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Stars to shine at Stawell

Despite being one of the most popular Olympic sports, athletics struggles to attract coverage in between Olympic years. Simone McInnes reports on one of most famous professional footraces in the world, the Stawell Gift.

At the 2012 London Olympic Games, Usain Bolt’s victory in 100 metres was the most watched sporting event of the games. His win in the 200 metres was also ranked in the top ten, coming in at number eight.

Similarly, the marketing report conducted by the International Olympic Committee showed that at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, 99.70% of tickets to the athletics were sold, the highest percentage of any other sport.

These figures are not entirely surprising considering athletics is seen as the ‘blue ribbon’ sport of the Olympics. What is surprising is the absolute lack of coverage athletics receives in the years in between the games.

In three days time, over 700 athletes will descend upon Central Park in a small country town in western Victoria. They will be competing in over 65 events for a chance to win more than 120 thousand dollars in prize money. Major draw cards include former 100m world record holder Asafa Powell, four time Olympian Craig Mottram and six time national champion Josh Ross.

This is the Stawell Gift.

Far from the glamour and glitz of major track and field events like those of the Olympic and Commonwealth Games, the Stawell Gift is a unique carnival which almost takes one back in time. A grass track, lanes separated by ropes and old school finishing gates all add to the character of what is one of the largest professional foot races in the world.

“It’s definitely one of the most unique and exciting races, and possibly the best weekend of the athletics season as an event,” competitor Tim Rosen told Athletes Australia.

In what is a major attraction, betting is seen as integral to the Stawell atmosphere, with athletes given handicaps and odds depending upon their recent form. This encourages athletes of all abilities- from juniors to national champions to world champions- to vie for a Stawell Gift sash. The predictability of usual athletics is nearly entirely eliminated, which makes the betting ring one of most popular places to be trackside.

The main event on the program is the 120 metre sprint, with the winner receiving forty thousand dollars. The somewhat obscure distance originated in England, where 130 yards (or 120 metres) is believed to have been the distance between two pubs in the English city of Sheffield. This year both Powell and Ross will face off in the event in what is potentially the greatest showdown in the Gift’s history

“Like most Jamaican sprinters, I’ve grown up running on grass and a lot of our training is dome on grass so that’s no problem. The handicaps are a different story though,” Powell told the Stawell Gift website.

The carnival is not all about the running however, with the winner of the ‘Ladies Fashions on the Field’ taking home one thousand thousand. Last year, winner of the Women’s Gift, Melissa Breen also took home the fashion honours.

The event organisers expect more than 10,000 spectators over the Easter weekend.


Simone McInnes is a third year sports journalism/psychology student at La Trobe University. You can follow her on Twitter: @McSimone.

Photo: WikiCommons


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