Melbourne, AustraliaAs Melbourne’s Olympic Park gets set to host the Melbourne Track Classic one last time, correspondent Len Johnson takes one final look back at this monumental athletics venue.
From primary school carnivals to the IAAF Grand Prix Final, Melbourne’s Olympic Park precinct has hosted athletics events at every level. Its origins as a sport and recreation area go back to the 1860s.
But it wasn’t until the arrival of John Landy and the awarding of the 1956 Olympic Games to Melbourne that the venue took on its present form. After the Melbourne Track Classic - the opening leg of the 2011 IAAF World Challenge - on Thursday (3), the Victorian state championships and the Australian championships, the venue will be converted into a training area for professional football teams. From 2011-12, athletics will have a new home at nearby Albert Park.
Landy's heroics lands Melbourne on the Athletics map
No one talked much about Olympic Park as a venue for world class athletics until John Landy ran 4:02.1 for the mile there on 13 December, 1952.
Successive governments talked (and talked) about developing the sporting precinct, but nothing really happened until Melbourne was awarded the 1956 Olympic Games. Even then, real development was stalled until the final decision in 1953 that the Melbourne Cricket Ground would be the main Olympic stadium.
Bricks and mortar doesn’t build athletics stadiums: athletes do. The deeds of Landy as he chased the first sub-four minute mile more than anything turned Olympic Park from a dust-bowl where athletic competitions were conducted to a venue where you could see world-class athletics.
The impact of the 1956 Olympics eventually came into play, too. Back then there were no publicity machines cranking out positive news (and countering negative stories) years in advance of major events. The publicity Melbourne was getting a few years before the 1956 Games was mostly conjecture that the Games would be moved somewhere else.
No, it was Landy’s quest for the four-minute mile which first drew crowds to Olympic Park. Early in 1954, the first of a series of twilight meetings held to offer Landy better conditions, drew over 20,000 spectators and caused traffic jams outside the venue.
Only later did the Games become a factor, leading to the delivery of long-promised improvements and visits by leading international athletes on familiarisation trips.
The Hungarians – coach Mihaly Igloi and world record breakers Sandor Iharos, Laszlo Tabori and Istvan Rozsavolgyi – came at the end of 1955, followed in early 1956 by Americans Bobby Morrow, Parry O’Brien and Lon Spurrier.
It must have been beneficial: O’Brien won the Olympic Shot Put, Morrow the 100/200m double. Spurrier, the world record holder at 880 yards, attracted the most attention at the time, however, beating Landy by inches over 880 in the Australian’s comeback race after nearly 18 months out of the sport.
Elliott and Clarke continue tradition
Landy retired for good after the Melbourne Games but Melbourne’s love affair with world-class middle-distance running continued almost seamlessly with Herb Elliott’s rise.
Elliott had moved from Perth to Melbourne at the end of 1956 to train with Percy Cerutty. His clashes with Merv Lincoln over the mile – and the vicarious clashes between Cerutty and Lincoln’s coach, Franz Stampfl – kept the Olympic Park momentum rolling.
No sooner had Elliott retired after winning the 1960 Olympic 1500 than Ron Clarke re-emerged. Again, Olympic Park was his stage and the venue for his first two world records, at six miles/10,000m in December, 1963, and at three miles in December, 1964.
The entrepreneurial Clarke also branched in to promotion and, through Athletics International and his Glenhuntly club, brought many top international athletes to Australia. Kip Keino, John Carlos, Tommie Smith and Jim Ryun were among those to compete at Olympic Park.
Missing from most of this were the women. Australia’s female athletes may have won most of their nation’s Olympic medals, but before the men’s and women’s associations were amalgamated in the late 1970s, they competed separately. The main venue for women’s competition in Melbourne was Royal Park, just to the north of the CBD.
In the 1970s and 1980s, though, sprinters Raelene Boyle and Denise Robertson-Boyd thrilled Olympic Park crowds with their clashes. They were not the best of mates, either, and this gave their races an added edge.
Influx of international stars begins in the 1980s
Either side of 1980, Ken Elphick promoted a series of meetings in Sydney and Melbourne, bringing such stars as Irena Szewinska, Lasse Viren, Bronislaw Malinowski and Alan Wells to Olympic Park. At the 1980 Melbourne Games, Henry Rono ran an Australian all-comers record 27:31 to defeat Bill Scott in a memorable 10,000m race.
The final golden era for Olympic Park began with the establishment of what is now the Melbourne Track Classic in the late 1980s. The meeting was a huge success from the start and was soon awarded IAAF Grand Prix status.
Local talent bloomed. It was the era of Cathy Freeman and Melinda Gainsford-Taylor, high jumper Tim Forsyth, Pole Vault stars Emma George, Dmitri Markov and Steve Hooker, jumpers Gary Honey, Dave Culbert, Peter Burge, Jai Taurima and Bronwyn Thompson, hurdlers Debbie Flintoff-King, Rohan Robinson and Kyle Vander-Kuyp, middle-distance stars Simon Doyle and Pat Scammell, distance runners Andrew Lloyd and Steve Moneghetti.
International stars such as Mike Powell, Moses Kiptanui, Linford Christie, Colin Jackson and, in the pre-Sydney 2000 build-up, Maurice Greene, Frank Fredericks and Marion Jones, enhanced the fields.
The 2001 IAAF Grand Prix final was another highlight, with athletes such as Hicham El Guerrouj, Andre Bucher, Violete Szekely, Maria Mutola and Kelly Holmes, Jan Zelezny and Stacy Dragila all starring.
Melbourne’s 2006 Commonwealth Games provided another focus, among the many highlights Asafa Powell’s final leg for the Jamaican 4x100 relay and Craig Mottram’s Oceania record for 2000 metres.
It’s going to be sad leaving Olympic Park. If you’re a Victorian who has done athletics you have probably competed there for school, club or in state or national championships.
Olympic Park’s reputation was built by the athletes who competed there. In a short time, the new centre at Albert Park will have its own John Landy, its own Cathy Freeman, its own history.
Len Johnson for the IAAF