Olympic Park, nestled between the Yarra River and Melbourne Park, has enjoyed a strong connection to the people of Melbourne since the city's foundation and has seen a cavalcade of champions across several sports.
Bound by nature
Prior to white settlement of Melbourne in 1834, the Yarra River Valley was inhabited by the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. Owing to its naturally lightly wooded grasslands, the area has always been idyllic for recreational pursuits and has certainly served a remarkable range of purposes. In 1837 Surveyor-General Robert Hoddle surveyed Melbourne and set the boundary for 'Government Paddock', an area that now encompasses Melbourne and Olympic Parks, as well as Yarra Park.
The Olympic Park area became known as the Friendly Society's Gardens, as part of the greater tract of land known variously as 'Government', 'Richmond' and 'Police' Paddocks during the 1860s (this still included the MCG and Yarra Park). The Combined Friendly Society used the land for athletic carnivals and social events. Eight Hour Day was of great significance for a number of years, the annual festival held the same weekend as the current day Moomba Festival. During the 1870s athletic events such as the World 300 Yard Championship were held, in addition to the curious 'Festival of the Druids'.
Despite council improvements in the 1880s, the Yarra constantly flooded until the Yarra Improvement Act of 1896 empowered the Board of Works to realign the river between the City and Richmond. As well as other cycling and running tracks (often flooded or swamp-like) the area was used for football, tennis, rugby union and women's cricket either side of the century's turn.
The area now known as Olympic Park, and then still part of Yarra Park, was proclaimed Crown land by the State Government on 24 August 1909. In its charter dated 19 April 1910, the Committee of Management stated the land encompassing 25 acres would be a "site for the recreation convenience and amusement of people and as a children's playground". The 'Amateur Sports Grounds' basically consisted of two ovals - one rough and ready (where Olympic Park Stadium is situated), the other encircled by the cycle track. On these ovals were turf wickets for cricket and two adjacent double tennis courts. Unfortunately, little was done to improve the area's facilities for the ensuing 15 years. Athletics was a regular feature, the St Stephens Harriers using both ovals regularly.
Melbourne Carnivals Pty Ltd (formed in 1923 by Jim DuFrocq and Jack Campbell) developed and leased the site until the conclusion of World War II. With dynamic and colourful local 'entrepreneur' John Wren a driving force along with Campbell, the company opened the 'Melbourne Motordrome' on 13 December 1924 at a cost of 30,000 pounds (built on the old cycle track adjacent to the Olympic Park Stadium site). Crowds of 30,000 at the Motordrome (then Olympic Park Speedway from 1934-46) regularly thrilled to eclectic programs that featured motorbikes, sidecars and cycling, however the secondary oval remained just that. It would continue to be used by the general public for training and local level sport until the 1950s.
1956 – Olympic Park lives up to its name
The welcome Olympic Games transformation began in 1951 which a new sports arena constructed. Encircled by an track to be used for track and field athletic meetings and pre-Olympic training, the field was also used for the preliminary rounds of the Olympic soccer competition.
The most famous sporting moment at Olympic Park Stadium actually occured just prior to the Games in the 1956 Australian Mile Championship. Champion Australian runner John Landy stopped mid-race to help fallen rival Ron Clarke to his feet. The then world record-holder started the chase halfway through the third lap and 55m from the lead, but still won the race by 9 metres to claim the title. A statue across the road is a permanent reminder of what in a recent poll was ranked the third most memorable Australian sporting incident ever. Reverand Alan Moyes, a witness, described it as 'the most incredibly stupid, beautiful, foolish, gentlemanly act’ he had ever seen.
Entertaining the masses
During the 1960s Olympic Park attracted up to 900,000 people annually for athletics and soccer. As the only FIFA recognised soccer stadium in Australia, Olympic Park (also known as the Western Sportsground or No. 1 Oval) hosted a number of international football matches. In total, Australia has played 34 internationals (including six World Cup Qualifiers) at Olympic Park for 11 wins, 11 draws and 12 losses. Teams such as Chelsea, Everton and other top European teams also played the Aussies. One of the best attended games was held in 1964 when Victoria's champion club Slavia defeated a team of VFL players 8-0, which included the likes of Ron Barassi and Des Tuddenham.
Two years later an inconceivable 37,500 soccer fans turned out to watch Roma FC (4) defeat Victoria (2) — doubling the stadium's current capacity. An interesting pre-game diversion was the protestation of Vice Chairman of the Victorian Soccer Federation, John Gorton, regarding dope tests on players being carried out before the game. The predominately Italian crowd sang 'Arrivederci Roma' after each Victorian goal! Alas, the locals couldn't quite muster a boilover against the world famous club, despite leading 2-1 at half time.
Evolution gains pace
Following a $4.2m improvement in 1981 to coincide with the World Youth Championships (including an extension to the grandstand), Olympic Park received a $1m facelift for the 1985 Australia Games, the 10 year old athletics track re-laid in 1984. Peter van Miltenberg was so enamoured with the old track, where he qualified for the Olympic 200m, he souvenired a small section of his lane.
The highest attendance at Olympic Park was achieved in 1987 when over 40,000 attended a Michael Jackson concert. Not noted as a concert venue, Olympic Park also hosted Bon Jovi in 1995, as well as other events such as Supercross.
In 1990, the first State of Origin rugby League game to be played in Melbourne (between Queensland and New South Wales) was at Olympic Park. Temporary seating at each end enabled 25,800 to see the 29th Origin clash, won by NSW 12-6 with Ricky Stuart the man of the match.
The loss of the adjacent No. 2 Oval due to the Burnley Tunnel/CityLink project stymied a desire to relocate athletics and turn Olympic Park Stadium into a dedicated 40,000 seat covered rectangular pitch stadium, in recognition of soccer and the rugby codes potential for growth. This was demonstrated by international soccer, Union and state of origin League matches lost in the 1990's to larger but unsuitable Australian Rules fields.
The Stadium served as Melbourne Storm’s home ground between 1998-2009, a period where the venue became known as 'The Graveyard' for opposition clubs (Storm won two of the 2006-09 Grand Finals in which it played). Since 2005, Olympic Park has also been a training field for twice A-League champion Melbourne Victory (in their first couple seasons it also served as their home ground). The first incarnation of the Melbourne Rebels rugby union club played their one-off season at the stadium in the short lived national competition in 2007.
Olympic Park Oval
Officially opened on 11 April 2013, Olympic Park’s AFL training ground and public sport and recreation space is the latest phase in the site’s considerable history. The $11m redevelopment by Melbourne & Olympic Parks includes a running track around the oval's perimeter. Collingwood Football Club is currently building a community centre that will feature change facilities and a health, wellness and fitness centre in a bid to encourage more women to utilise the area. The facility will also be of benefit to the many joggers who frequent the nearby Botanical Gardens 'Tan' track and Yarra River paths.
Whilst there is no “children’s playground”, Olympic Park Oval continues to honour its century old resolution to provide for the community’s recreational needs.
Thanks to Garry Baker for his assistance with the early history of Olympic Park and Roy Hay (soccer).
Friendly Societies' Fete Day, 1879
Site aerial, 1940
The famous Landy-Clarke incident, 1956
Olympic Park, as it was in 1956
Olympic soccer, 1956
South Melb v Melb Croatia, NSL GF 1991
World Masters Games, 2002
Olympic Park Oval opening, April 2013
Landy and Clarke: back where they belong overlooking the scene of their iconic moment