Footballers and the Tradition of Professional Foot-running

Professional sportsmen and sportswomen were banned from most amateur events, such as the Olympics, until the 1980’s. However their professional status did allow them to compete in a variety of non-amateur sports during that earlier period.

A long and proud tradition of professional 'Gift' races exists in many Victorian country centres. Apart from the truly famous 'Gift' at Stawell in Western Victoria, the Wangaratta Gift, the Maryborough Gift, and the Bendigo '1000' are long-standing, popular annual sprint events. (Historically, the distance of 130 yards - for those on the 'scratch' mark - has been the most common for the 'Gifts').

A significantly large number of Australian Rules footballers have competed in professional foot-running events. Over the years, many of them have competed in the sprint races, and not a few have actually won these events, including the Stawell Gift. The great aboriginal leader Doug Nicholls, who was to play football for both Northcote and Fitzroy, famously won the Warracknabeal Gift in 1928.

Austin Robertson – World Professional Sprint Champion

The Mail Adelaide 12-Apr-1930 p10
The Mail Adelaide 12-Apr-1930 p10

Probably the most famous track sprinter to play Australian Rules Football was Austin Robertson. Robertson played 154 games for South Melbourne, and effectively missed two VFL seasons (1928 and 1933) to focus on sprinting.

After Tim Banner (NSW) had won the World Professional Sprint Championship in Scotland in 1926, the title was contested in Australia, and in 1930 Robertson won the World Championship at the Melbourne Motordrome (later Olympic Park). The Championship was made up of a series of races of different lengths, with the winner decided by aggregated points.

In 1933 Robertson won the World Sprint Championship again.1 He then made the huge decision to miss South Melbourne’s 1933 football season and travel to the United States to take on Eddie Tolan, winner of the two sprint Gold Medals (100m and 200m) at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. The trip meant Robertson missed playing in South Melbourne's famous 1933 VFL premiership, the club's last Grand Final win in his own lifetime. (Robertson later played in two losing Grand Final teams, in 1935 and 1936).

Unfortunately, when Robertson arrived in America, it was discovered that Tolan had not trained since the 1932 Olympics. After the Olympics Tolan fell on hard times and earned money by performing on stage with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. This so-called ‘professional’ work led to the loss of his status as an amateur athlete. So, at the end of 1934, Tolan headed to Australia to compete in professional races against Austin Robertson. 2

Western Mail Perth  21-Mar-1935 p23
Western Mail Perth 21-Mar-1935 p23


The widely reported showdown down under occurred in Melbourne, over two nights. On April 6, 1935 Tolan won both the 75m and 130m sprints, defeating Robertson, the Australian sprinter Tom Roberts, and the Scotsman W.McFarlane. A week later, on April 13, Tolan won the 220 yard sprint but was inched out by Robertson in the 130 yards. In presenting Tolan with the World Championship sash and badge, the Lord Mayor (Councillor Wales) said it was the first time in the history of foot running that the world amateur and professional titles had been won by one man.3

The Stawell Gift

Sporting Globe 5Apr1939 p10 Stawell Gift Banner
Sporting Globe 5Apr1939 p10 Stawell Gift Banner

Stawell is a small but vibrant country town situated on the eastern edge of the Grampians, in the Goldfields region of Western Victoria. The Stawell Gift, held over the Easter Weekend each year on the charming and attractive Stawell Sports Ground, has long been a hallowed event on the Victorian sporting calendar. Once the World’s richest professional foot race, the Stawell Gift is still Australia's most famous footrace.

Source: MRiley 2008
Source: MRiley 2008
Source: MRiley 2009
Source: MRiley 2009


Many footballers have competed in the Stawell Gift since it started in 1878. The obituary of Geelong footballer John Harrison records that he was a competitor in the very first Stawell Gift (1878). The connection to football has continued throughout the long 130+ year history of the Gift. Adam Coote, an AFL boundary umpire, was a Gift finalist in 2012.

Daily News Perth 20-Apr-1935 p21
Daily News Perth 20-Apr-1935 p21
The Daily News Perth 23-Apr-1938 p5
The Daily News Perth 23-Apr-1938 p5


Since 1878, a significantly large number of Stawell Gift winners (and placed runners) have had links to football. Many sources note the fact that thirteen VFL/AFL players have won the Gift. To a degree, this misses the overall depth of footballer involvement. A number of VFA and interstate players have also won the Stawell Gift, while other footballers have competed in it, won heats of the Gift, or been placed in the Final.

Collingwood footballer Bill Twomey (senior) was a popular winner of the Gift in the twenties. After playing for Collingwood, Twomey moved to Stawell to captain/coach the town's senior team in the Wimmera League. 4 The 1941 winner of the Gift, Ken Hutton, was a Tasmanian footballer who represented his state. (Hutton later joined the RAAF and participated in the aerial bombing of Berlin. He died on active service before the war was over).5 Essendon's Lance Mann won the Stawell Gift in 1952, edging out Essendon team mate Norm McDonald (second). Prahran footballer (and later Federal politician) Don Chipp also ran in the 1952 Gift final.

The list below provides a more detailed compilation of footballers linked to the Stawell Gift. It is probable many further names can be found, but the list is a useful starting point, and demonstrates the depth of the links. Sources and References appear at the end of this article.

Name Year Description Team Reference
VFL/AFL
John Harrison c1878 Competed in first Stawell Gift Geelong 1
Walter Steele c1890s Competed Melbourne 2
T. Howard 1888 Runner up South Melbourne 3
George Stuckey 1897 Winner Essendon 4
Norman Clark 1899 Winner Carlton 5
Dave Strickland 1900 Winner St Kilda 6
Alf Tredinnick 1902 Winner Melbourne 7
Bert Renfrey 1903 Competed St Kilda & clubs in WA & SA 8
Harry Rigby 1909 Winner Carlton 9
Bill Robinson 1914 Winner Carlton 10
Bill Twomey b1899 1919 Runner up Collingwood 11
Jimmy Goonan 1920 Third Carlton 12
Bill Twomey b1899 1924 Winner Collingwood 13
Clarrie Hearn 1929 Winner Essendon 14
Bert Hyde 1932 Runner up Hawthorn 15
Ron McCann 1936 Winner Collingwood 16
Bob Spargo 1936 Third Footscray 17
Austin Robertson 1936 Entrant South Melbourne 18
Jack Grant 1938 Winner Geelong 19
Jack Kelly 1939 Heat Winner St Kilda 20
Bob Spargo 1940 Third Footscray 21
Eric Cumming 1946 Runner up Footscray 22
Jim Baird 1946 Third Carlton 23
Syd McGain 1948 Heat Winner Fitzroy, North Melbourne, VFL Umpire 24
Norm McDonald 1952 Runner up Essendon 25
Lance Mann 1952 Winner Essendon 26
Bill Williams b1929 1956 Winner Richmond 27
Bill Sutton 1962 Third VFL/AFL umpire 28
Bob Spargo b1939 1963 Fifth Footscray 29
Tony Polinelli 1966 Runner up Geelong 30
Trevor McGregor 1970 Runner up Fitzroy 31
Trevor McGregor 1971 Winner Fitzroy 32
Ricky Spargo 1974, 1977 Finalist Footscray 33
Gary Gray 1978 & 1980 4th both times North Melbourne 53
Adam Coote 2012 Finalist AFL boundary umpire 34
VFA
Lynch Cooper 1928 Winner Signed to Brighton 35
Lance Collins 1939 A favorite but defeated early Coburg 36
Ron Wilson c1940s Winner Coburg 37
Roy Hart 1953 Winner Prahran 38
Don Chipp 1952 Finalist Prahran 39
Dallas O'Brien 1983 Winner Sandringham 40
SA
Jack Curran 1923 Winner West Torrens 41
F. J. Ralph. 1931 Winner West Adelaide+Sandringham 42
D. Eglinton 1933 Heat Winner Norwood
Tas
T. J. McMahon 1938 Competed City (Launceston)+Interstate 43
Ken Hutton 1941 Winner City (Launceston)+Interstate 44
Qld
Ken Trewick 1950 Winner Queensland Carnival Team 45


Other Stawell Notes

Name Year Description Team Reference
Vin Brown c late 1930s Finalist Carlton 46
Peter Sheales 1959, 1961 Herb Hedemann Handicap Winner VFL/AFL umpire 47
Rod Butterss 1978 Bill Howard Winner St Kilda Club President 48
Alan Lynch 1980, 1981 and 1982 Won backmarkers' distance events, over one and two miles Footscray, Richmond, Geelong West 49
Allan Lynch 1987 Herb Hedemann Handicap Winner Footscray & Richmond 50
Coaches
Fergie Speakman Coached 5 Gift Winners Life Member and chairman of selectors at Essendon 51
Len Templar Coached Gift Winner + many other event Winners North Melbourne 52



Stawell Gift Images

Horsham Times 25-Apr-1924 p8
Horsham Times 25-Apr-1924 p8
Horsham Times 9-Apr-1929 p10
Horsham Times 9-Apr-1929 p10
Border Watch Mount Gambier 31-Mar-1931 p6
Border Watch Mount Gambier 31-Mar-1931 p6
Albury Advertiser WA 3-May-1938 p5
Albury Advertiser WA 3-May-1938 p5
West Australian 27-Mar-1953 p21
West Australian 27-Mar-1953 p21
Argus 12-Apr-1952 p28
Argus 12-Apr-1952 p28
Argus 7-Apr-1953 p16
Argus 7-Apr-1953 p16



The 'Sprint Off' at the 1950 ANFC Carnival


Another great Sprint moment associated with Australian Rules Football was the Trewick versus Cumming 'sprint off' of 1950 - and all the drama leading up to it.

Ken Trewick, one of four brothers, was a Queensland footballer. His athletic ability was discovered in 1948 when he competed in a 'sprint off' against Footscray footballer, and professional runner, Eric Cumming. The 'sprint off' was held at half time during an exhibition match on July 31st between VFL teams Richmond and Footscray at Brisbane's Exhibition Ground. Trewick played for the Queensland team in the earlier game. 6 Trewick won the 'sprint off', but unfortunately because Cumming was a professional runner, and even though he himself had not been paid for winning, Trewick lost his amateur status.7

The 1948 Brisbane foot race changed Trewick's life. He was approached by a sprint trainer and brought to Victoria. Here, he trained secretly, and was entered for the 1950 Stawell Gift. Twenty of the Stawell Gift semi-finalists protested against Trewick's omission of details from his racing history on his entry form, specifically his victory over Cumming in 1948.8 Trewick survived the protest, and from his generous mark, won the Gift Final easily. Eric Cumming, who finished third, was one who criticized Trewick’s generous handicap. The fortunate Trewick used his winnings to buy a house.

After the Gift, Trewick challenged Cumming to a scratch race. Prize money was put up by John Wren, and the Grudge match was organised to take place at the 1950 ANFC Carnival in Brisbane. Trewick was a member of the Queensland state football team competing at the Carnival.9 This time it was Cumming who won out, in a series of races over different lengths. Cumming may have proved he was faster, but professional sprinting also involved foxing the handicapper and Trewick was able to pull it off.
Sunday Mail Brisbane 23-Jul-1950 p16
Sunday Mail Brisbane 23-Jul-1950 p16
Argus 24-Jul-1950 p11
Argus 24-Jul-1950 p11


The VFL/AFL Grand Final Sprint

With the rise of football professionalism - the increase in pay, training and required levels of commitment - the participation (and success) of footballers on the professional running circuit decreased over time. This decline coincided with the 1970's-1980's scrapping of the amateur/professional divide in athletics. Top runners in contention for the Olympics could now also compete for cash at carnivals such as Stawell's. This in turn reduced the potential for footballer victories. The VFL needed a new showcase where players could display and test their speed.

The tied VFL Grand Final of 1977 provided an unexpected opportunity for improvisation. Needing, at short notice, to find forms of crowd entertainment for the Grand Final replay, the League hit upon the idea of a footrace during the half-time break. The 1977 event was run over a mile, and with the concept proving successful, the mile was repeated in 1978. The 1979 Grand Final race, however, was a sprint. The sprint at the MCG on Grand Final day soon became a new tradition.

The Grand Final sprint was not held between 1988 and 2001, but was welcomed back in 2002. The format of the race has varied, with the changes involving handicap races rather than scratch races, heats preceding the Final, and the move from the half-time break to pre-game.

Grand Final Sprint Results 1979-2012
Source: http://www.topendsports.com/sport/afl/sprint.htm
Year Winner Club
1979 Geoff Ablett Hawthorn
1980 Geoff Ablett Hawthorn
1981 Geoff Ablett Hawthorn
1982 Michael Conlan Fitzroy
1983 Frank Marchesani Carlton
1984 Douglas Cox Essendon
1985 Geoff Ablett St Kilda
1986 Unknown Winner
1987 Russell Richards Melbourne
1988-2001 No Race
2002 Jared Crouch Sydney
2003 James Walker Fremantle
2004 James Walker Fremantle
2005 Brett Deledio Richmond
2006 Brendan Fevola Carlton
2007 Jake King Richmond
2008 Matt White Richmond
2009 Rhys Stanley St Kilda
2010 Luke Miles St Kilda
2011 Patrick Dangerfield Adelaide
2012 Patrick Dangerfield Adelaide


The Grand Final sprint at the MCG may have been changed and tinkered with, but it remains an important link in a long chain - the tradition of Australian Rules footballers' participation in professional foot-running.

Conclusion

Today the Stawell Gift is just one event on a crowded sporting calendar and the organisers are forced to compete for our attention against a wider field of domestic and international events. Despite this challenge, Stawell (and to a lesser extent perhaps other regional athletic carnivals) retains its aura. It is an event in which football followers ought to take great pride.




Stawell Gift Table References

Reference

1 GEELONG ITEMS. (1942, July 17). The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 - 1957), p. 4. Retrieved April 26, 2013, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article11986312
2 Mr. Walter Steele of Leslie Manor. (1941, September 12). Camperdown Chronicle (Vic. : 1877 - 1954), p. 2. Retrieved April 26, 2013, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article26548135
3 PERSONAL. (1926, September 18). The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA : 1889 - 1931), p. 13. Retrieved April 26, 2013, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article47020008
4 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stawell_Gift
5 http://www.carltonfc.com.au/news/newsarticle/tabid/4311/newsid/91624/default.aspx
6 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stawell_Gift
7 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stawell_Gift
8 STAWELL SPORTS. (1903, April 16). Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW : 1888 - 1954), p. 4 Edition: FIRST EDITION. Retrieved April 26, 2013, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article44366198
9 http://www.carltonfc.com.au/news/newsarticle/tabid/4311/newsid/91624/default.aspx
10 http://www.carltonfc.com.au/news/newsarticle/tabid/4311/newsid/91624/default.aspx
11 STAWELL SPORTS. (1924, April 23). The Register (Adelaide, SA : 1901 - 1929), p. 13. Retrieved May 4, 2013, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article64213823
12 Encyclopedia of League Footballers has J.E. Goonan. Stawell Gift records E.J. Goonan (same person)
13 Another "Football Flashback" FITZROY'S FLAG IN THE ERA OF BRAWN. (1950, June 17). The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 - 1957), p. 8 Supplement: Weekend Magazine. Retrieved April 26, 2013, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article22836381
14 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stawell_Gift
15 http://www.hawkheadquarters.com/player.aspx?playerid=26&view=default
16 SMALLHORN REFUSED CLEARANCE. (1936, April 1). The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 - 1957), p. 12. Retrieved April 26, 2013, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article11025105
17 STAWELL GIFT. (1936, April 13). Advocate (Burnie, Tas. : 1890 - 1954), p. 7 Edition: DAILY. Retrieved April 26, 2013, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article91798037
18 STAWELL GIFT. (1936, March 17). The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 - 1957), p. 13. Retrieved April 26, 2013, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article11021515
19 STAWELL GIFT WINNER ACCLAIMED. (1938, April 28). Camperdown Chronicle (Vic. : 1877 - 1954), p. 6. Retrieved April 26, 2013, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article30148883
20 STAWELL GIFT FANCY. (1939, April 8). Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW : 1888 - 1954), p. 1 Edition: SPORTS EDITION. Retrieved May 4, 2013, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article48313648
21 STAWELL GIFT. (1940, March 28). Western Mail (Perth, WA : 1885 - 1954), p. 12. Retrieved April 26, 2013, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article38412999
22 DECEMBER 28th HOLIDAY FOR BOXING DAY. (1953, December 3). Portland Guardian (Vic. : 1876 - 1953), p. 2 Edition: MIDDAY. Retrieved April 26, 2013, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article64436491
23 NORTHERN CRICKETERS LEADING VISITORS. (1947, December 27). Examiner (Launceston, Tas. : 1900 - 1954), p. 3. Retrieved April 26, 2013, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article52619088
24 http://www.aflua.com.au/syd_mcgain
25 Stawell Gift To Favorite. (1952, April 15). Border Watch (Mount Gambier, SA : 1861 - 1954), p. 1. Retrieved April 26, 2013, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article78666563
26 Footballers Fight Out Stawell Gift Finish. (1952, April 15). The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 - 1954), p. 17. Retrieved April 26, 2013, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article49026603
27 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stawell_Gift
28 http://www.aflua.com.au/bill_sutton_medallion
29 http://aussierules.australianrules.com.au/2005stories/topstawell.html
30 http://aussierules.australianrules.com.au/2005stories/topstawell.html
31 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stawell_Gift
32 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stawell_Gift
33 http://aussierules.australianrules.com.au/2005stories/topstawell.html
34 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adam_Coote
35 Speed on the Wing. (1935, April 11). The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 - 1957), p. 11. Retrieved April 26, 2013, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article12228165
36 STAWELL GIFT FANCY. (1939, April 8). Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW : 1888 - 1954), p. 1 Edition: SPORTS EDITION. Retrieved May 4, 2013, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article48313648
37 Wilson Will Coach Coburg. (1946, December 20). The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 - 1957), p. 12. Retrieved April 26, 2013, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article22389901
38 World of Sport. (1953, May 22). The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA : 1931 - 1954), p. 8. Retrieved April 26, 2013, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article48300300
39 Set new record— but lost. (1952, April 2). The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 - 1957), p. 11. Retrieved April 26, 2013, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article23172100
40 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sandringham_Football_Club
41 CURRAN FOR ADELAIDE. (1929, March 30). The Mail (Adelaide, SA : 1912 - 1954), p. 11. Retrieved April 26, 2013, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article59852235
42 HONOR FOR STAWELL GIFT WINNER. (1931, April 28). Advertiser and Register (Adelaide, SA : 1931), p. 10. Retrieved April 26, 2013, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article45763083
FOOTBALL. (1935, February 26). Examiner (Launceston, Tas. : 1900 - 1954), p. 2 Edition: DAILY. Retrieved April 26, 2013, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article51921350
43 STAWELL GIFT. (1938, April 14). Advocate (Burnie, Tas. : 1890 - 1954), p. 4. Retrieved April 26, 2013, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article68419086
44 Tasmanian Wins Gift at Stawell. (1941, April 15). Examiner (Launceston, Tas. : 1900 - 1954), p. 1 Edition: LATE NEWS EDITION. Retrieved April 26, 2013, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article52412522
45 Queensland Side Includes Four Brothers. (1947, July 29). The Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 - 1954), p. 20. Retrieved April 26, 2013, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article26407302
46 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vin_Brown
47 125 Greatest Ever Stawell Gift Moments
48 125 Greatest Ever Stawell Gift Moments
49 http://aussierules.australianrules.com.au/2005stories/topstawell.html
50 125 Greatest Ever Stawell Gift Moments
51 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fergie_Speakman
52 http://www.stawellgift.com/hall-of-fame/hall-of-fame-inductees/l-templar/
53 Email from Gary Gray Mar-2015

Boyles Website Newsletter

Just us sending out an email when we post a new article.
Image


End Notes


1. SPRINT CHAMPIONSHIP. (1933, March 13). The Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 - 1954), p. 3. Retrieved April 28, 2013, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article24726654
3. TOLAN WINS WORLD'S SPRINT TITLE. (1935, March 14). The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA : 1931 - 1954), p. 10. Retrieved May 10, 2013, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article37273240
4. STAWELL SPORTS. (1924, April 23). The Register (Adelaide, SA : 1901 - 1929), p. 13. Retrieved May 4, 2013, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article64213823
5. STAWELL GIFT WINNER BOMBS BERLIN. (1944, January 7). Advocate (Burnie, Tas. : 1890 - 1954), p. 3. Retrieved May 4, 2013, fromhttp://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article68837092" rel="external nofollow"> http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article68837092
6. A bolter and his Gift of the grab, John Harms 2003,http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2003/04/18/1050172753887.html
7. Football run under ban. (1948, September 23). The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1933 - 1954), p. 5. Retrieved May 4, 2013, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article49937035
8. GIFT WINNER CLEARED. (1950, November 2). The Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 - 1954), p. 22. Retrieved May 4, 2013, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article26737395
9. Match Race. (1950, June 21). Examiner (Launceston, Tas. : 1900 - 1954), p. 18. Retrieved May 4, 2013, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article52722457