The oldest Australian at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games will be a kayaker who competed in Tokyo 1964. He’s going back to commemorate that event and remember his three teammates, who have all since passed away.
They had planned to travel to Tokyo 2020 together but now Phil Coles is the only one left.
He’ll turn 90 on July 20 and plans to mark it a day later when Brisbane will be announced as host of the 2032 Olympic games.
There will be celebrations for sure, but sadness too for the man who will be alone when he relives one of the greatest moments of his life — reaching an Olympic final, against all the odds and against the might of the Europeans.
His journey began at Bondi Beach.
Born, raised and still there today, he is one of the oldest members of the North Bondi Surf Club where we agree to meet.
He knows every part of Bondi Beach and can identify the lines in the surf with the familiarity of the lines on his 89-year-old hands.
It was first his childhood playground, then the place where he honed the athletic skills that saw him compete as a kayaker in three Olympic games – Rome 1960, Tokyo 1964 and Mexico City 1968.
He remembers the beach covered in barbed wire as shells rained down during World War II, the same beach where he now sits with others of his generation looking back on a life that showed him a world others only dreamt about.
It was a chance meeting on the fringes of the Melbourne 1956 Olympic Games that changed the course of his life.
“This club – the whole club – were my masters.
“I met some very, very competent and really tough life-savers.
“They taught me, not to drink a good bottle of beer, but how to be a good life-saver.”
You get the sense they taught him both.
He stares into the distance with a look and a chuckle that cannot easily be put into words.
Memories spanning the best part of a century are momentarily relived.
“Basically, [the surf club] was my life. That’s how it started,” he says.
It was the 1956 Championships held in Melbourne at the same time as the Olympic Games.
“In the race was all the Australian Olympic kayak members. I beat all of them.
“So they came up to me and said, ‘come to the Olympics in Rome with us’.”
“What have I got to do?” he asked them.
“‘You’ve got to buy a kayak from Denmark’,” they said.
“I said ‘oh, yeah’.” He pauses, chuckles, and reflects some more.
“‘How do I that?'” he then asks them.
Coles sold his car and held a raffle here and there to be able to afford the kayak along with the import duty he had to pay, but he reckons it was the best decision he ever made.
Coles’s three teammates were all members of Maroubra surf club, 10 kilometres south of North Bondi, but the interclub rivalry was put aside as they joined forces for the games.
“We were all lifesavers, we all paddled skis in the surf – double skis, single skis … Dennis came over to North Bondi for a couple of seasons so we could paddle together in the double ski.
“Barry and Dennis [Green] never split, they were a partnership in skis, a partnership in double kayak, and they were a good double.
“They were really, really good, they won a lot of double ski races. A lot.
“Dennis Green, for sure, he was tough as nails. We were training one night out at the lake and we had a coach from Romania.
“We all finished our work, and Yoenl was his name, Yoenl Sandalescu, he came down and he says, ‘where are you going?’
“And (Dennis) says, ‘I’m finished’.
“He [the coach] says, ‘no, no, no.’
“And Dennis says, ‘I’m tired, I’m very tired, I worked very hard.’
Coles’s first Olympics was Rome 1960.
As he tells it, a big, tall German competitor wandered over towards him at the boatshed where the kayaks were all stored.
Coles was unpacking his from the timber box it had been shipped in.
“He says ‘hello my friend – are you kayak?’
“I said ‘yes, kayak’, and he started to laugh.
“I looked up at him, cause he’s pretty big, and he just laughs.
“In the race, he was such a big guy, he got in his kayak and he nearly sank it.”
Now it is Coles who laughs.
Coles competed at three Olympics before moving into sports administration and becoming an IOC member — where sporting headlines have often made way for stories of scandal, politics and even corruption.
The tightest of friendships can be torn apart by Olympic politics but these are stories for another day.
For the time being it is back to Tokyo 1964, where Coles and his K-4 teammates celebrated their best results.
They didn’t win a medal but against the best in the world they were chuffed to reach the final.
“And I wanted to see where we were in those days and in Tokyo was our …”
He doesn’t finish the sentence as he drifts back into the past.
“We could have won it,” he finally says.
“We were too small in build but we made the final.
They were tough times, too.
It was 20 years after the war, when the world was experiencing a remarkable era of rebuilding, growth and social progress.
After its humiliating defeat in the war, Tokyo 1964 was Japan’s tentative return to the global stage.
“Those days, the Japanese really didn’t know what to do … but they were really, really anxious to learn and they did.
“They were very skilful, they were courteous and ready to help … whenever we needed help they were there … really, really, terrific it was.
“I’m going back because of course, I want to see the Olympics again but mainly I’m going back because I want to go back to the lake that we raced on, I’ve forgotten the name of it now.”
It was Lake Sagami, 60 kilometres west of Tokyo, now a pleasure park for campers, swimmers, hikers and fishers.
“If I’m allowed to, if I can get someone to drive me out …
“I hope they’re watching.”
He smiles. He laughs.
“I hope they’re watching,’ he says again. This time his head lowers, to hide the tears rolling down his cheeks.
On this winter morning, the waves are breaking cleanly off Bondi with a light south-westerly creating perfect conditions for the few surfers who are not at work or school.
There are joggers going by. There’s even a COVID-19 testing tent in the car park in case anyone was wondering which era we are now in.
Coles remembers it didn’t always look like this.
During the war, there was barbed wire where the joggers are now.
Instead of surfers sitting out beyond the breaking waves, there was a Japanese submarine that on June 8, 1942, starting shelling the area.
“Buoys way out [to sea] to catch any illegal shipping that was coming in.
“Sydney harbour was buoys everywhere to catch any submarines that were coming through, or trying to get through. One got through.
“Yes. It was an experience.
“I was living with mum and dad up in Bondi and we were there the night the Japanese submarine surfaced offshore here and just pumped random shells into … anywhere.
He pinches his fingers and waves them over his head like bullets passing close by. His voice turns to a whisper.
“I said, dad, what are you doing?
“‘Oh, these buggers are trying to hit us’,” he says.
The fear of his childhood subsides. He sees the world differently now.
Time heals and a serious moment then becomes funny in the retelling now.
“In those days most of the toilets were up in the backyard, and one of the shells got a direct hit.
“It blew the toilet to buggery!
“Luckily, there was no-one in there when it all happened.
“That’s one of the memories of the war, and this beach was not what it is now.
Twenty-two years later he was a visitor in Japan, marching as an Olympian under the Australian flag.
“Well, it tells me one thing, and I get it every time … when you get to the [Olympic] village, and you’re in the Olympic city and everyone’s shaking hands with everyone, your arms around each other, it’s a new world.
“It’s hard to explain.
“I can’t describe it any other way, other than the atmosphere is different … it is different socially, it is different politically, everyone’s different.
“But there’s one thing … everyone is taking the Olympic spirit.
“If anyone asks me to explain, what is the Olympic spirit, you’ve got to be there to see it and feel it.”
Even without crowds this time around, and the inability to mix in the Athletes’ Village, Coles says the Olympic experience will forever change them.
He has a message for the Australian athletes who will be making their Olympic debuts at Tokyo 2020:
“Well, it’ll be different but there’s one thing you must do — enjoy the experience.