Professional foot-racing or pedestrianism as it was often called, has its origins in the mid-eighteenth century when the Industrial Revolution was occurring and English public schools and the wider community were becoming very interested in games and sporting pursuits. One of these sporting pursuits was pedestrianism which was the act of rapidly covering a variety of distances on foot, distances which ranged from shorter sprints to the coverage of hundreds of miles. These activities were often accompanied by substantial wagers with large sums of money being won and lost.
It was against this background that early settlers arrived in the Australian colonies from the United Kingdom in the nineteenth century.
In Australia professional foot-racing is said to have begun in the gold-mining days. The miners raced against each other, often in a one-to-one match-race situation on a handicap basis for the gift of a gold nugget offered by the local publican or mine owner.
It was at this time that the main sprint race came to be run over the Sheffield distance of 130 yards, regarded as a true test for professional sprinters. This sprint distance originated from the Sheffield Handicap event in Yorkshire over 130 yards in which the winner was presented with a purse of gold. The metric equivalent of 120 metres has been used in gift races since the mid seventies.
Professional foot-racing has been conducted throughout Australia using prizemoney provided by sponsors since the eighteen-hundreds. Each state has a circuit of carnivals directed by its State Athletic League operating under the Australian Athletic Confederation.
The 'Mecca' of professional foot-running in Australia is the Stawell Gift Carnival which has been held during Easter for over one hundred years.
However, its status as the richest carnival has been superseded in recent years by the Botany Bay Gift Carnival which boasts total prizemoney of $120,000 and $70,000 for its main race with a $50,000 first prize. The Stawell Carnival has a total prizemoney pool of $90,000 and the famous Gift is worth $54,000 with $32,000 going to the winner.
There are many other carnivals and events conducted under handicap foot-running conditions throughout the nation each year.
Some of the more famous long-running carnivals are the Bay Sheffield Carnival in South Australia, Burnie in Tasmania, Jupiters Carnival on the Gold Coast in Queensland, Temora and Macksville Carnivals in New South Wales. Since the late 1980s athletics and the Olympic Games have been 'open', meaning that the so-called amateurs and professionals can all compete together for prizemoney without being penalised or discriminated against.
PRO RUNNING IN CANBERRA
In the ACT the Canberra St Patrick's Day Sports Association conducted its First Annual Carnival at Acton Racecourse which is now under the waters of Lake Burley Griffin, on Saturday 6 April 1946 after being postponed because of rain from 16 March. There were two professional foot-running events with a total prizemoney of £150. The first Canberra Gift was worth £103 prizemoney.
The event soon moved to Manuka Oval where it developed each year under the Secretary Clem Donnelly to become one of the big carnivals on the Australian calendar. By 1960 is boasted over £1,000 prizemoney with the Gift worth £750 which compared very favourably with Stawell and Bendigo and attracted very large fields including the best professional sprinters from New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania. A big attraction was that the ACT was the only place outside of Victoria where betting on the foot-running with licenced bookmakers was allowed.
When Clem Donnelly passed away in the early sixties, the Canberra Lions Club tried to continue the event but had bad luck with poor weather and the Annual St Patrick's Day Carnival ceased after the controversial 1964 event.
At this Carnival, many spectators thought N.C. Austin had won the Gift but the judges awarded first place to the champion Victorian runner Terry Clarke who ran 12.0 secs off a 1-yard handicap for the 130 yards on the fast Manuka Oval track, a sensational run.
However, in a semi-final of that Gift, champion Australian and South Sydney rugby league winger Ian Moir was disqualified after winning, on the grounds of 'inconsistent running'. As betting was legal the NSW Referee announced that all bets placed would stand. Moir, who was heavily backed, proved a bonanza for the bookmakers.
Some of the better-known Canberra Gift winners included Carlton footballer Frank 'Bluey' Adams in 1958, Gunnedah's Brian Stone in 1960 and outstanding former amateur runner Dudley Towers who won in 1963.
Top class sprinters who ran in the event and failed to win have included Michael Cleary, Ken Irvine and Johnny King who all played rugby league for Australia as well as champion pro sprinters Bill Sutton, David Irvine, Frank and Tim Banner and John Stoney whose daughter Clementine is now one of Australia's top backstroke swimmers at the AIS.
Since the last Manuka Oval Canberra Gift in 1964, numerous attempts have been made to revive the event with handicapped races in the early 1980s at the Canberra Racecourse in conjunction with the popular Black Opal Hose-race Meeting. Also, three carnivals were held with good success at West Belconnen in 1994, 1996 and 1997 where entries were strong.
However, the proposed February 2002 carnival at Tuggeranong worth $11,000 prizemoney with the strong backing of not only the Tuggeranong Valley Rugby Union and Amateur Sports Club, but also the South Canberra Tuggeranong Athletics Club and the three Little Athletics Centres (Tuggeranong, Calwell and Lanyon), looks likely to provide the strongest thrust yet towards a long-term revival of this fascinating and highly entertaining form of athletics.