Almanac Horse Racing and Poetry: Sporting concussion and a national poet.

 

 

The threat of repeated sporting concussions leading to the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (better known as CTE) continues to cast a shadow over our national football codes.

 

The emerging research on this issue and the tales of former players makes for scary reading. In 2019, researchers at Boston University found that for every year of playing American football a player’s risk of developing CTE increased by 30 per cent, with the risk doubling every 2.6 years.[i] In the last year, former AFL players Polly Farmer, Danny Frawley and Shane Tuck were all diagnosed with CTE.

 

While recent events and medical research have been shocking, the link between sport, concussion and brain trauma has been known for some time. The condition of CTE was first discovered in boxers around a century ago, known then as ‘punch drunk syndrome’ or dementia pugilistica.[ii]

 

But I would go back even earlier to the life of one of Australia’s great poets. In the 1860s, Adam Lindsay Gordon was a well-known sporting identity in the colonies for his feats as a steeplechase jockey and part-time poet.

 

He was a true renaissance man. He may have been raised in the grammar schools of England but he loved working with horses in the Australian bush. On horseback he would recite the odes of Horace and the sonnets of Shakespeare. He balanced duties as a member of the South Australian parliament with his thirst to compete in steeplechase events from Robe to Ballarat.

 

He had a courageous, many would say reckless, riding style which won him many trophies and fans. On one occasion he won three races in a single day at Flemington.

 

 

One of Gordon’s favorite steeplechase venues – ‘on the fields of Coleraine’, Western Victoria.
(Source: Author)

 

He also tended to fall off horses. A lot. Friend Reverend Tenison Woods recalled that on one occasion a riding fall caused by an errant tree branch left Gordon unconscious for more than an hour. And if this was not enough, he also didn’t mind the odd round of boxing.

 

A particularly significant accident occurred at the May 1865 Maiden Steeplechase in Ballarat. The Ballarat Star reported that “Red Lancer fell heavily and bolted off the course, Mr Gordon, his rider, lay for some minutes on the ground stunned.” The reporter noted that Gordon “sustained a severe shock, and for some time afterwards appeared to have lost all recollections.” Sound familiar to a modern AFL context?

 

Incredibly, Gordon took his oath of office in Adelaide as a member of the South Australian parliament just 12 days after this fall.

 

After another bad accident a few years later, he wrote to a friend “I never got over that fall & since then I have taken to drink, at least, I don’t get drunk but I drink a good deal more than I ought to do for I have a good deal of pain in my head & back & I get so awfully low spirited & miserable.”[iii]

 

In Gordon these physical traumas formed a dangerous cocktail with pre-existing mental health conditions. His poetry and writing reveal a tendency towards depression and plenty of ruminations on death and the futility of life. He seemed old before his time. His most famous poem, ‘The Sick Stockrider’, glorifies the beauty of a lonely bush burial ‘Let me slumber in the hollow where the wattle blossoms / wave / With never stone or rail to fence my bed’.

 

 

Author reading a Gordon poem in front of the poet’s Spring Street statue (Source: Author)

 

 

While its precise contribution can never be known, it would appear likely that Gordon’s riding injuries contributed to his suicide at age 36. On the morning of Friday 24 June 1870, Gordon rose early leaving his sleeping wife in bed. He walked to the tea-tree scrub at Brighton Beach and shot himself in the head with his own service rifle. A Brighton storekeeper came across Gordon’s body whilst out searching for an errant cow. An inquest jury found that he had killed himself “while of unsound mind.”

 

On the very same morning of his death, Gordon’s second collected works, Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes was published to positive review. This volume and the pathos of his death would secure his fame.

 

The Age reported that Melbourne was left in a state of shock. “When the fact of Mr Gordon having committed suicide yesterday were first whispered in town, it was not believed.” Reflecting his fame as a jockey, the reporter emphasised his loss to the racing fraternity – “No more shall the Flemington course know his genial face”.

 

As we face up to a better understanding of the impact of sport concussions, it is worthwhile to think of a poet and sportsman who lived this tragedy some 150 years ago.

 

Lindsay Smelt is currently writing a new biography on Adam Lindsay Gordon.

 

www.lindsaysmelt.com 

 

Read more about Adam Lindsay Gordon , especially from Roger Lowrey HERE

 

If this piece has raised any concerns for you, please contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.

 

 

References

 

[i] ‘CTE Risk More Than Doubles after Just Three Years of Playing Football’, Boston University, October 2019, http://www.bu.edu/articles/2019/cte-football/

 

[ii] https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/chronic-traumatic-encephalopathy/

 

[iii] Anderson, Hugh (ed.), The Last Letters 1868 – 1870, 1970.

 

 

 

The Tigers (Covid) Almanac 2020 will be published in 2021. It will have all the usual features – a game by game account of the Tigers season – and will also include some of the best Almanac writing from the Covid winter.  Pre-order HERE

 

 

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About Lindsay Smelt

I am a writer, historian and economist based on the Victorian surf coast. I'm writing a new biography of the Australian poet Adam Lindsay Gordon – bringing Gordon’s extraordinary tale to life for a new generation. My work reveals new insights about Gordon, including the story of his birth and detailed discussion of his battles with mental health. I studied at the University of Melbourne and also currently work as an energy and environmental economist.

Comments

  1. Welcome Lindsay. Thanks for your interesting piece. I get the sense you will find a strong readership at the Almanac – and we look forward to following the progress of your book.

  2. Ta Adam Lindsay Smelt. Adam Lindsay Gordon was certainly an interesting character.

    As a horseman, and writer, of renown he casts an intriguing figure in Australian history. His time was a few decades prior to the wonderful nationalist writers like Lawson, Patterson etc; I wonder how he would have fitted in with them?

    There’s the amazing jump he did on the ledge(s) of the Blue Lake in Mount Gambier back in July 1864. We saw that when we were in Mount Gambier early last year. However we had no luck accessing his house in Dingley Dell: closed to the public.

    Your book sounds interesting. I look forward to further postings Adam.

    Glen!

    Glen!

  3. Look forward to your book Lindsay. Reading Gordon’s poems at school in SA in the 1960’s he seemed such a contradictory figure. Brave, clever, melancholy, tragic.
    We now understand the behaviour that links all those aspects of “personality”. They are not inevitable but understanding, acceptance and change are difficult – both for individuals and organisations like sporting codes.
    There is more and more research linking multiple mild brain injuries that we get in collision sports like AFL and NRL and horse/bike riding falls with early onset dementia.
    We need to stop celebrating on-field “bravery” and call it out for what it is – dangerous and stupid. Time for serious rule changes and “normal football actions” to be judged by the standards of future health not past player practice.
    Very timely piece. Many thanks.

  4. That is an amazing tale, Lindsay. Thanks.

  5. Thank you all for your kind words. Look forward to many more conversations!

    Glen! , it’s a great question about how he would have fit in with the later poets like ‘the Banjo’. Banjo Paterson and Miles Franklin were both massive fans of Gordon. But my favourite all time Gordon fan has to US President Teddy Roosevelt!

    Peter_B, agree that there has been much progress on protecting sport players from head injuries but as you say there is still such a way to go. It can be an especially challenging topic for the football codes, where laying a tackle goes to the heart of the game. Totally agree that commentators should moderate their adulation for ‘brave’ acts, which are sometimes better described as acts of extreme recklessness.

  6. Again Lindsay, thankyou for this work

    We’re making progress re the impact of concussion on those playing the contact sports, but I’m not aware of any follow up in the following areas.

    We’ve mentioned Adam Lindsay Gordon’s reckless riding style. Jockeys, both flats & jumps, experience falls as par for the course in that field. Deaths, severe injury are not uncommon. I still think about Elvis “Ricky’ Thurgood who experienced a horrible fall @ Caulfield on Easter Saturday in 1980. He suffered severe brain trauma. As far as I know he’s still alive, cared for by his parents. But what of all the other jockeys who have survived these falls: how many have experienced the ongoing torment of a closed head injury? What research is there on them?

    I’m old enough to remember cricket pre batting helmets. I recall players like Terry Jenner, Max Walker,being ‘sconed’. I wonder about the long term impacts of being hit on the head by a speeding cricket ball?

    Look forward to your biography on Adam Lindsay Gordon.

    Glen!

  7. Roger Lowrey says

    Great work Lindsay.

    As you will see from a piece I wrote two years ago about the Great Western Steeplechase, I have looked into ALG’s life a little myself.

    Let me know when your book is due. I very much look forward to reading it.

    RDL

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