Executive Producer Jessica Biel (second from left) with Jill Cairns-Dukes (left) and Lesley Falk and Michelle Purple of Iron Ocean Productions (right).

Deep Bigotry

Swimmer’s dashed Olympic dreams covered in award-winning audio doc

By Aileen Goos

Not much gets Patrick Cairns choked up, but talking about how discrimination shattered his sister’s Olympic dreams 50 years ago creates an audible crack in his otherwise cool, calm tone.

There are only two years between them, but he looked up to his older sister Lesley’s athletic ability. She started swimming at the age of five when their father pushed her into a pool and taught her how to “sink or swim.”

She can’t remember a time when she wasn’t in the water.

By the time she was 12 it was clear she was a phenomenal swimmer with the potential to represent her country at the Olympics. But as a “coloured” person growing up in apartheid-era South Africa, her unmatched talent couldn’t overcome the racist rules of the day.

The colour of her skin was the only thing holding her back from showing the world what she — and other South African swimmers — could do.

“I’ve been telling her story to anyone who would listen since we left South Africa 50 years ago,” says Cairns, now 62. “We were young when it happened and I wasn’t sure if we remembered it correctly, but when I started researching it and digging into it more, I realized it was so much worse.”

Now, he’s able to share her story through a four-part audio documentary called The Lost Olympians, available on Audible.

Cairns co-wrote the documentary with Matt Fabbri for 1310 Productions, and through some family connections, got it into the hands of actress Jessica Biel, who serves as executive producer and voices the introduction.

Last week, it was awarded the Audience Honor, Gold in the Podcast Mini Series category at the Shorty Awards (the Oscars of the digital and social media world).

“I met Patrick in 2017 and he told me a story about his talented sister and how her athletic gift was snatched away. And it profoundly devastated me,” The Illusionist star Biel says in the intro.

The Lost Olympians shows us the role sport played in one of the most important liberation movements of the 20th century. It’s about the lost dreams of an entire generation of young South Africans, but also the hope that endures for the future of an entire nation.”

“Back in the day, in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, we were surrounded by so many talented Black swimmers,” says Cairns, whose politically active father moved the family to Winnipeg when he was 14 in hopes of a better future.

“Of course, none got to go to the Olympics, but neither did their white counterparts, or really any athletes at all. That’s what happens when your country is banned for violating the Olympic Charter Rules on discrimination.”

South Africa did not compete at Olympic Games from 1964 to 1988 as a result of the sporting boycott of the country during apartheid.

When she allows herself to think about how she would have fared if she had the opportunity to compete at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Lesley Cairns firmly believes she would have won all the medals.

It’s not just based on a healthy dose of confidence. As a preteen, she attended a training camp in Durban and broke records. On her last day at the camp, she recalls how her backstroke was strong and her butterfly was amazing. She had a four-tenths of a second lead on the other swimmers — university students. The story of the young phenom made it to the local newspaper.

That’s when things took a dramatic turn.

Police showed up at the house where she was being billeted. She thinks about that day often — mostly remembering the fear and uncertainty.

“The police were banging on the door,” she recalls in the audio doc. “We didn’t know what was going to happen. Eventually we had to open the door, and they stole the newspapers and confiscated every proof of what we worked for, any trace of our winning the races that we won and the times that we swam.

“They were gone. One instant. Gone.”

Her story serves as a diving board for Patrick Cairns to delve deeper into the issue of discrimination and the impact it had on Olympic hopefuls.

And while there’s no way to change what’s happened, he wants to use this platform to create opportunity for others. He’s planning to expand on the series to include other marginalized groups of lost Olympians, such as Indigenous athletes, female competitors and athletes from war-torn countries.

“The biggest thing Matt (Fabbri) and I have learned through this is that everybody has a story. Maybe there’s more stories out there, and that’s been a really cool experience. And it will lead to more stories being told,” he says.