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33. RUNNING DEAD

January 15, 2008

There was nigh on two thousand at the City Oval for the afternoon performance. Clearly, St Brigid’s were on an extended lunch break to watch their girl. There must have been a hundred serious media types pulling lengths of wire and calibrating importance.

 

Geoff was rapt at the turn-out. He had selected a posse of local caterers and vendors who were allowed to provide their wares on condition of a ten per cent commission. Geoff moseyed mayoral through the multitude.

 

[Geoff, in passing to a man on a stall]:

“How’s she going Tommy?”

 

“Going as fast as we can put them up Geoff. You never let us down mate.”

 

[Geoff]:

“Well, get them slabs of VB out Tommy, the big ticket items. That media mob has a thirst to match their heads.”

 

Chalk another one up to Geoff. That’ll be another two to three grand for the kitty. The slight delay in proceedings didn’t harm the takings either. They’d eat and they’d drink and they’d throw a glance over to see if there was any movement from the changing rooms. A TV crew was taking head shots.

 

[Geoff]:

“Where’s Mike then men?”

 

“Oh he’s getting made up, we do the grunt work. Now, we’ve got some of you meeting and greeting and if you could just do something presidential that would do us for the head shots.”

 

Geoff bent and tore some grass. He studied the blades closely, nodded and grimaced and, looking to the sky, threw them to catch the wind.

 

A welcoming applause spontaneously rippled as Maddy Quigley and the Demon boys jogged out from the changing rooms towards the Maddy-made start line. The boys went through some warm-up routines as Maddy inspected the starting blocks. Anticipation was inflating as the crowd strained at the changing rooms. ‘There she is!’ Layla was cantering onto the ground behind the crowd from the side opposite the changing rooms. Having turned around, a surprised and delighted assembly clapped and yayed and screamed and wolf-whistled. Layla slowed down to not much more than running on the spot to make her way through the congregation. As she went by people would gleefully smack her outstretched hands and tap her encouragingly on the shoulder. Having squeezed her way out of the crush, she steadied and then bolted towards the start line with an accompanying euphoric roar. ‘You da woman’ and similar.

 

“Good evening Australia. This is A Current Affair and I’m Mike Munro. Tonight, we catch a dole bludger on the job… as an administration officer at Centrelink and, yes, you guessed it, he hands out welfare payments to his mates. Is milk really good for you? We talk to a leading brain scientist who thinks not. But our first call is to the Wimmera and the news keeps on coming for this year’s Stawell Gift. Not just Linford but … Layla hopes to carry off the first prize of thirty one thousand dollars. Difference is … Olympic and world champion Linford Christie has a half metre head start over Horsham Catholic high school student Layla Parkin. We were in Horsham today to catch a bit of the excitement surrounding young Layla and her entry into next week’s Stawell Gift.”

 

A clip of Layla’s entrance to the oval is shown. Then, the scene moves to the start of the race.

 

[Mike Munro, as a camera shows Geoff looking at the start whilst squeezing Mike’s hand]:

“Well, it was suggested that some people in Horsham were having a laugh at Stawell’s expense when year 9 student Layla Parkin was entered into The Gift. Let me tell everyone out there, judging from Horsham Demons president Geoff Derwent’s grip on my old journo’s hand, there’s no gimmick here. And it’s no laughing matter for the two thousand people who have turned up to witness her final full practice run before Saturday’s heats. Yes, it’s a Grand Final atmosphere at the City Oval today.

 

Geoff, we hear you’ve been inundated with the TV, Radio and Print media, people like ourselves, requesting interviews and photographs.”

 

[Geoff]:

“We have Mike. We’ve tried to be a buffer or a filter. You know what the industry is like Mike, most were good and above board but I must say there were a few magazines that we had to knock back. I won’t mention them by name but they were taking a few too many liberties. We certainly won’t be exposing Layla to those low quality outfits.”

 

[Mike Munro]:

“Yeah, quite right Geoff. And we, at A Current Affair, are very grateful indeed for your time today. Alright, it looks as if the race is about to start.”

 

Maddy Quigley, having bought a new starting pistol for the occasion, fired and the runners shot from their blocks. Layla, more practiced, was quickest and straight to the front. Maddy had made a request of Layla ‘let the boys be in the frame for the photograph so their mums can see them in the newspaper’. True to this request, Layla plateaued before her maximum and only very subtly eased away from the field. Still won by seven to nine metres though which was enough to get a huge, extended cheer from the crowd and lots of astonished oohs and aahs.

 

[Mike Munro]:

“Well I’m glad to say that Geoff has now released my hand. Geoff, I’m thankful for that. I think gangrene was about to set in. And we’re joined now by coach Maddy Quigley and the lady of the moment herself Layla Parkin.

 

Maddy, well that was a real rush. Fantastic effort by Layla here and, no doubt, not a little to do with the work you’ve put in. What kind of regime have you been applying?”

 

[Maddy]:

“Look Mike, I’m a footy coach mate. Layla comes pre-cooked, I’ve just pushed the club and her to have a go at The Gift. Mate, I just measure out the distance and she covers it as quick as she can. Seems to work.”

 

[Mike Munro]:

“Yes, indeed. Now, you’ve not come wandering out of the desert have you Layla? You’ve actually got quite a bit of form in under-age athletics. But what has spurred you on to give The Gift a crack?”

 

[Layla]:

“Hi Mike. Well, like Maddy said, he convinced me to put my hand up for The Gift. He and the club have sorted out all the arrangements. It’s a great honour to run in The Gift, especially this year with Linford Christie and Darren Campbell. Mike, I’d like to say that I also have a personal reason to run and do well. I’ll be running in memory of my great friend Tahirih who died very recently from leukaemia. I’ll be giving half of any prize money to her husband and baby boy and the other half to the Leukaemia Foundation. I guess it’s part of my grieving process.”

 

[Mike Munro, considerately]:

“That’s fantastic Layla. Do you think you have a realistic chance?”

 

[Layla]:

“Well, I’m sure I go will faster than today but I recognize that there are a lot of very talented athletes in this year’s Gift. I’m going to do my best Mike. I’ll be happy with that.”

 

[Mike Munro]:

“And can I ask about your necklace?”

 

[Layla]:

“Oh yeah sure. This is actually Tahirih’s necklace. It’s called a Baha’i Ringstone Symbol. It’s got an interesting meaning. Baha’i is Tahirih’s religion. The picture here shows the connection between the worlds of God, revelation and mankind. In a way my participation in this race is symbolic. It represents the narrowing of gender inequality which is also part of the Baha’i Faith. Like any athlete I’m aiming to win but I guess just being in it has an effect.”

 

 

[Mike Munro]:

“Well, there’s a little piece of information we’ve just picked up that might make quite a difference to your chances. We’ve just been informed that a press release has been put out after a meeting of the Victorian Athletic League and the Stawell organizing committee. It states that handicapper Billy Vandenhoff has been stood down, his current scratch mark for Layla Parkin rescinded and replaced with a maximum ten metre handicap.”

 

[Layla]:

“That is certainly very interesting Mike. But a bit over-dramatic I think. I’d like to thank them for their reconsideration but really I am content with my lot in the race. In fact, having had some time to reflect I would prefer to run off scratch and just accept where the mop flops. I want to avoid the games that are played over handicaps. I don’t want the memory of Tahirih tainted by any of that silliness.”

 

Geoff was aghast that Layla was refusing the ten metres. He was struggling to make known his point of view and struggling to hide his horror. His face was nailed down, his neck muscles just wouldn’t let go. As his blood pressure lowered he realized that ‘no, it was a good thing, the odds might come down if she went off ten’.

 

[Geoff, eventually]:

“Absolutely Layla. We’re right behind Layla on this Mike. If she takes up the offer it is her right and we support that. If she doesn’t then we support that too. This is the type of maturity, growth and accountability that we foster at the Demons. We’re interested in the whole person. We’re interested in each person and in the whole team. We do what’s best for the person and the team together. May the best person win, that’s what we say.

 

I’d like to appeal to the decision-makers to re-instate Billy. I didn’t agree with his calculation but, after kicking up a bit of steam as is the Australian way, we accept the umpire’s decision and get on with it. I know we went hard at the ball on this issue but we fight for our people and abhor any barriers set up to knock back our mob; age, gender, race, creed and whatever else. Our hope, Mike, is that maybe with Layla competing this year in the spirit that she has, we’ll see a greater diversity in The Gift and sport in general in coming years.”

 

Cut to Mike Munro on his own in the middle of City Oval.

 

[Mike Munro]:

“It was a great tragedy for athletics when Flo Jo passed away unexpectedly a few months ago. But now Horsham has its own Flo Jo to shake the athletic world’s status quo. If she can keep up the hard work she may well be a key part of the great promise that is being demonstrated in Australian women’s sprinting.

 

And now for the sixty four thousand dollar question. Does Layla have any chance of progressing through her heat next Saturday? Well, we had the official A Current Affair stopwatch on the race today and … well 13.8 seconds is very quick, an amazing performance, but the Leukaemia Foundation shouldn’t put the bolly on ice just yet. With that kind of speed she may trouble the ladies in the hundred metre event but it probably won’t get her across the line in her heat, even with a ten metre start. So, if you are having a punt on her for The Gift, make sure you get very good odds.

 

And with that, I’m back to the studio.”

 

[Mike Munro, back in studio]:

“Yes, we had a fascinating day in Horsham with those wonderful people. Let’s get some expert views. We asked a number of current and ex athlete’s their opinion. Is a woman entering an event like The Gift a gimmick? Should it even be allowed? Here are some of their responses. “

 

“She’s obviously a talented sprinter but I think this is an example of overly aggressive feminism. She’s seems to have the speed to mix it with the top female athletes but entering The Gift in someway belittles the women’s race. It’s like ‘if I’m good I play with guys if not I’m back in the practice league’.”

 

“Well, self-promotion isn’t it? I think she is being pushed into this by well-meaning people for the media attention. The combination of a certain amount of talent and good looks always attracts hangers-on who mistakenly believe they can make it big. Don’t be surprised if there is a music video in the mix to follow up on the attention The Gift gives her.”

 

“Yes, I know Layla. Man, I didn’t know she was such a great sprinter. I’ve met her and I think this is a wonderful thing to do. Go Layla.”

 

“Look, it’s certainly added more spice to The Gift this year. I can’t help but have a sense of impending doom about it though. I don’t see how it will enhance the memory of her friend if she finishes last in her heat. I’d just say to her – For God’s sake, take the ten metres.”

 

“She seems a very nice girl. I’m glad she’s in it and I look forward to racing against her. Although we’re not in the same heat. So everything depends on how we do.”

 

[Mike Munro]:

“Unfortunately, this day has ended on a very sad note. At 5:30PM, Billy Vandenhoff, the Stawell handicapper involved in the controversy surrounding Layla Parkin’s scratch mark, was transferred by helicopter to Melbourne’s Alfred hospital in a critical condition. A little while later he was pronounced dead. The circumstances leading to his death are not considered suspicious. Our sympathies go out to his family and friends. I’m sure this will give us all occasion to reflect on what really matters, the important things in life.”

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