The 2000 Olympic Games were a watershed moment in Australian sporting history.
As a nation we came together as Cathy Freeman dashed across the finish line in that iconic jumpsuit and rejoiced when Ian Thorpe claimed three Olympic golds, leaving world records in his wake.
There were tears of joy and sadness, but nothing more sad than when Jane Saville, the race walker, the die hard South Sydney Rabbitohs Member was disqualified as she approached Stadium Australia, now known as ANZ Stadium, home of the South Sydney Rabbitohs.
SAVILLES ARE SOUTH SYDNEY
Growing up in the South Sydney stronghold of La Perouse, Jane Saville was destined to become a Rabbitohs supporter from day one. Not only through the territorial bond that the club has on the area, but through her family. “I went to La Perouse School so you were Souths supporters if you went to La Perouse. Growing up in that area it was just South Sydney or die.”
“My grandparents were Souths Supporter, my parents, my dad played second grade for Souths he was in the great era, the Piggins era, my cousins played and my uncle played Presidents Cup. The whole family are Souths supporters.”
She laughs when reflecting on some members of the family whose love for a rugby league team went the opposite way. “We have a couple of black sheep in the family that are Easts supporters and we don’t where that came from! We’re having DNA tests done on them! They’re like the outcasts of the family, what the hell are they doing in our family!”
Family banter aside, Saville’s professional career as a race walker could be contributed to the work that Souths Juniors did in kick starting her career. “I was 14 when I first made it as a team to go overseas. It was thousands and thousands of dollars and Souths Juniors put on a sportsman lunch for me and raised enough money to allow me to go over on that trip.” She said.
“My parents wouldn’t have been able to afford it without that. Henry Morris was the president back then Souths raised a heap of money to allow me to go on that trip and to pay for the World Juniors that I went to and that was back in 1989.”
SYDNEY 2000 – THE MOMENT
Fast forward to the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games and Saville cuts a dejected figure, she cries after being disqualified for an illegal gait. The back toe leaving the ground before the front foot has touched for what has been the third time in the race.
Every agonising moment is captured on live television. Every piece of remorse, frustration and disbelief as China’s Wang Liping strolls pass Saville and into the stadium to claim another gold for her country. Camera crew’s moved quickly to get Jane’s response seconds after the incident. In hindsight, Saville would have dealt with things differently.
“I made an error when they threw the camera in my face and it’s easy to do I suppose if you’re inexperienced and let your feelings flow,” she said. “They threw the camera in my face within a couple of minutes of me being disqualified and said what can we do for you? Can we help you?
“I thought it was a really ridiculous/stupid question because there’s nothing really they can do, so I answered it quite flippantly and said that I just want to go and shoot myself. In reality I didn’t want to kill myself over a race walking race! It was a flippant off the cuff answer and I probably should have thought about it a bit more.
“Then people actually thought that I wanted to commit suicide for not winning the gold medal and in actual fact it wasn’t really true, sure I was devastated but goodness me it’s a sporting event I wasn’t racing for my life. So then I composed myself later on.
“I never wanted to put a black mark against my sport because I also knew the media would be after blood about why was she disqualified, about how it’s a joke of a sport, just asking questions about this sport and how it’s judged so I had to be very careful about that.
“Even today the sport is often misunderstood and, for me, as bad as the situation was, it was an opportunity to explain my sport, my event and my discipline and to bring it into the forefront of the media.
“Unfortunately, it was disappointing for me personally but on the other side of it – people at the pub were talking about race walking and they never talk about race walking at the pub! So you’ve got to take positives out of that. It was a very interesting time.”
WORDS OF WISDOM
Close to 18 years on from that event Jane is now retired from race walking, splitting her time between Australia and Spain with her three kids and husband Matt White who works on professional cycling circuits around Europe.
While on a return trip to Australia in late January, Jane was given the opportunity by Player Evaluation and List Evaluation Manger Mark Ellison to give a speech presentation to the Rabbitohs squad during the side’s week long training camp at the Australian Institute of Sport.
The speech aimed to give the playing group a greater perspective on their lives as professional athletes.
“I gave them a bit of background on my event and my Olympic story,” Jane said.
“What people perceive as a very big disappointment for me – being the Sydney Olympics which was disappointing – but it was also a bit of a turnaround for me because I overcame barriers to get to the start line in Sydney.
“It’s very easy when things are going well and you’ve got all these people around you patting you on the back but when things are tough sometimes you can feel quite alone. It can be quite difficult so you need to keep that perspective and try to have people around you that support you and are positive.
“People don’t always see the long term view and just do things on a day to day basis. I tried to instill in them how amazing it is to be an elite athlete and more so to play their sport professionally and get paid on a regular basis, it’s not just when you win.
“For them I pointed out how it probably just started playing football in the local park with their mates and now it’s turned into a career and a livelihood for them and that’s something they should cherish and enjoy moment because retirement is such a long time of your life and this part of your life is very short.
“I certainly did lose perspective of that at a certain time but didn’t realise how fortunate I was to be doing my sport at the elite level. There’s definitely some lows but some amazing highs that an elite athlete experiences. All the hard work that you put in is a mission and definitely something that you enjoy.”
AN UNLIKELY SPECTATOR
Rewinding the clock back the Sydney Games, it’s fair to say that many Australians can pinpoint where they were when they witnessed that heartbreaking moment. Whether that was at home or at the pub.
For one Rabbitohs player, that was in the stands of Stadium Australia. “Adam Reynolds came up to me after my speech and he was actually in the stadium in Sydney when I was disqualified. He was just really lovely about it and said can I get a photo because my mum was working there and she would love it, she’d be really happy so for me.
“I’m thinking oh my goodness these guys are all superstars and in their own right but they were very respectful and it was really lovely just chatting to them as people. Often you don’t get that because they’re out there on the field and they’re doing what they’re doing so it’s difficult for the media to get to know them as well.”
Like any lifelong South Sydney supporter it can difficult naming your favourite player. After some careful consideration Jane makes a decision. “I really liked Ian Roberts, off the field as well. I remember growing up I always thought he was pretty cool. He was a great player as well as being an intelligent, articulated guy, more so now with the guts and bravery that he’s shown off the field.”
BACK IN THE GAME
As for her favourite moment in the club’s 110 year history, it’s easy to turn to 2014 as a real highlight. She’s quick to acknowledge this, but sees the club reinstatement as something that she’ll forever cherish. “Look I think winning the Premiership was great but for me more so was when we got back in the comp because it just showed the David and Goliath story.
“Overcoming setbacks, the spirit and the passion. it just wasn’t being led by the legendary George Piggins or the former players, it was all about the passion the club had and the march in the city. Not many sports clubs in the country would be able to garner that support, especially when you’re coming up against News Limited.
“For me that is the biggest moment, because without that we wouldn’t have our 21st Premiership. It all started with people saying we’re not going to accept this, we’re not going to take this lying down we’re going to fight, we’re going to fight to the death and they did. It just shows the true spirit of the club and how passionate everyone is about the Rabbitohs. It’s more than a club.”
THE SEASON AHEAD
Living overseas is always tough for any rugby league supporter. For a diehard Souths supporter turned member, attending any Rabbitohs game is always difficult with most of her living arrangements spent in Spain.
With a watchful eye, Saville is well within touch of her team and is full of optimism for the season ahead when quizzed on what she’s looking forward to most in 2018. “Just a rejuvenated South Sydney Rabbitohs, they all seem really eager to get back. Just looking forward to seeing the passion back in there. Hopefully we can see some wins on the board.”
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