Should Auld Acquaintance be forgot – the glory days of the Stawell Gift

Easter Monday 1981 was a big night at the Brix Hotel in Stawell. George McNeill dropped in to share his triumph with friends, supporters and hangers-on. Plenty of people were happy to raise a glass to George for his persistence in coming back year after year to try and win the Stawell Gift. At the age of 34 he had won the biggest prize in professional foot running and achieved the unique double of winning at both Stawell and Powderhall, the UK’s biggest professional footrace. So, here’s to Georgie, and sing Auld Lang Syne again. The Brix will be rocking for a while yet.

The Stawell Gift started as a gold miner’s carnival race in the 1870s. The Gift was run over 130 yards in lanes separated by ropes. Runners were handicapped based on performance at other “Pedestrian” events.  Stawell grew to be the biggest event on the Australian professional footrunning circuit and consequently, given professional running’s limited extent elsewhere, the world.  The home of the biggest payday in world foot running was a former gold rush town of 6,000 people on the wrong side of the world which was more than 200k from the nearest airport.

Jean Louis Ravelomanantsoa from Madagascar via the US college athletics circuit ran in the 100M final at Munich in 1972 and became the first man to win Stawell from scratch in 1975. Warren Edmonson was the US record holder leading into the selection trials for the 1972 Olympics when he did a hamstring and put himself out of contention. A further snub from the US selectors led to Warren joining the small US professional running circuit and coming out to Australia for the big races through the 1970’s. Edmonson won the Gift from 0.25M in 1977. George McNeill was barred from amateur running because of his brief career as a fringe Scottish Premier League soccer player. George took up running relatively late at 22 and won everything on the UK professional running calendar. He could hold his own in specially contrived match races against the Olympic finalists, but the ‘taint’ of professionalism kept him out of Olympic competition. There were plenty of UK athletes who regretted George’s absence from their track teams when he was at his peak; he could have been a contender.

Olympic final quality athletes came to Stawell to compete in a race run over 120 metres on a grass track which sloped uphill for the first 40 metres and had roped off lanes. The nature of the handicap system meant that these elite runners had to perform at their peak to catch lesser athletes given up to 12 metres head start. A spectator at Stawell in the glory years could see high quality sprinting over the Easter carnival. 18,000 people packed into Central Park to see Georgie win his Gift.

In more recent years the usual crowd on Easter Monday might get up to about 6,000. In a generation the Stawell Gift has gone from being a race featuring Olympic sprint final contenders to a race contested by Australian representative hopefuls in front of crowds of less than half the size. Who or what killed the Stawell Gift?

A better question is: what were world class sprinters doing in Stawell in the first place? Why was a small town in Australia the biggest payday on the planet for runners? A short answer is that the 1970’s were the decade when 19th century Christian morality collided with the 21st century sports/media complex and for a brief, glorious moment Stawell was the beneficiary of that culture clash.

Footrunning is strongly associated with the Olympic movement which helped to formalise the rules of competition and set the distances to be run. These distances were originally measured in British yards and so the premier Olympic sprint was 100 yards for many years. Professional runners were barred from Olympic competition and the major events such as Stawell and Powderhall in Scotland predated the Olympics by 20 years. They established their own racing distances without reference to amateur athletics.

The ideology of amateurism was exported to the world from the playing fields of English public schools. It was in part class warfare by another name designed to keep the riff raff off the fields of glory. If workingmen could not win money by competing in sport then they could not afford to compete against their betters. This attitude led to serious rifts in the football codes with soccer allowing payment and becoming the working class sport. Rugby remained an amateur sport until League split from the amateur Union in the early 20th century over the issue of money. English County Cricket grounds famously had gentleman’s and players gates until the 1960’s, and in Victoria the Melbourne Football Club maintained the amateur tradition longer than other VFL clubs. Stawell was a mining town where the idea of winning money from racing was accepted as perfectly normal, as was gambling on the race.

The Olympic movement in the early 1970s was run by Avery Brundage, a dyed in the wool American reactionary who refused to have any truck with commerce sullying the noble Olympic ideal of aristocratic amateurism. He had no compunction about accepting high ranking communist ‘soldiers’ and US college athletics scholarship holders as amateurs. However, he refused to accept as an amateur anyone who may have made a little money on the side playing working class team sports such as football or baseball.  Brundage was a toadying, racist snob who showed his ass kissing ability early by shafting the Olympic career of Jim Thorpe, an American Indian who had won gold in the decathlon in 1912 while Brundage came 16th. Brundage ratted out Thorpe for playing minor league professional baseball to the American Olympic Committee. Thorpe was a prominent footballer and baseballer in addition to his Olympic feats and he was rated in a poll as the third greatest American sportsman of the 20th century.  Brundage died thinking Berlin 1936 to be the best Olympics ever.

There was to be no accommodation with filthy lucre on Avery Brundage’s watch, despite the increasing revenue coming into the Olympic coffers from television rights. Athletes competed with Olympian detachment for love, not money, so the story went. It was just at this time that the US professional running circuit was organised and Phil Knight started giving his Nikes to favoured runners for the right to use their image to sell shoes. The world was turning sharply away from aristocratic amateurism as a result of growing democratic affluence and the increasing importance of televised sport. The 1970s was also the era of Kerry Packer’s assault on Don Bradman and the Australian Cricket Board over the issues of player payments and television rights.

Like Canute and the tide, the Olympic movement was fighting a losing battle against an implacable enemy – commerce. The media and sponsor sourced money available to athletes in the 21st century means that superstar ‘amateurs’ such as Usain Bolt are able to earn millions of dollars through their careers, and even lesser lights can earn a very good living from their sport. By contrast, ‘professionals’ compete in a small number of events for limited prize money. The relative rewards available to ‘professionals’ and ‘amateurs’ have been reversed. Winning the Stawell Gift is no longer the best and only path to riches for an athlete. These days the preferred career path for a promising runner is to start with a scholarship to a government sponsored sports institute and then move on to the well paid international ‘amateur’ athletics circuit, preferably with sponsorship and endorsement money from a major sporting goods company. Amateur athletes can earn good money and still be eligible to compete in the Olympics.

The second anachronism which was dispatched in the 1970’s was the dead hand of wowserism which cast a pall over anyone wanting a little secular joy in Victoria on religious holidays. Wowsers have been defined as people concerned that someone somewhere is having more fun than they are. Traditionally wowsers have been against this. Their elected representatives were Henry Bolte and his morals policeman, Arthur Rylah, who had a famously sheltered teenage daughter. If some activity offended the delicate Christian sensibilities of miss Rylah then Victorians were not allowed to indulge in that activity. It was only in 1966 that Victoria got rid of 6 o’clock hotel closing, and late night shopping was first allowed on Fridays in the early 1970s. The pall of wowserism began to be lifted following the political retirements of Bolte and Rylah in the early 1970’s and we began the descent of the slippery slope to the 24/7 commercial culture of today.

Stawell had managed to excise itself from the awful air of sanctimony that covered Victoria over Easter. In a formal sense it did this by not becoming a Town and therefore being subject to various rules and regulations about what activities could take place inside government defined urban areas. Informally, it simply chose to turn a blind eye to the sort of victimless crimes which are now regarded as normal sources of State Government revenue. In its heyday from the 1920’s to the 1960’s Stawell celebrated Jesus’ death by drinking, running, gambling and shooting pigeons, as well as racing cars and horses. The associated entertainment included highland dancing competitions, brass bands, two up schools, a carnival and more besides.  Curiously enough, people came to Stawell for a good time in the bad old days when it was Victoria’s own cut down Mississippi riverboat gambling town, wide open for fun on a blighted weekend. It was a good time while it lasted, but commercial pressure eventually overrode Stawell’s strongest attraction, which was that a bit of enjoyment could be had at Easter despite Jesus dying and all. From the 1970’s on fun and games were spread more evenly around Victoria at Easter time.

The ascension of the socially liberal Dick Hamer to the Victorian Premiership and the concurrent retirement of Avery Brundage as the eminence grise of the Olympic movement led to a range of accommodations with modern commerce which made the peculiar folk traditions of the Stawell Easter Carnival increasingly anachronistic. Victorians could drink, gamble and watch sport elsewhere. Top grade athletes could make a good living from sport and sponsorship while remaining eligible to compete at the Olympics.

Foot running is not really that popular a spectator sport. Melbourne’s biggest footrunning carnival is the Zatopek meet held on a balmy night in December with strong international competition over the range of Olympic events. An online search tells me that the crowds at the Zatopek are ‘good’ and ‘enthusiastic’, but they are rarely enumerated. Back in 1999 the Zatopek attracted a record crowd of 4,000. Stawell’s 6,000 or 7,000 on Easter Monday stacks up pretty well in this light.

If you want a crowd of 6,000 people at a sporting event in country Australia all you have to do is host a meaningless AFL pre season practice match two months before the season starts. This is what Narrandera did on a hot Friday night in February 2010, and a wonderful time was no doubt had by all.

Stawell tries to drag back the crowds by getting big name Australian competitors and securing long term sponsorship and TV coverage, but it has wisely conceded the ratings battle in advance by moving the Gift Final out of the football timeslot. It is now a quaint traditional event associated with a minor sport which has lost the vibrantly disreputable air that once set it apart from the respectable mainstream over Easter. And I don’t think they’d be allowed to organise a pigeon shooting competition nowadays to get the crowds back.

They still rock on at the Brix on Easter Monday; it’s just a bit less crowded and noisy than it used to be.

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About Greg

Middle aged male, resident at the finest of all latitudes, 37. Reputedly an indoor cricketer.
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2 Responses to Should Auld Acquaintance be forgot – the glory days of the Stawell Gift

  1. bruce says:

    Interesting history. Philosophy as well. Not sure the current Olympic or World Soccer bodies are much of an improvement. BTW, on the Victorian scene, Miss Rylah was in her late 20s or 30s. Check the websites to learn about the ‘controversial’ death of the wife of the ‘Morals Policeman’ & his quick remarriage. As for Bolte, his is apparently the only drink driving blood sample ever lost in Victoria? But at least not the ‘bigot’ that Sir Jo B-P was (to quote ex-Sir Terrence Lewis).

    • Greg says:

      Cheers Bruce. The ideology of amateurism looks a bit different from the other side of the divide, which Stawell was plainly on. Episodes such as Jim Thorpe and George McNeill being thrown under the bus and even the ACB treatment of that working class hero Packer in 78/79 show that the point of many regulations was simply administrative control over athletes.
      The IOC and possibly FIFA are self replicating bodies with no particular accountability to anyone beyond the magic circle, so probably no improvement.

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