February 22, 2008

Horsham was the spot people turned to in the week that followed Layla’s controversial victory. They partied like it was 1999, which of course it was.


The town had swollen and trade was booming. Media folk from all over the world captured and contributed to the festivity. You could get yourself on free-to-air and cable TV by just turning up to the extended celebration in Maddy’s Royal Hotel. And at designated times, you could even press the flesh with Layla.


Layla was a hero in Horsham but, further afield, opinion was sharply divided. Was it an elaborate stunt done to enrich the coffers of greedy individuals and starved rural Victorian towns? How could someone suddenly pull out a time like that with a hawk flying on their head? Was Geoff a closet falconry enthusiast?


Layla was disqualified just eight days after being crowned champion. She was under-age. You have to be fifteen to compete. The anomaly only surfaced when the media ran their stories of the amazing, spooky triumph of the fourteen year old Horsham girl. A number of people queried the minimum age requirement and the Victorian Athletic League together with the Stawell organizing committee, deeply saddened, had no choice but to declare her entry invalid.


The computer had said “Invalid year of birth: must be less than 1984”. The clerk had been so harried by Geoff during the registration process that, rather than discuss the matter with him, she entered the date as 1964. In his defense, Geoff believed that “she looked old enough to me” and he pledged to personally fulfill Layla’s promise to the Leukemia Foundation and to Tahirih’s family.


[Pat Flenagan, a London-based Aussie sports writer, in an interview on ABC’s Lateline program]:

“There was an initial euphoria in the athletics world and in the wider world in general. Of course there was. The story, as it came out through the Australian media, was that we’d witnessed by far the fastest sprint ever, on grass and up a slope – by a girl no less. It was to be the beginning of a bright, new era for Australian and world sprinting.


It wasn’t long before the more experienced and skeptical among us in the wider world of journalism identified the obvious concerns and problems that had been left unvoiced. You know, the showmanship, the hawk, the gambling sting, the assault on our rational senses.


Basically, I think the Australian coverage was, at the very least, blinded by parochial bias. They over-extolled the importance of this race and ignored the huge elephant. This very likely added to how the world, certainly the educated sports world, has distanced itself from this performance.


From the outset, I think ‘deeply unsatisfying’ best categorizes most people’s reaction, in and out of athletics. It was too complicated, too good to be true. If Layla Parkin had won the race in 11 seconds without the assistance of a rather affable bird of prey – maybe it would have flown. Probably not, but let’s leave that to one side for now.


With the bird though it was too obviously staged. It stuck a finger up to everybody who’s been involved in athletics and sports. The Stawell Gift has always been a smoke and mirrors event and very unpredictable particularly with the overt emphasis on gambling.


We knew, for example, that the Layla Parkin stable had bet a huge amount of money. So, what’s more likely – an unknown, showy girl does the impossible and wins off scratch running faster than any person in history or we are the victims of a hoax? An elaborate and clever hoax, but a hoax nonetheless. It’s all about distraction Tony. We were distracted, not for the first time, by an attractive female. An attractive female who causes a brawl, an attractive female who disturbingly shaves her herself completely, an attractive female who seems good buddies with our feathered friends.”


[Tony, Lateline host]:

“But surely, Pat, the fact remains that she covered the ground in eleven seconds. Does anyone deny that?”


[Pat Flenagan]:

“Well, I don’t think anyone is listening anymore Tony. Can we even believe the video and the timing? The story coming out of Australia has been so bizarre and over-hyped that it’s hard to give it any credibility.”



“Pat, you are Australian, surely you are not saying that this is a conspiracy involving Channel 10, Stawell timing officials and God knows how many other actors?”


[Pat Flenagan]:

“Look, I’m not alleging conspiracy. I don’t need to. I do know that it’s not something we can be expected to believe. Let’s look at some facts. First, history shows she didn’t win the race. She was disqualified. Her fantastical time doesn’t stand. We are talking about something that never officially happened and, to me, that’s very telling. And, of course, even if the time was valid it wouldn’t be a 100 metre record because she didn’t run that distance.


Then she appears on the Oprah show and says she talked to the bird. Sources here in the UK have traced the reference she ascribes to the hawk to the scripture of her own religion. How convenient. What do you want? Crazy? Delusional? Manipulative?


I think her response to one Oprah question was very instructive. Is she now going to follow up her success and compete in international athletics including the Sydney Olympics next year? Who knows, she said. She needed some time to recuperate. And a lot could happen in the time before the Olympics. She could be pregnant. That’s a ridiculous, smart-arse reply. If she was fair dinkum and had nothing to hide she would just go out and do it again. Sorry Tony, unless she’s willing to run again in a more closely scrutinized environment than Stawell, I’m putting this down as a fraud. Don’t know how they did it and I don’t care.”



“Is there any sense that this result has been a bit too confronting for the powers-that-be?”


[Pat Flenagan]:

“Look, Tony, the title of ‘fastest person in the world’ has always been among the most respected, possibly the most respected, in sport. And it’s always been male dominion. Now, I have no difficulty with a female taking over that mantle, none at all. As long as it’s deserved. In fact, I’m on record as being one of Flo Jo’s biggest fans. She could compete with many men. Not all, but many. She was, by far, the most remarkable female sprinter of all time. In one go though, Layla Parkin and those behind her, have demeaned both the title and the memory of Flo Jo with their cruel snake oil game. I’ll never forgive them for that. And I’m suggesting that because of this ‘right royal falcon’ if you will, Australia, particularly its media, has a way to go to regain some respectability in the eyes of the world.”



“Well, thank you Pat Flenagan for joining us tonight from London. A final question if I may. I was actually at the race. I saw everything, the grass, the roped lanes, the start, the race, the finish and I, for one, believe the video footage, that she did the 120 metres in 11 seconds. It was quite astonishing to witness her speed. If I was able to get Layla Parkin to agree to run 100 metres and I was to say to you “I bet you $10,000 that she breaks the world record”, would you accept the bet? An even money bet?”


[Pat Flenagan]:

“I don’t doubt that you think you saw all this amazing stuff Tony but there is such a thing as mass hypnosis.”



“And would you take the bet?”


[Pat Flenagan]:

“I don’t gamble Tony.”



Despite the disqualification, Maddy and Geoff managed to hang onto their astronomical winnings. There was a battle though. A small number of people who had wagered significant amounts on the new official winner attempted to claim their due. However, after intense arbitration between stakeholders, the bookmakers’ position won the day. It was agreed that, from a betting perspective, the winner was declared on the day and, on that basis, wagers had been paid in good faith. Subsequent events could have no bearing.


Many felt that this logical sounding ruling was more evidence of the rich and powerful using the system to disadvantage the little guy. How come, they said, the same simplicity couldn’t have applied to Layla herself? Why not let the girl have the victory, the money and then throw in a review of the registration process to avoid similar occurrences in the future? The VAL wished they could have done just that, they said, but put forward the numerous cases of drug cheats disqualified months and sometimes years after the event. They had a set of rules and had to follow them. The public needed to be able to have complete confidence in the organisation’s impartiality.


It was rumoured that some financial arrangement was negotiated between representatives of the ‘angry new winners’, the bookmakers and Maddy and Geoff. It was easy to see why the rumour arose. Overall, the bookies had lost some money on Layla. However, they would have lost a lot more if they were forced to pay out on the new official winner. There was just no way for them to recoup their Layla losses as they couldn’t accurately and comprehensively establish who they had paid. Yes, the feeling was the solution had little to do with justice or logic and everything to do with keeping wealthy, shouting voices placated.


Layla, disheartened, sat on the floor in her bedroom, back to the wall in a corner.

Pippy, can’t you take me away from all this? Pippy? Pippy? Yeah, that’d be right.


Hello Layla.


Thought you’d deserted me.


You seem down?


Hmmmm, it’s been a difficult week. I won the race in record time and they took it from me. Some think I’ve cheated, some think I’m delusional. Usually, when someone has a great athletic achievement they are lauded from all corners.


I want to ask you about the hawk. What was that all about? It cost me credibility. Were it not for the hawk… well, at least they still love me in Horsham.


This is a suggestion for your difficulty. Get one of those customized T-shirts. Put a picture of you and the hawk on it with words such as – Out of my way, there’s a hawk after me!


I do not believe this. Even you are having a crack.


Sorry but we’ve all been very amused at your efforts, your flourish. And you can stop putting on the ‘wronged one’ show; we know that you love the drama. I am very pleased at the way you used events outside your control to your own advantage.


Yeah right. If you say so. And what advantage is it to be considered a looney?


Well, without the hawk, you would have been the flamboyant and controversial girl who is probably the greatest sprinter ever. Nothing wrong with that. A very powerful position. Now, though, people are confused. Is she a miraculously gifted athlete? A precociously talented illusionist? A higher being communing with spirits? All of these things?

Saying you interacted with the hawk was no slip-up. It was a first step. Despite the efforts of powerful people to diminish and bury your achievement, they know it was a miraculous demonstration. When you say you can communicate supernaturally they don’t know if you are lying but they will feel you are capable of pulling off the perception and that amounts to the same thing. You have nothing but credibility. You have positioned yourself well. You should be able to get some small uncontested wins with that position. I will be interested to see what they will be.

About the hawk. The hawk was not of the human dimension. You know that though.”

Of course, it spoke to me. I felt comforted. It knew me. Why did it know me?


Here, look at these photographs. Do they look familiar to you?


Yes. Yes, of course they do. Many of them. They are old Baha’i photographs. Couple of Bahá’u’lláh, some of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, all his family and people in Haifa and `Akká. Yeah, late 19th and early 20th century. I’ve always loved those old photos. See all the young kids? I always feel very melancholy when I look at them, so cute and beautiful, so solemn and now, so dead. I wonder how their little lives went.


Well, you could say Bahá’u’lláh was the hawk. I know you suspect that. You wouldn’t be wrong. But you could also say that the hawk represents these photographs, the people in them, their time, their places.


Except the hawk was real. Everybody saw it.


It’s all real Layla.


Is there something you aren’t telling me?




What it is?


It’ll have to wait.


I see. Well, in that case, thanks for the photos. Actually, I like the T-shirt idea. I’ll do that. Maybe set up a website too. Yeah, a sense of humour is good. Maybe I’ll do – egg head goes too far! – or some other cheesy slogan.



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