An Olympic Park Memory

The curtain is about to close on Olympic Park in Melbourne. I am drawn to thinking about all of the athletics events, and all of the athletes who have strived there.

I was one of them, once. Just once. On March 26, 1972.

If somewhere deep inside you resides the love of sport and physical activity then you will have embraced athletics somewhere along the way. It would have been a foundation-stone of your developing sporting career.

It’s natural to run. And to run as fast as you possibly can.

I remember on humid Shepparton afternoons, as the storm was just about to break, running with the wind, my skin-and-bone frame being bowled along in the bluster. Then turning around at the fence, and pushing back, and feeling the wind in my face and on my torso, and wondering whether I’d ever have the strength to push through it. Before the rain came.

It’s natural to jump, too. As far as you can, and as high as you can. I remember Dad filling a couple of Dulux cans with concrete and putting some uprights in them, having first drilled holes every few centimetres for a nail which would hold the dowling curtain rod. We’d do the scissors over the top, and Dad would always go on about the real way to jump: the western roll. Dick Fosbury was in the process of changing all that.

From the moment you are running and jumping, you want to know who’s the quickest? So you race and you compete. You ask Dad for his watch or the old alarm clock with the second-hand on it, and you do trials: once around the house, twice around the house, once around the block, twice around the block.

In our neighbourhood, we could all run, well enough. So when Little Athletics came to Shepparton it was just as natural we’d sign up, and our parents would help get things going. I didn’t think of it at the time but the bloke who set our club up must have been a Manchester United fan, because he insisted we were called the Red Devils.

I was one of the first kids to register in Shep. Of the hundreds of kids who signed on in the next few years I was number 54. I still have the tiny T-shirt.

But I was too shy to go to the meets. For nearly a season I only went to training, until finally I was persuaded to venture along.

Little Athletics taught us many things. Firstly it taught us to lose graciously, although being so competitive, the grace took a while to find. Ego served to delay the learning of this lesson as well.

Soon, though, we all bought in to the Little Athletics philosophy: in those days the notion of beating your own times and distances was paramount. At least until championships time.

I was never a star, although I won my share of Saturday-morning events at beautiful Princess Park, down by the Goulburn River. I kept bettering my times and distances long before PB hit the vernacular. I loved lane 8 in the 200m. I didn’t like running the 400. I loved the 800 and remember a ding-dong Under 10 battle with Paul (or was it Glen?) Teasedale, a sprint from the back straight, and then stride for stride for the last 60 metres, until we crossed the line together, utterly spent. Both watches said 2.49.2 (a miracle in Little Athletics, where they could differ by a second over 100m) and the parents, in their Saturday morning roles as officials, all decided it was a dead-heat.

We jumped, too, down among the towering gums at the back of the footy sheds (which I knew from winter Saturdays, sitting between massive Kevin-Murray men as the smoke and Cottees bottle were passed around at half-times). I was a competitive jumper. That’s because you needed no mental strength to hit the board: it was, instead a metre-square of lime, and the leap was measured from your toe-mark, and I was so light that the power-to-weight ratio was not compromised by my complete lack of physical strength.

I was a weed. Short. Skinny. Weak. I lived in constant fear of being told to push down the locks on the old HD and HR and HK Holdens as I did not have the strength to pull them back out again. My father joked at the complete absence of meat on my arms, which were juvenile versions of his own. “You’ve got biceps like a chicken’s instep,” he’d say. In shot-put I was in danger of dropping the lumpen metal on my own foot.

But I could read, and I could watch the great athletes on TV. That’s how I learnt. I knew some of their stories, and I reckon I could sort of do a hitch kick – Grade 4 style.

No adults in our club had any athletics experience. They were enthusiastic, and encouraging, but they didn’t teach us much at training. We followed the routines outlined in the manual.

My Mum and Dad were on the Red Devils committee. Sometimes they organised training which was great because then we would bring the box of equipment home in the VW Beetle and we could use all the stuff until Saturday.

I started mucking around with the discus. I knew that the great throwers did a fast spin. Apart from getting Bill Peat and Let’s Visit books from the library, I found a book on athletics technique, which included a sort of dance-steps version of the discus spin. I put it in to place; or should I say I put what I thought was the right sequence of movements in to place.

Sometimes it seemed to work.

A successful throw reminded me of another sporting triumph. About a year earlier, after months of trying, I finally got a B51 off the ground. I had been hitting straight (and cover) drives into the fence for ages, until finally the 7-iron’s sweet spot connected and the ball sailed way off, over the spare block, over the church block, and in to the Taylor’s yard. It was a sporting epiphany; a moment which, looking back on it, helped form my understanding of the forces and patterns of the universe.

I discovered that summer, that a good discus throw and a good golf shot come from the same place.

I have thought about this a lot. After a life-time of observing the diagrams of Michelangelo, the long-irons of Frank Nobilo, and the down-the-line forehand of Roger Federer I am convinced the action of throwing a discus, and the moment of its release as your right hip comes through, is as pure as catching a five-footer in the second break at Burleigh Heads. When your timing is right, throwing the discus as it was meant to be thrown puts you in concert with the universe.

My nine year old mind didn’t know any of that. I just knew that when I did the spin and let it rip I got the same feeling as when that golf ball took flight. And it was measurable. Stand and deliver and my chicken arms propelled the blue plastic discus 11 metres. Spin, and get it right, and it went 20 metres.

When discus was next scheduled I waltzed out to the circle, spun, released, and the saucer pierced the air. It flew. To the amazement of all. On Dec 17, 1971 (I have checked my Victorian Egg Board Athlete’s Results Book) I won the Under 10 discus with a throw of 17.55m. On Feb 5, I won again. On March 11, I threw 20.74m, and again won.

I was off to Benalla, to the big time: the regionals. On Labour Day 1971, to the surprise of all, especially my parents, I won the regional event, with a throw of 20.76m. The officials that day were shocked, at the incongruous site of a weed pinging the discus that far.

I had qualified for the state finals. And so had my (just as small and as skinny) brother in the Under 9s. We had developed the spin together. We both had good timing – it seems.

Qualifying for the state finals was monumental. But it was not welcomed in our household, because the finals were on a Sunday morning. My brother and I had never missed church up until then. Not once. And, given my father’s outspoken position on Sunday sport, we were not going to go to the state finals.

Peter and I were devastated, and our appeals must have been long and determined. I remember clearly the father-son chat we were called in to have. Dad used guilt magnificently: “If you think going to an athletics event is more important than honouring the Third Commandment, well…well…well…you’d have to wonder what the good Lord would think?”

Dad had always been big on conscience.

“We won’t be able to get you to Melbourne, but if you can organise a lift yourselves, and somewhere to stay overnight, and you feel it is the right thing to do, then you can go,” he said, rather pastorally.

I was nine.

I had a lift organised in half an hour. With the Mum of another Red Devils athlete who had qualified for the high jump.

Peter and I practised and practised that fortnight. We were off to Olympic Park, the home of athletics. Which was up there with the MCG, Captain Cook’s Cottage, and the Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital as famous places in far-off Melbourne, known by those in my Gowrie St Primary School circle.

Off to the state championships. Could we win? Could we be the only eight and nine year olds doing the spin in Victoria? Australia? The world?

It was a bitter-sweet time. As we got in to the car that Saturday afternoon I couldn’t look at my father. I was letting him down. All that he stood for. All that he wanted of his sons.

That night I slipped into the unfamiliar bed, nervously excited, and anxious. I felt like I was in the wrong place. That I should have been home in Shepparton watching TV while Dad sat in the study preparing his sermon. I should have been learning my Bible verse to recite the next day at Sunday school.

But I was in decadent Melbourne, chasing personal glory.

The next day we got to Olympic Park. I loved seeing it, and being inside. Even though the synthetic track looked worn, and there were weeds growing here and there in the runways. I jogged a lap. I loved its bounce. I loved the activity all over the place: the different events. And the ongoing announcements from the PA.

It came time for my event: the Victorian Under 10 discus championship of 1971-72. I was ridiculously nervous. Completely devoid of belief. I could hear my father chanting the liturgy.

The competitors gathered in the marshalling area. They looked old enough to vote, and older. They shaved. And some of them knew each other, and punched each other on the arm. And then, even bigger kids turned up.

We were marched in single file to the discus area. I sighed. I didn’t know where Peter was any more.

I tried to do my best, as my father had always said we should do. My best throw was 18.52m I came thirteenth. Which wasn’t quite last, because one kid, who thought he was pretty good, fouled every time. He walked out of the front of the circle when he knew he hadn’t past the leader’s mark. I was given a purple ‘COMPETED’ slip which has the sponsor’s logo on it (‘I LOVE TWISTIES’). My name is spelt incorrectly.

I don’t remember the trip home, or getting home.

The event was won by Joe Quigley with some ridiculously long throw, because he was a gorilla, and he could do the spin. They all could.

Many years later I was at home watching Wide World of Sports when the only rights Channel 9 owned were cricket and The World’s Strongest Man, and the head of sport was celebrating the recruitment of a young Kenny Sutcliffe. I was having a quiet ale watching huge men pulling semi-trailers with a rope, and carrying huge round granite rocks when I heard the commentator say, “This is Joe Quigley’s best discipline.” It was him.

I could spin, but I was never going to be any good at lifting heavy things.

Later, I found out that Joe Quigley had had a colourful athletics career, and that he’d once finished third in the national discus title behind Werner Reiterer. Joe would know Olympic Park far better than I do.

But I am occasionally reminded of that morning there, nearly forty years ago. There is a feeling I get when something flicks off the very end of the little finger on my right hand. If you have ever thrown a discus – if you have even spun from the back of the ring, and cleared your left side like a good golfer, and the rest of your body has fought against that pivot point, and your right hip has come through, and your right hand with it – you will know the lovely feeling as the discus last leaves your control. You feel it at the tip of your little finger.

And for a moment, no matter how skinny you might be, and how short the throw by comparison to the champions, you might just feel in concert with the universe.

About John Harms

JTH is a writer, publisher, speaker, historian. He is publisher and contributing editor of The Footy Almanac and He has written columns and features for numerous publications. His books include Confessions of a Thirteenth Man, Memoirs of a Mug Punter, Loose Men Everywhere, Play On, The Pearl: Steve Renouf's Story and Life As I Know It (with Michelle Payne). He appears on ABCTV's Offsiders. He can be contacted [email protected] He is married to The Handicapper and has three kids - Theo13, Anna11, Evie10. He might not be the worst putter in the world but he's in the worst three. His ambition is to lunch for Australia.


  1. JTH – great story. I’ve never thrown a discus but I still remember the sweetness of a five iron I struck about 15 years ago. I was in concert with the universe that day – for one shot anyway. Hardly played golf since.

  2. Damian Callinan says

    As always a beautiful rendering of misty eyed youth JTH. I have many Olympic Park memories but the most indelibly etched was when I rounded the bend in lane 8 in a selection trial for the 200m to find that the hurdles hadn’t been removed from my lane.

    Damian Callinan

  3. Phil Dimitriadis says


    this is a beautifully written story. I’m sure that our love of sport and its power to inspire lies in those moments we have as children when we either do or see something that the rational cannot describe.

    Call it ‘concert with Universe’ or a moment of spontaneous truth or meaning that stays with us…it is real.

  4. I think your Father was remarkably wise to relent and to let you go.
    I have always regretted things I didn’t do a hell of alot more than the things I did do.
    It is a wise father who can let their child know what the right thing is without forcing him to do it.
    The Parachute regiment is also known as the Red Devils…my guess is that the bloke was a frustrated para.

  5. I reckon Tim Kelly is in concert with the universe.

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