As Queensland hockey player Mark Knowles prepares to carry the Australian flag and lead the team onto the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games stadium tomorrow, sport historians will be reminded of the role a duck and her ducklings played in the choice of a rower as the first Australian flag bearer.
It was at the 1930 Empire Games in Canada, and the man was champion NSW rower Henry ‘Bobby’ Pearce who not only won numerous Olympic and Empire Games medals but was an internationally acclaimed “good bloke” because of the ducks.
One of the greatest honours as a member of any Commonwealth Games team is to be asked to carry the Australian flag and lead the team into the stadium at the opening ceremony.
This prestigious honour has been bestowed on an extraordinary athlete at every Games since Henry Pearce who was already an Olympic Gold medalist.
Pearce’s reputation as not only an outstanding athlete but as a man of outstanding character was cemented in the quarterfinal of the men’s single sculls four years earlier at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympic Games.
The 22-year-old was leading France’s Victor Saurin in this two-boat race when he heard shouts from the bank and looked back to see a duck and her ducklings crossing the race course just ahead of him.
Pearce stopped his boat and waited for the ducks to cross. Saurin, meanwhile, took the lead, but not for long. Pearce soon passed the Frenchman and moved away to set a new course record and to eventually take the gold.
His story became legendary and Pearce not only won the hearts of the Dutch public he cemented his reputation in Australian society.
Going to Canada for the Games reinforced Pearce’s superiority in the single sculls and also changed his direction in life.
He was offered a job with a Canadian company which he accepted, moving to Canada to take up the position. In 1932, despite living in Canada, he competed for Australia at the Los Angeles Olympics. Pearce again won gold. At that time no other single sculler had won two Olympic golds in a row.
Pearce’s character as well as his rowing prowess got him the nod for the 1930 Games just as character no doubt played a part in Kookaburra captain and family man Knowles’ selection for the Opening Ceremony entrance at the Gold Coast.
Since Pearce, there has been a long list of outstanding men and women athletes given the honor of being our Commonwealth Games flag bearers, but only one other rower – Merv Wood.
Wood, who carried the flag at the 1950 Empire Games in New Zealand, was an eight-time Australian national sculling champion, four-time Olympian and three-time Olympic medalist. He later rose to become the Police Commissioner of New South Wales.
The honour roll of Australians who have carried the Australian flag at the opening ceremony:
1930 Henry ‘Bobby’ Pearce – rowing
1934 Noel Ryan – swimming
1938 Edgar ‘Dunc’ Gray – cycling
1950 Mervyn Wood – rowing
1954 Richard Garrard – wrestling
1958 Ivan Lund – fencing
1962 Tony Madigan – boxing
1966 David Dickson – swimming
1970 Pam Kilborn/Ryan – athletics
1974 Michael Wenden – swimming
1978 Remo and Salvatore Sansonetti – cycling
1982 Rick Mitchell – athletics
1986 Michael Turtur – cycling
1990 Lisa Curry-Kenny – swimming
1994 Ian Hale – shooting
1998 Kieren Perkins – swimming
2002 Damian Brown – weightlifting
2006 Jane Saville – athletics
2010 Sharelle McMahon – netball
2014 Anna Meares – cycling