Decima Norman, Empire Games, Sydney 1938. From the collection of the State Library of New South Wales A128302 / Home and Away 17822

It’s all Commonwealth Games at the moment and it looks like Australia’s doing pretty well in the medal tally. We always seem to punch above our weight in terms of medals, and it looks like historically that’s been the case too. The games used to be called the British Empire Games and in 1938 Sydney hosted the third ever Empire Games with Australia winning the medal tally!

In 1938, the British Empire Games, though still a new tournament, generated quite a bit of excitement. Going back a bit, the Empire Games were established to rival the Olympic Games and talks about this new international sporting competition began in 1911. It wasn’t until 1930 that this finally became a reality and the first Empire Games took place.

1938 marked 150 years since European colonial settlement in Sydney, so the games were timed to commemorate this historic occasion and were the reason why Sydney was chosen at the host city. Many of the key events were hosted in the Sydney Cricket Ground (of all places!), including the opening ceremony and athletics events. Others were held in the North Sydney Pool and Sydney Sports Ground (which is now the car park for the Sydney Football Stadium in Moore Park). An estimated 40,000 people attended the opening ceremony with over 450 athletes competed from 15 nations.

One particular Australian star dominated athletics medal tally – and that was the Western Australian the newspapers called the ‘wonder runner’. Decima Norman had tried to qualify for the 1934 Empire Games and the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, however, there was a requirement that she be part of the Women’s Amateur Athletic Association of Australia and a West Australian club too. Norman and her trainer established a club and she eventually qualified for the 1938 games. Among the Australians competing was also Margaret Dovey, who finished 6th in the breaststroke and later married Australia’s 21st Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam. Australia topped the medal tally with 25 gold, 19 silver and 22 bronze medals.

During the games, Norman became the first Australian to win a gold medal in Sydney, and it was for the 100 yard sprint. She went on to win four more in the relays and long jump, all the while breaking records too. The newspaper reports dubbed her ‘the white streak from out of the west’; they said she moved ‘perfectly’ and her ‘arms and legs cleaved the air’ toward victory. Her record for winning five gold medals in a single games was matched 52 years later, when swimmer Hayley Lewis won five gold medals in 1990! And then it was beaten in 1998 by swimmer Susie O’Neill.

Unfortunately for Norman and her flourishing sporting career, World War II was brewing by the time the next games came along and in the end, the next two were cancelled. There wasn’t another Empire Games held until 1950. The wonder girl’s last performance was at the 1940 National Championships in Perth.

By Nicole Cama

If you missed Nicole’s spot on 2SER Breakfast this morning, you can catch up here.


Richard Cashman, Sport, Dictionary of Sydney, 2008,, viewed 29 July 2014

Decima Norman’s Swan Song. (1938, December 31). The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 – 1950), p. 12 Edition: FIELDS GREEN. Retrieved July 29, 2014

EMPIRE GAMES. (1938, February 5). The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 – 1950), p. 4 Edition: G’FIELDS and Nor-West. Retrieved July 29, 2014

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