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History of Indigenous Athletes in Australia

Note: This story may contain the names and images of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people now deceased.

Indigenous Australians have a proud and fascinating history with track and field in Australia. From the turn of the century to modern day elite athletes, the indigenous story of athletics is invaluable to our history.

The first account of an indigenous athlete was named ‘Manuello’, from Victoria who in 1851 beat Tom McLeod, then regarded as the fastest man in Australia, over 100 yards.

Professional running, or 'pedestrianism' as it was referred to, became a popular Australian sport in the 1870s, but fell from grace because of heavy gambling and race-fixing. In Australia, the many 'gift' races – some of which still run today - were prestigious events which attracted huge crowds and wagers. Prize money was very attractive: £1000 in Melbourne or £840 in Sydney - really big money in those days.

But corruption was rife and draconian state legislation, especially in Queensland and Victoria, prevented indigenous participation in virtually every economic enterprise. The Queensland Amateur Athletics Association even tried to disbar all indigenous athletes from competition on the spurious grounds that they either “lacked moral character” or shockingly “had insufficient intelligence”. These appalling excuses were rejected by the national athletics body, leading to the Queensland Association deeming them all professionals in 1903.

For years, governments and white athletes created obstacles. It is said that some in the industry even wrote to the Governor of Queensland asking him to ban all indigenous athletes from competition because they always won. Elsewhere separate initials began appearing after a runner's name in the official race programs, indicating whether they were 'a’ (Aboriginal), 'h.c.' (half-caste), or 'c.p.' (coloured person). This bizarre practice lasted from the 1880s until about 1912.

In 1883, Bobby Kinnear, a member of the Yurra Yurra tribe, won the prestigious Stawell Gift, the richest and most famous of all the gift races. He was one of three indigenous athletes to win at Stawell.

Perhaps the greatest of all Australian male runners in the early days was Queenslander Charlie Samuels. Samuels was begrudgingly afforded the title of “the champion foot runner in Australia” by the sporting newspaper, The Referee, after winning races over both 136 yards and 300 yards in 1886. In 1888, Samuels ran 100 yards in 9.10 seconds at Botany in Sydney, an astonishing time, possibly because there was a tendency for promoters to shorten the distances by race organisers. According to The Referee, Samuels trained on ‘a box of cigars, pipe and tobacco, and plenty of sherry’. Samuels enjoyed memorable wins over the English and Irish champions, Harry Hutchens and Tom Malone.

In the late 1880s to early 1900s Bobby McDonald was a star runner, but more so, his ingenuity changed the sport of athletics forever. In 1887, McDonald developed what we now know today as the ‘crouch start’.

McDonald initially developed this 'sitting style' to counter the cold and the strong winds while awaiting the starter's gun.

“I first got the idea of the sitting style of start (as I always called it) to dodge the strong winds, which made me feel cold and miserable while waiting for the starter to send us away,” McDonald told The Referee in 1913.

“One day while sitting down, almost, the starter sent us away, and I found that I could get off the mark much quicker than ever I could standing, and afterwards I always used the sitting or crouch start. I never saw anyone using what is known as the crouch start before I did.”

Another astonishing tale of indigenous sprinting history comes from a man by the name of Charlie Green. For 20 years he walked the 400 kilometres from his home East Gippsland to Stawell to compete in the Easter Gift. His reward finally came in 1927 - winning the Old Timers race.

In the late 1920s, Sir Douglas Nicholls, who later went on to become a star footballer in the VFL and the Governor of South Australia, and was a tremendously gifted athlete. Nicholls won the Nyah Gift and also the Warracknabeal Gift, second only to Stawell in importance. So popular was Nicholls, race organisers paid an appearance fee to have him race.

A close relative of Nicholls was the 1929 ‘Sprint Champion of the World’, Lynch Cooper. Believed to be the first indigenous person to win a world title in any sport, Cooper famously sold his fishing boat for £20 in 1928. Desperate for money, Lynch backed himself at 60 to 1 to win the Stawell Easter Gift that year - which he did, covering the 130 yards in 11.93 seconds.

In the 1940s-1950s, Norm McDonald was a champion athlete. McDonald won the Wangaratta, Maryborough and Lancefield Gifts and was runner-up in the Stawell Easter Gift in 1948, as well as the amateur 5000m Australian title in 1948 and 1949. McDonald was notably a star Australian footballer, playing 128 games for Essendon and winning the best and fairest in 1951.

At the 1962 Perth Commonwealth Games, Percy Hobson became the first indigenous athlete to win a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games for Australia. Aged 20 years at the time, Hobson took victory in the high jump clearing the bar at 6’11’’ (2.11 m), setting a new Commonwealth Games record. Hailing from Bourke in NSW, Hobson also broke the state record and won the Australian title in 1962.

Losing a forearm as a young teenager did not stop Peter Kirkby from becoming one of Australia’s most successful para-athletes ever in 1984. A talented sportsperson as a child, Kirkby was 13 when he was badly electrocuted by a fallen power line at the Eden football oval in NSW. He suffered extensive burns to his right arm was amputated below the elbow.

In 1984, Kirkby made the trip to New York for the Summer Paralympics to compete in the 100m, 400m, 4x100m relay, 4x400m relay, long jump, high jump, and triple jump. Kirkby walked away from New York having won one gold medal (4x100m), one silver (4x400m), and three bronze (100m, 400m, long jump), including a world record in the 4x100m.

"It was amazing to go to New York. For a little country boy, it was so exciting to see all these different people. I'd never seen so many people before," Kirby told the ABC.

The 1990s and 2000s were considered a golden age for indigenous track and field, with the likes of Kyle Vander-Kuyp, Nova Peris, Cathy Freeman and Patrick Johnson taking centre stage of Australian sport and breaking national records.

Kyle Vander-Kuyp remains Australia’s greatest ever 110m hurdler. An indigenous athlete of the Worimi and Yuin tribe of North and South Coast New South Wales, Vander-Kuyp still holds the Australian 110m Hurdles record of 13.29 he set in Göteborg, Sweden back in 1995. 

Vander-Kuyp’s dominance in Australia was matched only by his longevity, winning 12 national open titles between 1992 and 2006, and representing Australia at four Commonwealth Games, four world championships and two Olympic Games, where he made the final of the Atlanta Games.

On the track, few indigenous athletes have had such a profound effect on the world sporting stage as Nova Peris. Nova entered her athletics career having already won Olympic gold with the Hockeyroos in Atlanta in 1996.

A talented sprinter, Peris first worked her way onto the international scene as a member of the Australian 4x100m team at the 1997 world championships. A year later, she was crowned Commonwealth champion in the 200m and was also a part of the 4x100m relay team that won gold. Furthering her distance a couple of years later, Nova was selected for the Sydney Olympics team in the 400m and 4x400m relay team.

In 2013, Peris entered politics and became Australia's first indigenous woman elected to federal parliament, in which she served until 2016.

An Australian household name, Cathy Freeman can be heralded as one of Australia’s greatest ever sportspeople. Cathy was the leader for athletics in Australia during the 1990’s and at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, inspiring thousands of Australians to pursue the sport.

Bursting onto the scene at 16 years of age, Cathy ran in the Commonwealth Games Selection Trial in Sydney in December 1989 and surprised everyone by tying Kath Sambell for third in the 100 metres in 11.42 to gain selection to the Australian team heading to Auckland, in which she won gold as part of the 4x100m relay team.

As Cathy transitioned from junior to senior athletics, she made the move to longer distances, including the 200m and 400m in which she regularly went toe-to-toe with Melinda Gainsford Taylor.

One of Australia’s great hopes for the Commonwealth Games in Victoria, Canada, Cathy came through with flying colours winning both 200 metres in 22.25 and the 400 metres in 50.38. Her lap of honour carrying both the Australian and Aboriginal flags brought censure from the ACGA but great support from the Australian public. 

Cathy went on to win the silver medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics in an Australian record time of 48.63 seconds, before going onto win two world championship gold-medals in 1997 and 1999. A two-time Commonwealth champion, Cathy also won 14 national titles across the 100m, 200m and 400m.

In 2000, Carrying the weight of the nation on her shoulders, Cathy was awarded the honour of lighting flame at the Opening Ceremony of the Sydney Olympics. Ten days later, in a packed stadium of over 112,000 people and wearing a now legendary full body suit she collected the ultimate prize. Taking the lead 75 metres from home Cathy Freeman held off her challengers to win Olympic gold by four metres in 49.11 seconds, forever cementing her place in Australian sporting folklore.

Patrick Johnson can proudly claim to be Australia’s fastest man. As the only Australian ever to break the 10 second barrier for the 100m, Patrick’s speed and determination to succeed made him a star of the Australian athletics scene. His PB of 9.93 which he set in Mito, Japan in 2003 made him the first man of non-African descent to break 10 seconds.

Patrick represented Australia at the 2000 and 2004 Olympic Games, as well as the 2002, 2006 and 2010 Commonwealth Games. Johnson was a part of the team that made the final of the 4x100m at the 2004 Athens Games as well as the 4x100m at the 2005 Helsinki world championships.

While Patrick Johnson can claim to be Australia’s fastest sprinter, Joshua Ross wasn’t far behind. Representing Australia at the 2004 and 2012 Olympic Games, Ross’ dominance in Australia was impressive as a nine-time national champion across the 100m and 200m. His PB of 10.08 set in Brisbane is the fastest 100m time ever run by an Australian on home soil.

In 2003, Ross took out the prestigious Stawell Gift, taking home a cheque for $32,000 after winning off the 7 metre mark. Two years later, Ross created history becoming only one of three men to win the Stawell Gift again, and this time, off scratch – a feat only achieved twice in the century-old history of the race.

After deciding to retire from athletics in 2009, Ross proved he still had it when he returned to athletics to win his sixth national 100m title in 2012, and backed it up the following year, winning the 100m and 200m double at the Australian Championships in 2013.

Discus thrower Benn Harradine is one of only three indigenous athletes to represent Australia at three Olympic Games (Cathy Freeman – athletics ’92, ’96, ’00 / Patty Mills – Basketball ’08, ’12, ’16 / Benn Harradine – athletics ’08, ’12, ’16).

A proud indigenous man from the Watjabaluk/Wergia people of the Wimmera, Harradine became the first indigenous athlete to represent Australia in a field event at an Olympic Games and went on to win a gold-medal for Australia at the Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games.

As the current holder of the Australian discus record of 68.20m, Benn’s lively personality and passion for athletics has made him a favourite among fans and his peers.

Other high performing indigenous athletes of the past decade include two-time Australian champion over the 100m hurdles and 2014 Commonwealth Games finalist Shannon McCann, World Junior Championship and World University Games gold medallist and three-time national long jump champion Robbie Crowther, London 2012 Olympic race walker Beki Smith, and two-time Paralympian Torita Isaac who won bronze in the T38 400m at the 2015 Doha IPC Athletics World Championships.



Black Gold - Colin & Paul Tatz

Australian athletes: professional and amateur champions -

Lynch Cooper: the first Aboriginal World’s Sprinting Champion – Luke Pearson/SBS

Peter Kirby: The first Indigenous Australian to win a Paralympic gold medal – Bill Brown/ABC South East NSW

Written by Jake Stevens - Jump Media and Marketing

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