Playing hard

Upgrading the Pitt Street footpath for the Olympics, July 1999, City of Sydney Archives 017/017625

When we think of Sydney and sport, the 2000 Olympic Games tends to crowd out older events, because it was such a remarkable experience for those of us who were here. In the years leading up to the Games, preparations for the event transformed areas like Homebush Bay, Newington and Penrith Lakes, and during the event, public spaces such as Darling Harbour, Circular Quay and Martin Place became mass sport-watching venues. The city felt different because of the influx of visitors and volunteers. Even the trains ran on time! You can relive the memories with the City of Sydney’s History program, who have compiled some of their oral history material here.

But Sydney has hosted other international sporting events, each of which had its own effects on the city. Many of them are detailed in Richard Cashman’s Dictionary article on Sport.  Richard Waterhouse’s essay on Sydney’s Culture and customs also shows how crucial sporting contests have been to the city’s self-image.

The 1938 Empire Games (forerunner of today’s Commonwealth Games) was held in Sydney. It also led to the building and renovation of sporting venues, such as North Sydney Pool and Henson Park, and legendary performances by Australian athletes. Some of those athletes missed out on Olympic glory because of World War II which was to cause the cancellation of the Olympics scheduled for 1940 and 1944. Decima Norman was a star of the Sydney Empire Games, as Cathy Freeman was the local hero of the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Interstate diving championship at North Sydney Pool, January 1937 courtesy State Library of NSW hood_13632

Even earlier, one of Sydney’s big sporting events was the 1909 Davis Cup final, held at Double Bay. Australia was then only beginning its domination of what was then known as ‘lawn tennis’. The Australasian team of Norman Brookes (from Melbourne) and Tony Wilding (from New Zealand) defended the title and beat the USA 5 rubbers to nil. This winning combination continued to hold the cup until its loss to the British Isles team in Melbourne in 1912. Wilding was killed in France in 1915, while Brookes, unfit for military service, worked for the Red Cross in Mesopotamia and later in logistics for the British Army. He returned to tennis after the war, and was a distinguished tennis administrator, largely responsible for the development of Melbourne’s Kooyong tennis centre, which along with White City in Sydney, was the site of many of Australia’s Davis Cup victories during the 1950s and 1960s.

Other less prominent (and more commercially oriented) world champions also competed in Sydney — a world championship sculling race was held on the Parramatta River in 1877, when Edward Trickett successfully defended his world title. Trickett was followed by 70 steamers and numerous small craft, and a crowd of over 50,000 watched from the river banks. The Sydney Morning Herald opined: ‘It is not too much to say that this contest has excited more interest, both here and in the neighbouring colonies, than any event that has ever happened in the sporting world of Australia.’

The Rowing Match between Trickett & Rush for the Championship of the World, Parramatta River 30 June 1877, State Library of Victoria IAN06/08/77/121

In 1888, the world championship returned to the Parramatta River, when Henry Searle won, described by the Sydney Morning Herald as ‘the most phenomenal sculler that has ever sat in a boat’, and ‘the people’s favourite’. Searle defended his title in London in 1889, but contracted typhoid on the return trip to Australia and died in Melbourne. Following a public subscription, a broken marble column on a granite base was erected in his memory in Parramatta River, off Henley Point, at the finishing line of sculling events.

The Parramatta River with Searle's monument, c1915 National Library of Australia nla.pic-an24616593

See what other sporting feats you can find in the Sport article!

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About Emma Grahame

Emma Grahame has been Editorial Coordinator of the Dictionary of Sydney since May 2007.
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