St George Little Athletics – The Seventies
The following story (‘The Seventies’) recaps STGLAC’s establishment & first decade of operation. It was written by the Centre’s Founder, Fred Scott, on the occasion of our 25th Anniversary.
In the Beginning
Amongst other things, I am sometimes described as “the founder of St George Little Athletics”. While this is very flattering and a great ego boost, the truth is that my involvement was more a case of “being in the right place at the right time” than anything else. (Although there were occasions when I felt that I had been in the wrong place at the wrong time.)
Little Athletics was started in Victoria in 1964 by Trevor Billingham and Alan Triscott, who were dissatisfied with the treatment of young athletes by the AAA and started a Saturday morning competition for the children of Geelong. This proved to be very popular and spread rapidly in Victoria. It took a few years, but eventually it spread to NSW with Randwick Botany being the first centre in Sydney.
My first involvement with athletics was when my eldest son joined the St George District Amateur Athletic Club. At that time the junior competition extended from Under 16 to Under 10, with very few events for the Under 10 and Under 11 age groups.
It was while managing the Under 10 team that I first heard of Little Athletics in rather derogatory terms by some of the more senior AAA officials, which immediately stirred my interest to find out more about it. I never actually saw a Little Athletics meeting, which is probably a good thing as the sight might have given me cold feet, but I spoke to a few people and finally put the fatal question to Dennis Wilson, who was the Secretary of the St George DAAC and an old school mate, “when is Little Athletics going to start in St George?”.
Dennis advised me to ring George Soper, the Secretary of the LAA of NSW, who was anxious to get Little Athletics started in many areas including the St George district. Before I knew it I had been co-opted into distributing pamphlets to most of the Primary Schools in the district to publicise a public meeting at Kogarah Council Chambers. George had selected Kogarah Council above Rockdale and Hurstville because there was a youth coordinator on the staff. Unfortunately that position had just been abolished, but the arrangements for the meeting had already been put in place.
Frank Baker, the Mayor of Kogarah, chaired the meeting. George Soper and Stan Hamley (from Hornsby Centre and an executive member of LAA NSW) addressed the meeting and painted a very rosy picture of Little Athletics – Alleyn Gainsford (President of St George District Amateur Athletic Club) also spoke but not quite so enthusiastically. I was the Secretary of the Bexley P&C Association at the time and had a sneaking suspicion that I would end up being the Secretary of this new organisation as well, so I dragged along my good friend David Dickinson who was the Chairman of Bexley P&C Association in the hope that, if necessary, I would be able to twist his arm and get him involved as well. Eventually a steering committee was formed with David and me in the hot seats and an eager (but totally inexperienced) band of parents dedicated to getting this thing going. One of this group was Peter Williams, who performed the valuable role of Equipment Officer for many years and relieved me of many worries.
The steering committee was formed in December 1971, and set itself the formidable goal of commencing competition in the current 71-72 season, a task made even more difficult by the fact that I was the only person on the committee who had any experience whatsoever in track and field athletics. Fortunately my wife Beverley was also involved in the seniors, and was just as knowledgeable and probably even more enthusiastic than me. Even though she was not on the steering committee Beverley played a leading role in that first season and was a great source of encouragement during the inevitable difficult periods.
The First Competition
The two initial hurdles to overcome were a ground on which to compete and equipment, bearing in mind that we had no money at all. The Association was in its infancy and was not in a position to provide any assistance except moral support, so we were left to “beg, borrow or steal” whatever was needed. The Association did provide stationery, and it was anticipated that parents could use their own stop watches, but the larger items of equipment were a problem. A tentative approach to the seniors to use some of their equipment was met with a very icy refusal.
Another item to consider was a uniform. I had been contacted by Jim Cook, the Zone Coordinator, soon after the steering committee had been formed with an invitation to compete in the Zone Eliminations. Our first competition day was scheduled for two weeks before the Zone Eliminations, so he offered to leave two places in each event for St George athletes provided we supply the names before the event. This offer was eagerly accepted, as I was sure we would certainly not be disgraced, particularly in the Under 11 age group. Which raised the issue of what to wear as a Centre uniform.
My first thought was to use a tee-shirt, possibly with a stencil or cloth badge on the front. A number of sports stores in the area were visited to discuss what was available and the likely cost, when I finally walked into Chapman’s Sports Store at Rockdale. After my initial inquiry I was ushered into a tiny back room to meet Ian Palmer, who dealt with school accounts and the wholesale side of the business. He asked a lot of questions about what I was doing and where I thought Little Athletics was heading, then he almost floored me by saying this sounded like a great idea and he wanted to encourage and help it along, and offered to give me some equipment to start off with, and not to worry about payment until we had the money, say in twelve months time. Needless to say this offer was eagerly accepted, and he provided a starting pistol, relay batons, high jump stands and cross-bar.
In hindsight, Ian had probably already heard about Little Athletics and had decided that this was a good growth market to be exploited, nevertheless I was extremely appreciative at the time, and was only too pleased when Ian Palmer Sports was later appointed the official equipment supplier to the Association, an arrangement which was of great mutual benefit. For example, when I was the Officer for Officials, Technical and Equipment for the Association, the 1kg shot put was introduced as an experiment for the Under 8s, to be trialled in Centre competitions only. This was one of those great ideas that come out of an Annual Conference without any thought that there was no such animal as a 1kg shot. I spoke to Ian about this and we calculated the size it would have to be and he said “Right, I will get 50 shot made before the start of the season”. I stressed that this was only an experiment and could be dropped in twelve months in which case he would be left with 45 expensive paper-weights, but he wouldn’t be dissuaded. “No, this is really going to take off” was his reply, and time proved him correct.
Now we had some equipment but no ground. The officials at Kogarah Council made many suggestions, but it was obvious that no one had any idea of what was required for an athletic field. Eventually the soccer grounds next to Carss Park swimming pool were selected because of their size and availability. Even though the total area was large enough, it was a challenge to find a 100m length of ground level enough to call a straight track, and the circular track was anything but. The tracks had to be measured and marked out with flags every Sunday before competition started. The straight track was easy enough, but I had to use a (borrowed) measuring wheel for the circular track. This involved walking around what I judged to be a 400m track and sticking flags in the ground as I went, reading the actual distance from the measuring wheel, then going for another walk trying to compensate for the error, and so on. Unfortunately the soccer club had numerous loads of topsoil dumped on the grounds but did not bother to spread the soil until just before the soccer season started, so our circular track resembled an obstacle course as it dodged goalposts, topsoil mounds and some rather deep depressions. On more than one occasion we lost an U7 competitor when he fell in one of the craters on the far side of the track.
I dug a long jump pit on the edge of the soccer fields and persuaded Kogarah Council to supply the sand for it. On the first day of competition Gwen Taylor turned up and looked after the long jumps for me, a task she capably carried out for many years in the Centre, and for many years later in Zone Competitions, district school carnivals and other events.
The deadline for entries for the Zone Championships was the second day of our competition, so on that day our competitors were selected by asking “who wants to compete in the Zone Championships? and what events do you want to go in?”. It is a great credit to our first group of athletes that on such short notice they perform creditably at the Zone Championships and went on to win two gold medals, two silver medals and two bronze medals in individual events at the State Championships, together with a first place in a 4×100 m Relay. Our best athletes could not compete on the first day of the State Championships because of a prior commitment to Interclub Finals conducted by the AAA.
Our Home Ground
It was obvious very early that Carss Park was not suitable as a permanent home ground for our Centre. A search of the district revealed only a few grounds large enough to contain an athletic track and only one that was available on Sunday afternoons, namely Evatt Park at Lugarno. This park held three football fields and a number of netball fields, so there was no shortage of space.
Hurstville Council was very cooperative in helping to set up the ground for our first full season of athletics commencing in September 1972. The Council marked out the track, dug a long jump pit, and constructed two throwing circles. Registrations were carried out by the clubs beforehand and everything looked good for the first competition day at Evatt Park. But something had to go wrong of course, and it certainly did.
Being short of cash the Centre eagerly accepted an offer from the Lugarno Club of an amplifier and loudspeakers for use as a PA system – the problem was that the amplifier was to be on “permanent loan” from the employer of one the Lugarno parents, and at the last moment it was found that the necessary arrangements would not be completed by the first competition day. So the day arrived with most of the 458 registrations present and only a small loudhailer (borrowed of course) to communicate with them. This was completely inadequate, so I enlisted David Dickinson to walk up and down in front of the crowd announcing each event in a town crier style. We survived that first day, and a couple more, before the much-welcomed PA system arrived on the scene.
Eventually the Centre had most of the facilities it needed at Evatt Park – enough room for as many circular tracks as we felt like marking out, two long jump pits, two discus circles, two shot circles and an equipment shed. Bob Perry made a set of hurdles from aluminium tubing at minimum cost – perhaps his employer unwittingly assisted in some way. These lasted quite a few seasons, even if they did provide a challenge in a slight breeze. Before the equipment shed became available, all equipment was stored off-site. Peter Williams and I looked after as much as we could, while bulky items were stored beneath a parent’s house which overlooked Evatt Park. The light weight of the hurdles was much appreciated at that time. The first set of high jump bags were rather primitive, being discarded sheets of foam (about 2m x 1m) from which paint rollers had been cut – like a giant Swiss cheese.
Sunday afternoon had been chosen for our competition day instead of the universal (at that time) Saturday morning because many of the steering committee members were involved with cricket on Saturday mornings, Bev and I were involved with athletics on Saturday afternoon, Sunday morning should properly be reserved for church or sleeping in, which left Sunday afternoon. This time slot worked reasonably well for many years, and particularly suited me as I had all Sunday morning to make whatever preparations were needed for the afternoon competition.
Being the only Centre in Sydney to compete on Sunday afternoon made St George unique, and we had many visiting competitors from other Centres who were always very welcome. They came from Centres such as Bankstown, Sutherland, Green Valley, Liverpool, Randwick-Botany and Mid South Coast. The competition was of great benefit to our visitors as well as our own top athletes, and the social interaction between the athletes and the parents forged many permanent friendships.
After a few successful seasons competing on Sunday afternoons there developed a strong desire to change to an evening competition, and some twilight meetings were trialled and were very popular. Unfortunately, the lighting at Evatt Park was only suitable for football training and the cost of installing extra lights was beyond our means, so a search for another ground was undertaken and eventually Jubilee Oval, Kogarah, was offered to the Centre.
The 1978-79 season started with great excitement at Jubilee Oval on Friday nights, however the honeymoon did not last long because it soon became apparent that the Centre was being used as a pawn in a power struggle between Kogarah Council and the St George Football Club. The football club was the victor because it had a secret ally in the form of a groundsman who was quite difficult to work with, resorting to tactics such as refusing to unlock the gates until 6pm, turning the lights off and the sprinklers on at 9pm, and generally being most uncooperative. Towards the end of the season when the football players wanted to train on the ground we found them and the coach (Harry Bath) very friendly and cooperative, but by that time plans had already been made to switch to Olds Park for the following season.
So ended a disastrous season at Jubilee Oval. The ground was not available for our 1979 Centre Championships and they had to be held at Sylvania Waters, and the ground was also unavailable for the last two nights of the season but fortunately we were able to compete on the home ground of the Rockdale Youth Centre – McCarthy Reserve in Bay Street, Rockdale.. This ground was only just big enough for a soccer field but had excellent lighting, storage and canteen facilities. I designed a four lane 250m track to fit in the space and was just able to squeeze in a 100m straight (the marshalling area was in the street outside the PCYC building) and with Ray Horton’s invaluable assistance the track was marked out. I thought the two nights there were very cosy – most of the starts on the circular track were almost within speaking distance of the finish line.
The 1979-80 season heralded the start of many successful seasons of Friday night competition at Olds Park. Initially the football training lights were the only source of illumination, supplemented by makeshift lighting from car headlights for some field events, but by the end of the season the promised additional lighting was installed. The Australian Football Club was most cooperative by allowing their clubhouse to be used as a headquarters and storage area during the season, but inevitably the need for a “home to call our own” became most urgent and eventually stage 1 of the existing equipment shed and canteen was built during the 1982-83 season with funds raised by delivering telephone books and a grant from Hurstville Council and the Department of Sport and Recreation in a joint application with the Penshurst West Sports Club.
The first season was a fairly low-key affair with 98 registrations, and all efforts were expended in getting the show on the road. It was decided that some clubs should be encouraged to form in the second season with the aim of spreading the administrative load a little. Letters were sent to many of the sporting clubs in the St George area, particularly the soccer clubs, inviting them and their members to participate in Little Athletics.
The first nibble came from the Lugarno Sports Club, which had successful soccer and cricket divisions, and was planning to start a junior athletics division for the local children. David Dickinson and I attended a meeting at the home of Bill and Ruth Gunn where it was agreed that the Lugarno Sports Club would affiliate with the St George Little Athletics Centre, and so our first club was established.
The Arncliffe Club was formed shortly afterwards, led by the capable Rae Begg, which left us with a club at each extremity of the St George Area and a big gap in the middle. I then approached Bob Perry, whose 10 year old daughter Sandra competed with the St George District Womens Athletic Club and whom I saw every Tuesday night at Hurstville Oval, with a proposal that he should form a Blakehurst Club. I was very pleasantly surprised when he agreed to do this and so we were able to start our second season with three clubs – Arncliffe, Blakehurst and Lugarno.
The following season (1973/74) the Rangers club was formed by the resourceful Faye Noyes. In 1975 the Mortdale Club was formed by members of the Mortdale RSL Youth Club. One notable face to appear on the scene with this new club was Ray Horton, one of the longest serving and dedicated officials the Centre has ever had. The following year the name of this club was changed to Renown, and the Kingsgrove Club was also formed. Although these two clubs showed great promise they did not last for long.
The Arncliffe Club, which was the strongest club at one stage, suffered from a serious decline in numbers over the years and was about to fade into oblivion when the Rockdale Youth Centre expressed an interest in forming a club. The remaining Arncliffe members transferred to the new Rockdale Youth Club and helped get it off the ground in 1977.
Initially, an interclub competition was conducted on Sunday afternoons. Children completed in graded events and in addition points were awarded for placings and attendance on a pro-rata basis. This was based on the competition used by the seniors, because this was the only type of athletics I had experienced. The clubs competed eagerly for a number of the seasons, until the system was changed to the awarding of points in the Centre Championships.
The officials of the clubs played an important part in the smooth running of the Centre in its formative years, particularly in the areas of recruitment and registration, collection of ground fees, distribution of stickers, and most importantly in disseminating information to members and receiving feedback. As the Centre matured the role of the clubs changed until today the Centre is run quite successfully as one entity without any clubs.
The annual competition between the St George Centre and the Preston-Reservoir Centre had its beginnings when I was managing an Under 10 team for the St George DAAC, before the Centre was formed.
Most of the boys in this team had been competing together for three years and had built up a good rapport with each other. The boys had been very competitive when they had to give away one or two years in age, but by the time they were “genuine” Under 10s they formed an unbeatable combination which won almost every event they contested and ended up as the Sydney Interclub Champions. As a reward for their success, I wrote to the Victorian AAA asking for a match against their top Under 10 team. The Victorian AAA did not have an Under 10 age group so they passed the request to the Victorian Little Athletics which passed it on to the Preston-Reservoir Centre. After some correspondence it was finally arranged for the team to compete during a three-way match between Preston-Reservoir and two other Victorian Centres in February 1972. These arrangements were made before the public meeting to form the St George Centre.
So it transpired that a few weeks after the first competition day at Carss Park a group of six athletes, four parents and two younger brothers flew to Melbourne for a very exciting day. We were met at the airport by Gordon and Pam Murphy and shown some sights of Melbourne in the morning, competed in the athletic carnival in the afternoon, then raced back to the airport to return home. This was the first Little Athletics carnival I had witnessed and I was very impressed with the smooth way it ran and the obvious organisation behind it, even though they could not understand that we were a part of the AAA and kept referring to us as St Georges Centre.
The only hiccup during the meeting arose over the issue of wearing of spikes. The rules of competition in the AAA for the junior athletes were essentially the same as for the senior athletes (apart from the weight of throwing implements and height of hurdles) so that spikes were permitted in any event. In contrast, spikes were not permitted in any event in Victorian Little Athletics competitions. I don’t know if the spikes worn by our athletes went unnoticed or were simply ignored in the sprints, but there was great consternation when a St George athlete innocently lined up for an 800m wearing spikes. A very hastily convened meeting agreed that local rules should henceforth apply, a decree that stood the test of time.
When we returned home I thought that was the end of the exercise. You can imagine my surprise when I received a phone call from Gordon early in the following season asking for a return visit by Preston to Sydney. Most of the details that we thrashed out for that visit remained essentially unchanged over the years – a team of thirty Under 11s and Under 12s, three track events and two field events and a relay, the visiting team to choose the events, local rules to apply, children to be billeted, and so on. And probably the most important practice of all was established with this visit – that team members are not chosen on athletic ability but on length of membership and sportsmanship.
That first visit by Preston was a great success, even though rain turned Evatt Park into a quagmire necessitating an 11th hour change of venue to Sylvania Waters. Preston won the first match by 303 points to 230, and took home with them the H.H.Brennan and R.S.Honey rose bowl which they had provided as a perpetual trophy.
This initiated a series of visits between St George and Preston Reservoir for many years, and is believed to be the only interstate competition between Little Athletics centres in Australia. Unfortunately, numbers in the Preston Reservoir centre declined over time resulting in these very popular visits being abandoned.
There have been a few variations in the St George Centre uniform. For the first Zone and State Championships in 1972 the uniform of the Men’s and Women’s clubs were used (red and white striped singlet with white shorts for boys, white blouse with cloth badge and red shorts for girls) because a number of the athletes were members of these clubs and so already had these uniforms; also they were readily available for the others without any effort on the part of the committee.
After our first appearance in that uniform at the State Championships there was an objection raised by the Mid South Coast Centre who had an almost identical uniform, based on a local school uniform. We were forced to change, so the uniform of a red tee-shirt with a white St George emblem stencilled on the front and white shorts was adopted for both boys and girls.
That uniform lasted for six years until the Mid South Coast Centre changed its name to Lake Illawarra and also changed its uniform, at which time we were able to change back to the more traditional, and I think more attractive, uniform of red and white striped singlet with white shorts for girls and boys. (1977/78 season)
The uniform has had only minor changes over the years, and the variations seen today (red shorts, one piece uniform, bike shorts, etc.) are very attractive and appear to be popular with the children.
The major function of little athletic involves track and field events, however cross-country activities were introduced very early in the history of the Associations. The strength of cross-country running in the Randwick Botany district was a possible initiator. Conducted during the winter months, the season consisted of individual Centres hosting an afternoon of events open to all comers, culminating in the State Cross-Country and Road Walking Championships.
The days hosted by the individual Centres were very pleasant for the small number of children who participated, and the afternoons were welcome social occasions for the parents. In 1975 it was decided that St George would host one of these days.
The venue for the first (and only) St George Cross-Country Day was the southern end of the picnic area at Carss Park. The adjacent bushland was used for portion of the cross-country course, and a a few laps of the pathway through the park served as the walking course. Being winter, we almost had the park to ourselves, but we certainly provided entertainment for the few picnickers who were present.
The St George District Amateur Athletic Club had successfully conducted an All Schools Carnival for many years. The emphasis was on students from High Schools with the aim of recruiting new members, with very few events for primary schools. To redress this imbalance, and as a membership recruiting initiative, it was decided that a similar carnival should be held for primary schools.
The first Primary Schools Athletic Carnival was held at Jubilee Oval prior to the start of the 1977 season. A number of challenges were faced to conduct the meeting, the main ones being the non-standard size of the circular track and the supply of equipment. Nevertheless, it ran as smoothly as any athletic carnival can and proved to be very popular with the local schools, particularly the Catholic schools which did not enjoy the advanced athletic competition afforded the public schools.
Carnivals were conducted for a few years until rain cancelled the 1980 event. When this occurred it was decided that the time and effort required to prepare for and conduct these carnivals was not justified for the limited returns in the form of new members. No further carnivals were held.
The Little Athletics Association of NSW
The St George Centre has always had a close connection with the Little Athletics Association of NSW. When our son Andrew was selected in the 1973 team to compete in the Interstate Teams Championships, Bev and I went to Melbourne to watch the match and were thoroughly fascinated by the atmosphere of the competition and the companionship of the other parents. So much so that shortly afterwards Bev applied for, and was appointed to, the position of Manageress of the 1974 State Team. Beverley held the position of Manageress for two years and was then a Selector for a further three years.
I was appointed Zone Coordinator for the 1974 Zone Championships which were held at Evatt Park. One of the outstanding athletes at that meeting was Andrew Ettinghausen from Sutherland who won four events in the Under 8 age group.
The 1974 Interstate Championships were held at Hensley Athletic Field, Pagewood, and it was the first time that New South Wales won the points score. This was a particularly busy time for the Centre, because the St George Centre billeted the Victorian team members and we also were hosts to the South Australian team which involved providing transport to and from the various functions over the week-end, made all the more difficult by the fact that this was an Easter week-end.
In a weak moment in 1975, I accepted nomination and was elected Officer for Officials, Technical and Equipment, a position I held for two years after which I was elected Registrar for two years.
In 1977, Noel Magnay was appointed Zone Coordinator, Mabs Errington was appointed State Team Manageress (a position she held for 3 years) and Bill Gunn was appointed Team Manager for the first Trans Tasman Team to travel to New Zealand.
Then followed a few lean years until Lindsay Watson was elected Officer for Officials in 1989, a position he filled for three years. In 1990 John Clark was appointed Zone Coordinator, and now Melanie Carr, an ex Little A from St George, has been the Education & Development Officer of the Association for the past three years.
Acknowledgement should be made of the work of George Soper, the inaugural secretary of the Little Athletics Association of NSW. He had previously been the secretary of the Amateur Athletic Association of NSW and his knowledge and experience was invaluable in getting this fledgeling organisation established. Sadly, he passed away at the beginning of our first season at Evatt Park. After 12 months or so Peter Shinnick was appointed Secretary-Manager, a position he held for many years.
The question is often raised as to why St George is centre number 9 while Sutherland is number 11, yet the Sutherland Centre commenced competition at least 12 months earlier than St George.
At the end of the first year of operation of the Association (1970-71) there were only eight Centres. As the number of centres grew, competitors at state competitions became difficult to distinguish by uniform alone, and there were too many athletes for each one to have a separate number, so it was decided that each Centre should wear a centre number on their uniform in State competitions. The first eight city centres appear to have been numbered chronologically (Randwick Botany, Eastern Suburbs, Manly Warringah, Hornsby, Bankstown, Holroyd, Parramatta and Blacktown). It is probable that records of the starting dates of subsequent centres were unknown or missing so, to avoid any future disagreements, it appears that centre numbers were allocated within the zones, starting with the Southern Metropolitan Zone (of which Randwick Botany was a member at the time). The numbers were apparently allocated in quasi-alphabetical order thus:
9 SAint George
10 Mid SOuth Coast
Finally, may I say how pleased I am that the St George Centre has prospered and achieved so much in its short history and I congratulate all the many hard-working people who have made it possible. On the material side, most of the goals as far as equipment are concerned have been achieved, especially with the bulky and expensive items such as hurdles and high jump bags, and excellent storage and canteen facilities – things which were just wishful thinking in the formative years of the Centre. Of course, repairs and maintenance are always required to keep this equipment in good condition and there is always room for improvement, so you can’t rest on your laurels.
But more importantly, the social aspect still has the high priority that it deserves. Athletics is one of the few sports where, except at the elite international level, competitors and officials are encouraged to cooperate and help one another with the result that many lasting friendships are formed, and not only in the local district. I believe this is the reason for the success of the Little Athletics movement, and so long as the emphasis is placed on family, fun and fitness the Centre can look forward to many more years of successful operation.
The following page contains the recollections of some of the chairmen over the period 1980 – 1986, and while not a complete record, they are certainly representative, detailing some of the high points and low points, the good times and the bad times, which are all part and parcel of any organisation, and make interesting reading.