, and they tortured and killed her husband Henri Fiocca. Even so, to speak of rejoicing in killing is unpalatable in Australia today. Wake's enduring fury makes one uncomfortable, and a night in front of the football suddenly sounds good. There is no crime in relishing the synthetic battles of sport, but until Australians know and value people like Nancy Wake, they could perhaps be more restrained in their praise of heroes who are midgets by comparison.