Farewell to the Big O

For someone who has spent much of my life fascinated and enthralled by sport, there are still many things I don’t get.  Near the top of the list is why the sporting public can be enthused and excited by track and field each Olympic Games, but doesn’t turn up to good quality track and field events in Australia.

Each March I ponder this question as I head off to Australia’s premier athletic meeting at Melbourne’s Olympic Park.  The meeting seems to have a new name each few years, as sponsors change, but it’s always a great evening in front of a smaller than deserved audience.  This year I feel sad and nostalgic as it’s the last time we’ll see this event at O Park.  This time next year aths will have a new facility at the old Lakeside Oval.  I deliberately haven’t called it a home, as these things take time.

O Park has long been a favourite sporting venue of mine.  As a kid I heard from my dad about the famous Ron Clarke/John Landy race there in 1956 and was curious about the place of this legendary instance of sportsmanship.  My first memory of going to O Park was a Friday night meeting in the early 1970s, watching Pam Kilborn (later Ryan) flying over the hurdles before going to Little Aths the next morning and putting some of what I saw into practice.

I remember watching Moneghetti winning Zatopek after Zatopek in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with ground announcer Maurie Plant urging the “distance fraternity” in the back straight to get behind him.  I had the thrill of competing in one of the lower divisions of the Zatopek on O Park a couple of times, and learnt the hard way why they call the 10,000 metres the “Marathon of the Track”!

I remember the roar of the crowd as Cathy Freeman broke 50 seconds for the first time in 1996, and all that were present knew that she had become a serious contender.  I remember Emma George breaking world records in the heady early days of women’s pole vault.

September 2001 saw the strongest meeting at O Park in my lifetime when it hosted the IAAF Grand Prix Final.  On a bitterly cold day a typically modest crowd was treated to many of the world’s best, headlined by the great Moroccan Hicham El-Gherrouj.  He blitzed the field in the 1500 metres, making the hairs on the back of my neck stand up in the process.  I had been there in Sydney in 2000 when he ran second as hot favourite, and hoped that Athens would be his redemption, which it was, winning gold in both the 1500 and 5000.   Our own future middle-distance star, a very young Craig “Buster” Mottram recorded a PB in finishing sixth at O Park that day, and in years to come was himself providing the O Park excitement.  Mozambique’s majestic Maria Mutola was the female star of that meeting, easily winning the 800 metres.

In the “noughties” we were privileged to see Jamaica’s second-best sprinter, Asafa Powell, on multiple occasions.  In 2008, after being a doubtful starter and having not trained for two weeks due to injury, he astounded all by running

10.04 !  Truly magnificent stuff.  We were also fortunate to see a home-grown star, Steve Hooker, who has always entertained, although he is yet to pull out a really big jump at the home of aths.  In 2010 he was joined by another Aussie world champion, Dani Samuels.

So we come to 2011 and O Park’s last hurrah.  The highlight looks likely to be the Men’s 5000 metres, for which a strong field has been assembled, including double world champion Bernard Lagat, high quality Americans Chris Solinsky and Matt Tegenkamp, Australian record holder Collis Birmingham and a returning Mottram.  We will also see our leading lights Pearson, Lapierre, Watt and Samuel in other events, as well as Olympic 1500 metres champ Kenyan Asbel Kiprop and 800 metres world record holder David Rudisha.

O Park is now a rundown venue with a decrepit grandstand and catering facilities largely unchanged since the 1990s.  I can’t think of anywhere else I want to be on Thursday 3 March, and I hope that the old girl draws a decent crowd for her swansong.

(See http://www.austadiums.com/news/news.php?id=361 for Len Johnson’s Top 10 O Park aths moments).


  1. Andrew Fithall says

    Steve, Good article. Years ago I attended a couple of events at Olympic Park as a spectator with no direct connection. I agree with you regarding the quality of performance and the competition. My issue was always that the “amateurs” didn’t know how to stage the whole thing. Long delays between events and the night dragged on. If it had been properly scheduled the whole competition could have been completed in half the time, if not less. I would compare the ammos very unfavourably with the “pros”. Since secondary school days I had been a regular at Stawell and Maryborough again purely as a spectator, and as the years progressed and a good mate was an active participant, I went to quite a lot of gift meetings, mainly in regional centres. The pros were able to put on a show that had races scheduled every three minutes and the whole thing would be held to the fixed schedule. Little down-time and always something of interest happening. You didn’t necessarily have the big names, although often there were some special invitees, but they were always a great spectacle.

  2. Letting facilities run down has become a standard play before redeployment/redevelopment. I even enjoyed the Rugby and soccer there…great atmosphere when the crowd was heaving.

  3. Steve, no eulogy to Olympic Park would be complete with some acknowledgement of the significant soccer matches played there over a long period. In fact the argument really could be made that it is as a soccer ground that OP is most significant.

    The biggest crowd ever at OP to see Roma take on Victoria (over 30K crammed in). The biggest club crowd (pre A league) in Victoria to see South play Sunshine (I think). Both in the 60s. Our failure to beat Scotland there despite dominating completely and missing out again on the WC in 1985. The game that never happened https://footyalmanac.com.au/?p=3395. Then there’s the whole Storm and Victory story.

    I agree that the attendances at athletics are bizarrely low — given how much good will there seems to be towards our athletes — and good luck with the final event.

  4. Here’s the details of the two internationals played in 1985


  5. Mostly good memories of Olympic Park. Lot of finals games, and the season South Melbourne spent there while Lakeside was getting done up (after Middle Park got torn down), when we were crud for half the year and stormed into the finals in the second. Even if it wasn’t even close to a full house, as long as you had enough people under the Eastern stand you’d still get a decent amount of noise.

    And that Eastern stand, with its poles blocking the view and ultra tight seating belonged to South fans on match day, as can be witnessed from some of the grand final videos

    1998 – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=onsdJZC3hxo
    1999 – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wf72Nbx52TM

    The first game that I can remember going to there was probably in late 1992. It had bucketed down, and there were doubts that the game would even go ahead – but it did, and I saw Gary Hasler slide around like a madman in a 3-1 win against Olympic – the okish crowd was diminished by the fact that it was held on the same night as the infamous 8 second bout between Stan ‘the Man’ Longinidis vs Dennis Alexio at the Entertainment Centre.

    Parking was always a nightmare – my dad and uncle who were public transport averse, would always end up parking somewhere near Richmond station. And the views from behind the goals, especially at the Yarra end, were poor, but as dilapidated as the place got, there was a lot of love for it – and it still had standing room/terracing, which is a dirty word these days in stadium design and management. A lot of clubs used it as a home ground over the years – I’m going to miss the place.

  6. Phil Dimitriadis says

    December 1985 Australia v Scotland. Amazing atmosphere where the Greeks, Croatians,Serbs and Italians all bandied together in supporting Australia. They taunted the Scots and when the Scots finally got pissed off we all scattered. Exhilarating and frightening at the same time.

    Australia created a number of chances that night and deserved to at least score a goal.

  7. Steve Fahey says


    If you come along this year you will see that aths has caught up in recent years (or perhaps regressed) to the standards of modern sport, in that loud music fills the space between events !! It is actually better organised than those haphazard old days to which you refer, and pretty much runs to time. It promises to be another great night, and good value at $20 General Admission and $30 for reserved seats in the decrepit old grandstand !

  8. Jake 'Cobba' Stevens says

    I too have many fond memories of the ‘graveyard’. All of them through my competing in the athletics events.
    Memories of lining up on the back straight for the 1500m. The nervousness i used to get when walking out of the change rooms. I will remember the cheering of my family and friends from the stands whilst sprinting the final straight.

    The time me and two other boys from school finished 1, 2, 3 in the school regionals.
    Or the when our club did a 4X800m race in the state champs and finished second by a nose.
    Or sprinting home in the 800m from 5th place to 1st.

    There is no doubt to me that the stadium had character, and it saddens me to think that I will never race there again. The old memories of a great time with mates will be just that. Memories. Screw you Eddie!

  9. Steve, other than at the Commonwealth Games in 2006 I haven’t seen any world-class aths in the flesh. Which is a disappointment for me. But I know exactly what you are saying about seeing the best. I thought Josh Ross at Stawell running through the field from scratch was pretty memorable, even if it was just below world class.

    I have had the same feeling at golf tournaments, and cricket matches. That did-he-really-just-do-that moment! IMagine competing. Rick Mitchell had that feeling – and he was running the 400 at the time! He held Juanterena in such high regard, as an athlete, a competitior and a bloke. Later he competed with him, having come to terms with that feeling, after many seasons of international competition.

  10. Easily fixed JTH – see you there Thursday night !!

    OK, there will be world-class athletes rather than world-class complete fields, but we take what we can get down under and it will be good.

    David Rudisha, the 800 metres world record holder from Kenya, competed at a relatively small event at Aberfeldie last year before competing at O Park. Those there that night got a dose of that did-he-really-just-do-that moment.

  11. On a totally unrelated note, I was just reading up on last night’s Premier League results and saw something that I think Gigs would be interested in. The bottom four places on the table are currently held by the 4 clubs beginning with W – Wolverhampton Wolves, West Bromwich Albion, Wigan and West Ham. Weally wonderful !

  12. Alovesupreme says

    I think the lack of sustained interest is related to the lack of consistent world success by Australians. That’s no accident given that over 200 countries compete in athletics (compare that to swimming, for example), and that the rest of the world caught up with advantages that Australia enjoyed in the early post-war period. The era in which you recall your father’s active engagement was a high point of Australian interest, thanks to the Melbourne Olympics, and the fact that we had a succession of outstanding athletes especially in the blue riband event (mile, 1500 metres).
    I think this parallels Australian interest in tennis, which is at saturation point for 2 weeks in January and has mini-peaks for Wimledon, and to a lesser extent the US and French Opens, and episodically when Australia reaches the final stages of the Davis Cup.
    I saw Celtic play Red Star in 1977 or 1978 at OP. The place was heaving that day. It was part of an invitation tournament with Arsenal also involved. I remember a student of mine (Serbian background) talking with me about the game a few days later, and his face was still shining as he recalled the singing and chanting that he’d for the first time experienced a “real” soccer atmosphere.

  13. re #11 — and the three teams above them all start with B

  14. I’ve been to quite a few meeting at Olympic Park over the years and have run there a few times. I always thought it had a good feel about it, but agree with AF (#1) that the programming of events there was very ordinary.

    One of the problems with athletics in Australia is, sadly, there just isn’t enough money in it to attract the top line athletes. A young bloke for example is going to have running a long way down the list compared to footy, cricket, golf, soccer etc. The winner of the Stawell Gift only receives $40 thousand. That’s pathetic for a race of such renown. As for the the women, I think the winner of their Gift at Stawell wins a few hundred dollars! As a young person why would you bother? You just won’t get top class people competing and thus you won’t get the crowds, sponsors and so on.

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