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History of Athletics Australia

Running, walking, jumping, throwing - sport at its most pure. Athletics dates back as long as people have been doing these activities. What is the structure of the sport now?

The earliest evidence of athletics goes back to 3800 BC in Memphis (EGY) and has continued in various forms including the ancient Olympics to today’s highly organised competitions with its up to date technology and business. It also includes the relaxed form of fun athletics where people compete purely for the love of it or its exercise value. Athletics is now totally inclusive providing for juniors, seniors, masters and disabled. Athletics has spanned time and generations.

Australia has been a place for much athletic participation, both at the elite and recreational levels.

Evidence shows Australia's indigenous people, the Aboriginals, engaged in athletics events. These were based around survival skills such as spear and boomerang throwing, mock fights, a form of soccer and hockey and tree climbing.


When Australia was colonised in 1788, European settlers bought with them athletics competition familiar to what we know today.


The earliest record of athletics competition is from 1810 in Hyde Park, Sydney where Dicky Dowling won a sprint race over 50 yards.

Professional athletics (called pedestrianism) grew considerably around this time. Stories of huge crowds placing enormous wagers on the success of incredible feats of athletes paint a colourful picture of the sport in these early days.

Mid 1800's

Professional foot racing boomed particularly in the gold rush towns of New South Wales and Victoria. Miners raced against each other in handicapped races for the gift of a gold nugget offered by the mine owner. "Gift" races were born.

Long distance walking was very popular in the late 1800s. W. Edwards won a 100 miles race in 24 hours in 1878. In 1882 he won a six-day tournament over 432 miles around Melbourne. 

Amateur athletics on the other hand had to attract athletes who would compete for no financial return. The Grammar Schools of Sydney and Melbourne were proponents of the amateur side of the sport. 

The first amateur athletics club in Australia was formed in Adelaide in 1867. Called the Adelaide Amateur Athletic Club it held regular athletics meetings and other clubs were formed soon after. 

Late 1800's 

As clubs began to develop, there became need for a governing body. This was first recognised in New South Wales and on 20 April 1887 at a meeting in Oxford Street Sydney, the honorary secretary of Ashfield Amateur Athletic Club moved "it is desirable to form an association to be called the Amateur Athletics Association of New South Wales to take the management of amateur athletic sports in the colony." Other states followed suit. 

1896 - Present 

The National body, the amateur Athletic Union of Australasia was formed in 1897, now known as Athletics Australia. Australia loves champions and over the years, athletics has provided many. At the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896, Australia's Edwin Flack won the 800m and 1500m - Australia's first Olympic gold medals.

Some of Australia's greatest household names have come from the track - Herb Elliott, Betty Cuthbert, Shirley Strickland de la Hunty, Marjorie Jackson, Ron Clarke, John Landy, Raelene Boyle, Robert de Castella and of courseour most recent champion, Cathy Freeman.

Fields of Green, Lanes of Gold - The Story of Athletics in Australia.

Author: Paul Jenes. 

This publication, containing 304 glossy pages, is the story of Australia's athletics history and is written by Paul Jenes, Australia's leading research and statistical expert in athletics. 

If you would like to learn more about the story of athletics in Australia, this publication is available from Athletics Australia.

Betty Cuthbert

Athletics Australia
Athletics House
Level 2, 31 Aughtie Drive
Albert Park  VIC 3206

P +61 3 8646 4550
F +61 3 8646 4560