Commonwealth Games Australia mourns the passing of four-time Commonwealth Games medallist and Brisbane 1982 Opening Ceremony flag bearer Rick Mitchell, aged 66.
It was quite an usual way to begin what would become an Athletics Australia Hall of Fame career for four-time Commonwealth Games medallist and three-time Olympian Rick Mitchell.
Beginning his athletics career relatively late, when at the age of 17 he joined the Waverley Athletics Club in Melbourne, in 1972, as a means of improving his fitness ahead of the upcoming rugby union season, Mitchell quickly showed his immense talents on the track and dedicated himself to athletics.
After two years in the sport he crossed paths with renowned coach Norm Osborne who became his coach for the rest of his track and field career. It was a relationship that produced enormous success and transformed the way in which Australian athletes approached domestic and international competition.
After transferring to Norm’s club St Stephen’s Harriers, at 19-years-old, Mitchell came second in the 400m event at the 1974 Australian championships, a promising result for the teenager.
However, illness disrupted his preparations for the 1975 national championships, where Mitchell overcame a bout of glandular fever in time to compete but again finished second in the 400m event.
After completing his first dedicated build-up ahead of the 1976 championships, Mitchell emerged as the nation’s dominant 400m runner, equalling the Australian record time of 45.7s en route to claiming his first Australian title and earning selection for the Australian Olympic Team for the Montreal 1976 Olympics.
In his first Olympics, Mitchell reached the 400m final where he finished sixth on his international debut, but the experience left Mitchell in good stead for the rest of his career.
A young Rick Mitchell ahead of the Montreal 1976 Olympics.
At the Edmonton 1978 Commonwealth Games, Mitchell overcame difficult weather conditions which forced Games officials to reschedule the track program, resulting in Mitchell having to run four rounds of 400m events in a 30-hour period.
Despite the challenges, Mitchell was too strong for the field winning gold in the 400m in 46.34s, before going on to anchor the Australian 4x400m relay team to a bronze medal.
In the lead up to the Moscow 1980 Olympics, Mitchell again dominated the Australian domestic season, lowering the national 400m record four times as he claimed another national title running a then national record of 45.35s.
Heading into his second Olympic campaign, Mitchell was named as athletics team captain, and enjoyed a strong European summer season, winning a Moscow lead up event in Stuttgart, Germany, where Mitchell ran a new Australian record of 45.26s to defeat a field which included then world 400m leader Harald Schmid of West Germany, filling him with confidence ahead of the Olympics.
At the Games, Mitchell easily made the final, yet despite running 44.84s, a new Australian record, the 12th fastest time in history and a Commonwealth record, he was upset by Russian Viktor Markin, who ran 44.6s.
Mitchell’s silver medal from Moscow remains the last individual men’s running medal won by an Australian at the Olympic Games.
While Mitchell’s athletics career was flourishing, his work for Ansell Glove Company was also blossoming, seeing Mitchell take a position as the area manager for the United Kingdom and Scandinavia and relocating abroad to England, and reducing his focus to athletics.
During his time abroad, Mitchell competed for Haringey while living in England, and then Lausanne, when he moved to Switzerland in 1982.
The move to Lausanne and competing for Stade Lausanne reignited his desire to compete at the elite level, prompting a late decision from Mitchell to defend his 400m title at the Brisbane 1982 Commonwealth Games which were being held in October 1982.
Rick Mitchell leading out the Australian team at the Brisbane 1982 Commonwealth Games. (CGA Archive / Getty Images)
Such was his stature in Australian sport, Mitchell was given the honour of carrying the Australian flag at the opening ceremony of the Brisbane 1982 Games.
At the Games, Mitchell made the final of the 400m event where he would compete against the powerful 22-year-old Jamaican Bert Cameron.
Despite pushing the youngster all the way, Mitchell could not surpass the future world champion Cameron, finishing with the silver medal.
Later at the Games, Mitchell would again anchor Australia’s 4x400m relay team but despite a thrilling final leg where he was fourth with 200m to go, Mitchell could not overcome the English team, winning his second silver of the Games and his fourth career Commonwealth Games medal.
Following the Brisbane Games, Mitchell opted to remain in Australia to focus on one last Olympics bid.
Overcoming an Achilles tendon injury sustained in the lead up to the Los Angeles 1984 Olympics, Mitchell was ahead of his time using aqua therapy, running in a pool while wearing a life jacket, to maintain his fitness and qualified to run on the 400m relay team at the Games.
Unfortunately, shortly after arriving in the United States, the injury flared up again hampering Mitchell’s preparations ahead of his final Olympics.
Voted again as the athletics team captain, Mitchell nearly orchestrated a strategic masterstroke for the Australian team, suggesting emerging talents Darren Clark and Bruce Frayne run the opening legs, with Gary Minihan running third and Mitchell bringing the team home with a surge.
The plan almost worked with Clark, Frayne and Minihan leading for almost three full laps handing the baton to Mitchell in a commanding position, however the disrupted preparations meant Mitchell was not able to produce his best and saw the Australian team unable to hold out finishing in fourth behind the American, Great Britain and Nigerian teams.
The race was the first time in athletics history that four teams had broken the 3-minute barrier in the same race and the Australian foursome new national record of 2:59.70, a record which still stands in 2021, one second faster than the Australian team that finished second in the 4×400 m relay final at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games.
For his efforts on the track, Rick Mitchell was inducted into the Australian Athletics Hall of Fame in 2012.
A passionate and often outspoken commentator on athletics, Mitchell was admired by his teammates and athletes, continuing his involvement in the sport until just before his passing.
Sadly, Mitchell passed away on 30 May 2021, aged just 66.
Commonwealth Games Australia joins Athletics Australia and the wider Australian sporting community in sending our condolences to Rick Mitchell’s family and friends.