The gloves are off and Arthur's still swinging
By David Sygall
Sydney Morning Herald
February 18, 2012
Hard nosed ... Arthur Tunstall, just shy of his 90th birthday, remains as
opinionated as ever. Photo: Janie Barrett
He's been praised, vilified, quoted and misquoted but all Aussie sports administration legend Arthur Tunstall really wants is to be understood.
At the back of a modest house in Double Bay - where he has lived with his wife, Peggy, for nearly 70 years - Arthur Tunstall reads from a handwritten autobiography he hopes to have published.
''My father was born in England and I was born in Australia,'' he begins in a broad Australian drawl. ''No doubt I was born here to save the fare.'' He breaks into laughter.
The story didn't need to be penned, Tunstall says, but people had been urging him.
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''They'd say, 'Arthur, you've been involved in that many bloody things, why don't you put together a story?'
I thought, 'I'm not going to do that' … Anyway, I just started.''
Soon another motivation is apparent - he turns 90 this week and wants to tell his side of the story, set the record straight on a controversial life.
''Well, I do want to get the bloody book out, so people can know what
I was talking about all these years,'' he says. ''I'll tell you now, I kept all the records of important things that have happened.''
He indicates a box filled with carefully organised documents. ''Everything I wrote I can prove to be true. You've got to be careful you don't get sued these days.''
As he walks through a hallway filled with framed mementoes, Tunstall tells the stories behind some. He points to a stack of videos, interviews he did with Roger Climpson, Ray Martin, Kerri-Anne Kennerley, Steve Liebmann and many others. His eyes seem to lose focus.
''I should throw them all out,'' he says softly. ''Nobody's interested in this stuff any more.''
This is in stark contrast to Tunstall's image. He is listed in the Sport Australia Hall of Fame as a ''pioneer voluntary Australian sports administrator'' and ''the key person in amateur boxing and the Australian Commonwealth Games movement'' across the second half of last century. Yet his remarkable life's work is tarnished by an extensive list of dramas, most notably when he said Cathy Freeman was wrong to carry the Aboriginal flag on a victory lap at the 1994 Commonwealth Games. He's been accused of racism, bullying, physical assault, rigging elections and siphoning money, all of which he vehemently denies. He's been labelled dictatorial and petulant. The list of those with whom he's had a run-in reads like a who's who of Australian sport.
The criticism is grossly unfair, says friend Ray Godkin, the president of the Australian Commonwealth Games Association when the Freeman furore erupted. Tunstall is misunderstood and an easy target, Godkin says. He is a generous man, loyal, authentic, a true lover of sport and people. He is great company and a fine storyteller with a sharp sense of humour. Though he does have a propensity to tell unfortunate jokes.
''Yes, Arthur has a bad habit of doing that,'' Godkin says. ''Sometimes he tells Aboriginal jokes - but most of them come from Aboriginal people. He tells them because Arthur is Arthur - and then gets accused of being a racist.''
Tunstall says: ''If I'm speaking at an event or something and Ray's with me, he always says, 'Now, Arthur, no jokes, OK?' So I have to be very careful.''
When I tell the association's serving chief, Perry Crosswhite, that I'm meeting Tunstall, he says, ''It'll be a fun time - and don't be surprised by anything he says. No doubt he'll criticise some people, me included. I'd never hold that against him, though, because that's just the way he is. That's just Arthur.''
Sure enough, Tunstall tells his side of his exit from the Games administration after 37 years.
''They decided it was time to move into the corporate world and we need a CEO, not a secretary-treasurer - that's outdated, you see,'' he says sarcastically.
''So they draw up a contract for Crosswhite, which had Perry's salary there - $125,000. I tell you, pal, I still think about it. I really do. I kept the bloody Australian team going for years and years [for a small wage].
''You know, when we started, we had $5000 in the bank and we left it with $11 million. Peg and I would sort out the air tickets for the athletes, pack the uniforms, do the administration, the sponsorships …''
The authority gives Tunstall a $3000-a-year honorary wage, he says. ''But I got nothing from boxing, even though I was accused of making a bloody fortune. All these people who accused me of stealing money … Jesus, they'd be surprised if they saw my bank account today.
''Sweet FA. I'm bloody proud of what I've done. I just regret being accused of all these things.''
Maybe Tunstall is owed apologies. But he also owes thanks.
''Yes. Yes, I bloody did,'' he says when reminded that he broke down when talking about his wife in a speech in 1998 (before reportedly telling a joke about Jewish, indigenous and white people).
''As tough as I am, there's a time in your life when you say to yourself: 'I do owe somebody something.' I felt like I owe my wife something. But anyway …''
And he launches into a story about how he saved Kieren Perkins's skin by hushing up an incident in which the swimmer had fired an air pistol in the athletes' village at the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria, Canada.
It was these Games that made Tunstall a household name. After a young Freeman won gold and carried both the national and Aboriginal flags around the stadium, Australian officials were perplexed and, as chef de mission, Tunstall felt compelled to make a statement.
''We had a meeting at the start of the Games for the heads of each sport,'' he says. ''At the end, I told everyone, 'I'm reminding you, we're representing the greatest country in the world, Australia. We compete under one flag, the Australian flag.''' Tunstall says he told team manager Margaret Mahoney to relay the message specifically to Freeman but athletics general manager Neil King had told her to ignore the directive. The rest is history.
''People asked me about it and I said she should have run with the Australian flag only,'' Tunstall says. ''They were the rules. That night it exploded and I ran into all this trouble. I didn't even know what the Aboriginal flag bloody looked like!''
Godkin was at the velodrome when a reporter phoned to ask what he would do if Freeman celebrated with the Aboriginal flag. Godkin told the reporter Freeman shouldn't do that.
'''Would you send her home?''' the reporter asked. ''No,'' Godkin replied.
''The guy said, 'Well, she's just done it and Arthur's threatened to send her home.'''
Tunstall was already under fire for reportedly saying he was ''embarrassed'' about disabled athletes in the team.
''It was a worldwide story,'' Godkin says. ''But I was with Arthur when it happened and, again, the truth was distorted.
''We were at a meeting, there was a chap in a wheelchair getting into a lift and Arthur went to help him. The bloke said, 'I'm OK, I can look after myself'.
''Later on, when Arthur talked about it publicly, he said he'd embarrassed the fellow by trying to help him. But the way it was interpreted was that Arthur was embarrassed by disabled athletes. It was a dreadful situation.''
And Godkin stands by Tunstall on the Freeman case. ''The thing is, what Arthur did wasn't wrong,'' he says. ''What Cathy Freeman did was wrong - even if it wasn't a big deal. Arthur spoke his mind and was accused of racism. People just didn't want to hear the truth.''
When the Tunstalls arrived at Sydney Airport, they had to be smuggled out of a secret door to escape a large media contingent. The next day, when Godkin visited them at home, the press followed them around Double Bay.
''There was that much news about it all, the flag and the Aboriginals and Christ knows what,'' Tunstall says.
''I've taken more Aboriginals away in boxing than every sport put together - and never had any trouble. They'd call me 'whitey' and I'd call them 'blacky' because we always got on so well together. Then this bloody thing blew up, I got accused and Christ knows what. Everything went bloody mad.''
Four years later, Tunstall was invited to appear in a commercial promoting tea. He asked who the co-star would be.
''The fellow said, 'Ah, as a matter of fact, it's, ah, Cathy Freeman.' I said, 'Well, that doesn't bloody worry me!''' In the ad, Freeman asked Tunstall how he'd like his tea, to which he replied, 'Black is fine, thanks Cathy.'
''Afterwards, someone asked to take a photo,'' he recalls. ''Cathy said, 'No photo.' I said, 'Cathy, what's the bloody difference, for God's sake? Let's have a photo taken.' She said, 'There'll be a lot of people talking about this on my side.' I said, 'On my side, too! But don't bloody worry about it!' So we had the photo taken.
''And then, that [then-Athletics Australia boss] Neil King, the bludger … He's the one who accused me of telling that joke about Cathy and Lionel Rose … Did you hear that one?'' He tells the joke, in which Rose and Freeman are allowed into heaven only because the ''heaven Olympics'' are coming up and God needs them.
''So I told that one privately at a luncheon,'' Tunstall says. ''And Neil King and David Prince [athletics officials who wanted Tunstall dumped as Games chief in 1995] told the press I'd told it at a meeting of the Games Federation. They were telling the press it was Arthur Tunstall, the bastard, who's telling these jokes.''
It's hard to know where the witch-hunt ends and the victim complex begins. For years, Tunstall's default position has been to fight those who tried to shake him from his world view. The price has been a shrouding of his better qualities and deeds. Even King conceded Tunstall had achieved much for Australian sport.
Godkin admits his mate's stubbornness has cost him dearly: ''I said to him many times, 'Arthur, it's not worth it. You've done great things and you should have some peace.' He'd say, 'No, I'm not giving in to them. I'm doing what I think is right' - and he'll do that to the end.''
Crosswhite says: ''Arthur's competitive by nature and criticism doesn't bother him … Right or wrong, he says what he thinks. But time moves on and society's expectations change, particularly around what can or can't be said.''
And Tunstall remains determinedly old-fashioned: ''You see, I don't believe in political correctness. I'm of the old tribe and if I want to say something, I say it. But, today, you say one word out of place and someone wants to bloody sue you. People are so bloody serious … There's no humour any more. The enjoyment's gone out of life. It's sad, pal. Real sad.''
For each lament Tunstall has a colourful story. He tells of taking boxers to fight prisoners at Parramatta jail. Once, he announced he'd be absent the next week, as he'd be in Yugoslavia for the world championships.
''A fellow came up and said, 'You go my country, Yugoslavia?' he mimics in an Asian-sounding accent. ''I said, 'Yeah, I go Yugoslavia.' He said, 'Maybe you see my mother?'''
Tunstall took the address and they found the woman. ''She said to me, 'My son live in Australia! Oh, he good boy. What he do?'
''I thought to myself, 'He's in bloody jail for 20 years.' So, I said, 'As a matter of fact, he's a very successful businessman.'
''She said, 'Oh, my boy! My boy!'''
As Tunstall's party was leaving, one member took some photos of the town. They were soon arrested, suspected of photographing former Chetniks, resistance fighters during World War II.
''So we're sitting in this cell and I hear screaming,'' he says. ''I thought the worst, you know. But what happened was, the woman we'd visited heard we'd been arrested and was screaming at the guards, 'These our friends! These Australians! Please!' So the bloody jailers come out, would you believe, with some wine and food and apologised to us!''
There is much colour in Tunstall's personal life, too. He met Peg at Redleaf Pool, where he still regularly swims - leather-skinned arms and melanoma scars a testament to his dedication. On their honeymoon at Kiama, he says, he saved the lives of two swimmers who were swept off rocks.
Tunstall had left school, aged 14, on a Friday and began work on the Monday. He was a scale-making apprentice by 16. At 25, he bought a sandwich shop that he ran for 19 years before he went on to sell insurance for 14 years. He was interested in sport and, to this day, claims to have never drunk alcohol, tea or coffee. ''Even today, people say, 'Oh, you lying bastard.'''
Tunstall came across boxing at a long-defunct recreation centre in Double Bay. He met the president of the NSW Amateur Boxing Association, Les Duff, who invited him to gather the judges' cards at a boxing night. Duff told Tunstall that the organisation's secretary was soon to retire and he should consider applying. ''I got that job,'' Tunstall says, ''and held it for 60 bloody years!''
He went on to become secretary-treasurer of the Amateur Boxing Union of Australia for 46 years and worked his way up to vice-president of the International Amateur Boxing Association. ''The boxing was a great life but it was hard at times,'' he says. ''Peg said to me, 'Why don't you give it away?' She was tired of all the arguments. So I did. And, you know, I'm sorry I did. I still miss it.''
As with his ejection from the Commonwealth Games Association, he tells a sorry tale about being squeezed from boxing in 2009.
''The thing was run by a dictator, Arthur Tunstall,'' he says. ''They had a meeting where everybody could say what a bastard I was and they decided we were rigging the elections and Christ knows what. They decided to rename it Boxing NSW and that was it.''
There are plenty of get-squares in that manuscript on Tunstall's desk. He's never held back and won't start now.
''This book worries the guts out of me,'' Godkin says. ''But, you know, I've seen people Arthur's helped along do terrible things to him for their own benefit. In this book, he's given it right back to a few people - and they deserve it.''
However, they might escape Tunstall's wrath. He needs a ghost writer and worries that the book would leave him out of pocket. It would be a shame if it wasn't published. Tunstall, for all his faults, is one of a kind in Australian sport.
''People ask me, 'How do you stay so confident with what goes on in your life?''' he says. ''It's simple. Every morning I look in the mirror and, after I tell myself what a good-looking fellow I am, I tell myself, 'Arthur, it's another day, another challenge and you'll beat the bastards.' Well, I've beaten most.''
Is he nervous about turning 90?
''It's just another birthday,'' he says. ''The next day I'll be 90 and one day. Anyway, my wife wants to have a party or something. I'll let you know if we do. You can bring a guest. You'll meet some interesting people there.''