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Genesis of the Film

Sally McLean

Australian actor, Sally McLean discovered in her mid-teens that there was something different about her mother – Marg Woodlock-McLean.

“I must have been about 15 when I found out I had an Olympian for a parent.”

“I can’t remember how it came up – but I do remember someone mentioning that my mother was an Olympian. I remember telling them they must have her mixed up with someone else. Finally, after this person insisted they were right I asked Mum about it and she very calmly told me that she had competed in the 1956 Games in Melbourne – which I had never known.”

When asked why she’d never mentioned it, Margaret made the comment that it was just one thing she had done in her life – and she didn’t dwell in the past as the present was so much more interesting.

“This absolutely blew me away. My mother has always been a very modest person, although she’s acheived a lot in a lot of different fields, but the fact that she’d not only competed in the Olympics when she was only a couple of years older than I was at the time (Margaret was 17 years old), she’d also gone onto be Australian Champion as well, yet saw no need to talk about it – it was a huge lesson in humilty,” said Sally.

Naturally, Sally wanted to know more. She went with her mother to the annual Victorian Olympians Dinner that year and met all her mother’s team mates from 1956.

“They are all characters. Very funny. Very irreverent. They come from a time when they were all amateurs – not allowed to be paid to compete in their sports – so there is a real sense of love for their sports and for the concept of the Olympic Games,” explains Sally.

That was when Sally learnt about their coach, Franz Stampfl. It wasn’t until years later that Sally realised how much of an influence Franz had been on her own life, despite her never meeting him.

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Marg Woodlock-McLean competing in Shot Put in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics

“My mother always had these wonderful philosophies that she’d use in various situations. And a dedication to the pursuit of excellence that she passed onto my brother and I at every opportunity. I realised, once talking to all these other athletes who’d been coached by Franz, that they had similar approaches to life. And once they began talking about Franz, I realised that he’d been the one who had passed all this onto them. Really, he was not just an athletics coach, but what we’d now call a ‘Life Coach’ – his philosophy could be applied to any pursuit – sport or otherwise. And all his athletes were very quick to acknowledge that he’d been a major influence on them – not just as athletes, but also as people.”

Sally went onto a career in television and film and slowly, the idea of making a film about these amazing athletes and their inspiring coach began to take form.

“At one point, I discussed the project with my then mentor and Honorary Patron, Sir Nigel Hawthorne, who was advising me on a feature film project I was writing. He thought the idea of a documentary about Franz was intriguing, especially as everyone knew about Roger Bannister breaking the sub-four minute mile barrier, as well as Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher’s involvement in that record-breaking run, but nobody remembered who their coach was. He felt it was a project worth pursuing – which encouraged me to continue to develop the idea in my spare time.”

Due to other projects, the idea went onto the backburner for a later date, but never really went away.

Sally explained: “A major reason why the idea for the project endured is that nothing had been made about Franz on screen, despite huge industry interest during his lifetime and it being perfect material for a really interesting documentary.”

The only exception to this rule was the 1988 mini-series “The Four Minute Mile”, which traced the competition between Roger Bannister, John Landy and Wes Santos to be the first to run the Mile in under four minutes.

“I’d always liked the approach the series took, and had my own connection to that project, as that mini-series was one of the first acting gigs I’d had – as a featured extra in the scene where John Landy breaks the mile record!” said Sally.

Eventually, after much discussion amongst Franz’s Olympic and Commonwealth Games athletes from several generations, who all fully supported the idea of making the documentary, Sally finally decided that the time had come to make her idea a reality.

And so, “Champion” came to be.

In 2010, the first injection of funding finally arrived to enable the project to officially enter the development period – and Sally hasn’t looked back since.

“The groundswell of support is extraordinary. Everyone we have spoken to is very excited about telling this story and the amount of archive material we have access to from the athletes’ and others’ private collections, as well as the public treasure trove is fantastic – nearly all of which has never been seen by the general public.”

L-R: Legendary Olympic Official, Judy Patching with Marg Woodlock-McLean, Lois Jackman and Val Lawrence at the 50th Anniversary celebrations of the 1956 Olympics
L-R: Legendary Olympic Official, Judy Patching with 1956 Olympians Marg Woodlock-McLean, Lois Jackman and Val Lawrence at the 50th Anniversary celebrations of the 1956 Olympics

The film is a celebration of all those involved with Franz’s squad of athletes over the years, his work colleagues, circle of friends and some family, but also touches on many notable moments of world history, such as the Anschluss, World War II, the infamous Dunera, the breaking of the four minute mile record, the 1956 Olympics, the list goes on.

Says Sally: “As well as Franz’s own story, there are so many world events that appear in this doco – and so many other personal stories interwoven into the fabric of this film – all fascinating and all important to Australia’s – and the world’s – cultural, as well as sporting, heritage.”

“As the daughter of one of Franz’s Olympians, I have the unusual advantage in that all the interview subjects know me or know Marg and so are much more willing to take part. We have been talking to so many people who knew Franz, from all decades of his life, from all around the world, with some interesting facts coming to light that have never been disclosed to the public before from some very prominent people as well.

I’m very excited about the project and feel very honoured to be given permission to tell these stories – stories that I feel are long overdue to be shared and recorded.”

A documentary about the extraordinary life of Franz Stampfl – Austrian Art student turned greatest Athletics Coach of the 20th Century and the man who trained Roger Bannister to break the 4 Minute Mile